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Idaho Governor Butch Otter said today that he had named James Ellick to be head of the Department of Commerce, to be effective July 1 when legislation splitting the agency from the Department of Labor takes effect. Otter called Ellick "a veteran of Silicon Valley’s phenomenal growth and sustained high-tech success." So what kind of guy is Jim Ellick? That's proving remarkably difficult to figure out.

Idaho Governor Names Commerce Head

Idaho Governor Butch Otter said today that he had named James Ellick to be head of the Department of Commerce, to be effective July 1 when legislation splitting the agency from the Department of Labor takes effect.

Otter called Ellick “a veteran of Silicon Valley’s phenomenal growth and sustained high-tech success.”

Otter said Ellick had worked for Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor, Applied Materials, and four startups, most notably Photon Dynamics, Inc., which he took public. He resigned soon after “for personal reasons.” He was earning around $200,000 a year at the time, and took a six-month consulting contract after his resignation. This isn’t unusual; such an arrangement enables new management to ask advice from the old, helps reduce the chance he’ll run out and found a competitor, and essentially gives the previous head a bonus that isn’t identified as such.

According to the press release, Ellick resigned because he wished to go back to working for private companies. Of course, not long afterward he became president, CEO and co-chairman of Mitsubishi Silicon America, which is hardly a private company. Since then, he’s been a consultant and investor.

So what kind of guy is Jim Ellick? That’s proving remarkably difficult to figure out. Partly because of his consulting career, he doesn’t appear much on the Internet. Otter said he lived in Hansville, Washington, a small town in Kitsap County, not far from Seattle, where the big annual event is the town rummage sale.

About the most interesting thing one can find about him is that he and his wife were among those who moved away from an exclusive gated community in San Ramon, California, due to an overofficious homeowner’s association president.

This is not necessarily bad: he’s not a “Star.” He’s not Bill Gates or Larry Ellison (mercurial founder of Oracle). On the other hand, he isn’t Larry Ellison, or Enron’s Ken Lay. We should count our blessings.

The companies for which he’s worked thus far are primarily hardware component vendors — Microns, in other words. He’s probably going to be really good at talking with Micron, which could jell nicely with some of the work the Boise Valley Economic Partnership is doing to help build a technology “cluster” in Boise. On the other hand, even Micron is offshoring much of its development; what are the chances he’s going to be able to encourage other component vendors to settle here? How good is he going to be at persuading a Google to open up a data center here to take advantage of our cheap power? How will Micron feel about his encouraging potential competitors to set up shop here?

As someone who reportedly prefers private companies, how’s he going to deal with working for a state government agency, with all the bureaucracy that entails? Is he going to be primarily the salesman, while someone else manages the day-to-day operations of the agency?

Someone who made $200,000 a year in 1996 and who’s moving to Idaho to run a state agency obviously isn’t motivated by money. How much is he getting paid? And if his motivation isn’t money, what is it? Does he have a list of deliverables?

What will this mean to the Office of Science and Technology in the Department of Commerce? How about the Governor’s Science and Technology Advisory Council? Will this help Idaho get a CIO?

How well is he going to work with some of Idaho’s other high-tech vendors? Living in San Ramon, he was probably pretty familiar with executives from Pacific Bell, which had its headquarters in the area, which may put him in good stead dealing with Qwest. On the other hand, chummy with those guys….

Ellick does not appear to be particularly political; at least, he didn’t appear to donate during the 2004 presidential campaign, nor did he come up during a cursory search of donors to political campaigns in California or Washington. Silicon Valley can tend blue, as is Kitsap; how well is he going to work in a very Republican Idaho?

Otter did what he said he was going to do: hire a Silicon Valley venture capitalist guy. It remains to be seen how well it’s going to work out.

About Sharon Fisher

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  1. Well written story Sharon. I was ‘googling’ for info on Jim after reading the story in the Idaho Statesman. I found your story and was very pleased with all you’d written.

    I am very interested in how all this will play out as the job situation in Boise ‘s*ucks’ in regards to pay and benefits, etc. When I was researching other areas of the country, I found that if you want to attract businesses, you have to do like Greenville/Spartanburg SC.

    They attracted BMW with all kinds of financial incentives which in turn brings 100 of large and small businesses that support BMW to the local areas and surrounding cities. Companies like Micron do not attract the type of companies that places like BMW attract because of the “product” (car versus memory).

