By Dave Gallagher, Reporter, The Bellingham Herald
BELLINGHAM - At different crossroads during the past three decades, city officials have had to grapple with a dying downtown district. It's quite unlikely that they could have predicted a Bible software company would be one of its saviors.
Logos Bible Software arrived in downtown Bellingham 10 years ago from Oak Harbor with about 30 employees, occupying a modest space on Commercial Street. Today, the company employs more than 320 people in three buildings, including much of the historic Flatiron Building at Prospect and Bay streets. In 2011, the company did more than $35 million in sales.
It's the ultimate economic driver for a community - revenue pours in from around the world through the sale of its products, and employees spend their salaries locally through the purchase of houses, cars and other necessities.
Logos has taken another step forward with its release last week of Logos 5, a software product that has thousands of reference books relating to the Bible. Users can find the original text in Greek or Hebrew, as well as translations, timelines and infographs, and photos and maps of historical sites.
Company growth has been particularly strong the past four years because it has expanded from beyond its typical client base of pastors and church leaders into a more mainstream market. The opportunity arose with the development of smartphones, and the recognition that there's a lot of people interested in learning more about Christianity who also are into new technology.
"We're connecting a person's digital life to their spiritual life," said Scott Lindsey, ministry relations director at Logos. "Before, when you wanted some information, you had to go to the library. Now it's on an iPhone."
Working hard at staying current is one of the main reasons for its growth the past few years, said Bob Pritchett, president and CEO of the company he co-founded in January 1992.
"We had a vision 20 years ago that digital would be the way to study the Bible, and we wanted to provide that tool," he said.
The growth of the company is a big plus for the downtown core, particularly because it arrived as GP (known at the time as Georgia-Pacific) was shutting down its Bellingham mill, said Hart Hodges, director of Western Washington University's Center for Economics and Business Research.
He said that while Logos doesn't have the same tax base as GP, the Logos employees are a mainstay in the downtown area, visiting restaurants and other businesses.
"They may be the difference between a downtown core that feels moderately successful versus one that is fading," Hodges said.
Hodges noted that since city officials couldn't have predicted that a Bible software company would partially fill the void left by GP, it's important for the city to continue making the downtown appealing in a general way, such as having a predictable permitting system in place, parking that works for employees and customers, and clean streets.
FREEDOM, TRUST KEY FOR EMPLOYEES
When Logos was growing in the 1990s, it became clear that it needed to move into a bigger community. Pritchett chose Bellingham merely because it was the next biggest community "with a Costco and a mall," but soon found it to be an appealing place to live for himself and his employees.
"We're excited about what's happening on this edge of town. It's really become a vibrant spot," said Pritchett, referring to the area around the Flatiron Building, noting things like the Pickford Film Center, coffee shops, museums and art galleries that attract more people downtown.
While Bellingham is known for its quality of life, particularly with the region's outdoor features, Pritchett knew he had to be proactive when it came to attracting and keeping employees.
His company requires skills that can be difficult to find in an employee - a computer programmer who happens to understand Hebrew or Greek, for example.
Being a former Microsoft employee, Pritchett decided to create a company culture that people would enjoy. Logos consistently lands on a variety of "best workplace" lists, and some of the things it offers is rarely seen in other companies its size:
• Exempt employees don't need to keep track of their vacation or sick time; they take it at their discretion. The focus for those employees is to finish projects on their own schedule. Because of the logistics of handling the phones and other daily tasks, hourly employees are given a set amount of vacation and sick time.
• Employees can enjoy free soda and coffee, as well as take advantage of a bike shop that handles repair and service work, or play a variety of games, including pingpong. The company also recently installed an espresso machine.
• After 10 years with the company, an employee can take a sabbatical and be given $1,200 for travel.
• Family events, from movie night to picnics to attending Bellingham Bells baseball games, are a regular occurrence at the company.
The company handbook is a short PowerPoint presentation, focusing on the company's values and goals. There are very few rules in the handbook; it merely asks employees to exercise freedom without abusing it.
Pritchett said employees are welcome to approach him or a supervisor with a question, but he also wants them to be able to do things on their own that make the company better.
"Openness is one of our values," he said. "We don't need 35 pages of rules for employees."
While the company has a variety of perks and freedom for employees, it doesn't tolerate a lack of productivity. In 2006, Pritchett wrote a book called Fire Someone Today, which details strategies not only for terminating employees, but lessons he's learned over the years not just with employees but in building a business.
It's the kind of culture that has kept Lindsey, the ministry relations director, at Logos for 15 years.
"We can't hire on the basis of faith, but for the techie-Christian, it's a dream job," he said. "I also love the culture here in Bellingham. It's such a friendly city. I travel 100,000 miles a year, and I still haven't found a place I'd rather live."
Logos products are geared toward all Christian denominations, which can be a tough balancing act for the company with customers. Pritchett said the company provides tools and is not a teaching organization, which allows them to work with a variety of churches.
Lindsey agreed, saying the focus of the products is to make research easier for church leaders.
"Selling a product to a church is more difficult than other retail products, so we have to be careful about that," Lindsey said.
HANDLING THE GROWING PAINS
Logos has added more than 100 employees in the past two years alone, along with establishing a small office in Arizona. Passing the 200-employee mark two years ago was a significant milestone, Pritchett said, necessitating a variety of changes to better improve system efficiency.
Reaching the 200-employee level was also a big change psychologically.
"It's weird not knowing people (in this company) as well as I did when we were smaller," Pritchett said.
Logos is also going through growing pains in the community. While office space is not an issue, one of the challenges Pritchett has found is the housing market. Bellingham can be an expensive place to relocate, he said, which makes it a challenge when hiring employees from out of the area. He said there just aren't enough homes available in the Bellingham city limits.
"Housing is one of the biggest issues when it comes to hiring," Pritchett said. "I understand neighbors that want Bellingham to stay the way it is, but (if more housing isn't built), it'll become an exclusive community where few people can afford to live."
With the release of Logos 5, Pritchett expects growth to continue in the coming year. One of the challenges for the company is that it is competing with some big companies, including Amazon.com and its book-friendly Kindle.
As the person who shows the product around the country, Lindsey said its important to make clear to church leaders and those interested in Christianity why the tools Logos offers is a better option than just downloading a book on a Kindle.
"We have to make sure we continue to define the market," Lindsey said. "We've spent 20 years developing a tool specific to the Scripture. I honestly think it's one of the toughest things for a technician to do, because it involves so many factors, including archeology and antiquities."
This article originally appeared on 11/4/12 on bellingherald.com and can be read in its entirety here.