    BMW pays very well and has great benefits. In turn, many of the suppliers to BMW area also paying well. Over the last several years they have teamed with various colleges to build a Automotive Technology Campus. Using this type of model is what Boise needs to go after.

    Now if I can just get someone in a high place to listen!!!

  2. Thanks, Beth, glad you liked it!

    There’s actually a pretty big school of thought, and body of research, indicating that incentives actually aren’t helpful in terms of getting and retaining companies, that all it does is gets you companies who are willing to be bought and sold and may move away, leaving you high and dry, if they get a better offer. How much have the big incentives granted to Micron and Albertson kept them around?

    The sort of situation you describe with BMW and the suppliers and the college and all is what’s known as a “cluster,” and the Boise Valley Economic Partnership is working to develop clusters like that in some Treasure Valley cities — technology and regional office headquarters for Boise, medical for Meridian, bioagriculture for Caldwell.

    Incidentally, BVEP doesn’t believe in incentives either.

    As far as South Carolina, Google just committed to build a huge data farm there as well, and the story is that they did so because of the incentives granted to them. Neither the state nor Google are talking about them, though.

    As far as Mr. Ellick, I believe that Jill is going to be interviewing him and I’m sure she’ll post that just as soon as she can.

  3. Hello again Sharon,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I normally post on other forums and have a chance to edit after hitting submit, so I was taken a back for a moment when I realized I could not do that here. I had hoped to correct some of my errors before being published.

    Anyways, I am in disagreement with the incentives school of thought that you refer to. I would also like to use Boise as an example. Boise has very few incentives and the results have been very few good companies to work for in the area:-( Have you been at the airport on Sunday evening and seen how many people actually fly somewhere else to work outside of ID?

    I used to buy memory from Micron for HP several years back and to me, the writing was on the wall about Micron. The chances were slim that that were going to increase their presence here. And if I knew it, I am certain those in politics knew it also, but choose anyway to make their largest employer ‘happy’! On the other hand, Micron has not pulled up stakes and left the state, so who’s to say the (property?) tax incentives have not made a difference in keeping them here? The same with Albertson’s. They got bought out in 2006, but they also have not lost all their jobs here.

    Boise needs to find a niche (or cluster) that pays well and will stay in the area. BMW is a great example of how incentives really can work and BVEP would do well to follow their example (Best Practice) and find something like that to put Boise on the map. Boise has so much going for it and needs to put their best foot forward and get some large headquarters to move here that will bring their suppliers with them. Southern states seem to get this and are really reeling some awesome companies (TN just got Nissan to move it’s corporate headquarters from SoCal last year).

    I was a Purchasing Agent for Apple, HP, GE, etc prior to moving to ID. I personally have watched as large Fortune 500 companies have outsourced 90% of their manufacturing out of the USA. Now they are outsourcing the rest of the jobs that were left like IT, Accounting, Planning, Purchasing and so on. Idaho cannot get by on retail, call centers, service industry positions! Take a look at the Idaho Statesman’s classified section on Sunday and tell me what you see! Few jobs and most in the $10 hr range.

    I see Idaho as wonderful place to live and raise a family, but it will not matter if they do not start bringing good paying jobs to the state. We need an extensive survey of what types of skills and degrees we already have here for employers. Has this been done recently? Community colleges are great and I cannot believe that there is not one in Boise, but a CC is not going to bring in the type of employers Boise needs. Idaho needs to stop telling potential employers how low our employment rate is here (I need a job and don’t show in those figures like many others I know) and start telling them what types of people are already here if the company would come.

    Maybe you can tell I am passionate about this issue. I would love to be involved in helping Idaho move into the future.


    Beth Lewis

  4. This paper outlines a cluster that would be appropos for Boise/Idaho

    The following paper has more to do with rural economic development but is still in a related ‘cluster’

    Finally, I co-authored this “Idaho Declaration of Energy Independence” that takes some of the above info (and other data) and lays out a case of how we could fuel economic development while greatly increasing our energy security.

    I hope James Ellick is the right guy to champion these sorts of ideas. In just the Smart Energy arena, there is over $2B in revenue flowing into Northwest companies so it’s not something we have to wait 5-10 years to materialize

  5. Dang, I’m just now seeing this comment. Sorry, Dave.

    It looks like with Otter’s creation of an energy department, he agrees with you…