Cobalt moves into the ID, but will it fill the void Amazon left behind?

By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly

Cobalt CEO John Holt (Photo provided by John Holt)

John Holt had a hard time getting acquainted with all of his 800 employees on a daily basis. Now, with new office spaces in the International District, not only does he get to learn everyone’s name, but he is also given access to magnificent views and more than 60 restaurants within walking distance.

“It’s been great. We are very pleased,” said Holt, the CEO of Cobalt Group, Inc. Today, Holt looks out the window to an extraordinary sunset, with the Olympics clearly visible in the background.  In June 2010, the company merged with ADP, Inc., and became the head of its dealer services in the online marketing division.

In December 2010, Cobalt Group, Inc. moved its headquarters to the Union Station location. It was a major milestone for Cobalt to have all of its employees under one roof. When Holt’s employees were separated between the SODO and Lynnwood offices, it was not nearly as convenient. After nearly 3,000 Amazon employees relocated to office spaces outside of the International District last year, Cobalt’s headquarter now takes over the four top floors of the Union Station building.

“The views are fabulous. They are fabulous on both sides of the building. We have the Cascades view and International District on one side. It’s urban and interesting. And then, we have the Olympics and the Sound here [on the other side],” said Holt.

The view of Seattle from Cobalt’s office near the International District (Photo by Sarah Yee/NWAW)

“In the part of SODO we were in, there just weren’t a lot of places to eat at. There weren’t a lot of other services — haircut, dry cleaning, post office. Here we are in a more urban environment, and there are just more services locally,” said Holt.

“Our food choices have expanded dramatically. Uwajimaya is across the street. Wonderful stuff. Culturally, it’s much more expansive,” added Holt.

Nonetheless, being in a culturally rich and convenient environment was not the only reason for Holt’s decision when he was looking into seven other possiblie locations.

“A key driver for us was the public transportation system, and putting ourselves right at the hub. We thought it would be a great value to our employees,” said Holt.

Union Station is the heart of the bus system, the light rail, and the Sounder commuter trains. An Orca pass is a benefit to Cobalt’s employees, which allows them to hop on any part of the public transportation network, for free.

Holt noted that more than 75 percent of his employees now take advantage of the public transportation system. It is helping the company transition into a green culture as well.

“I went to the airport last week. I didn’t take my car. I literally took my roller bag down the elevator, down the ramp, got on the light rail, and went to the airport,” said Holt, who travels through the Sea-Tac Airport on a weekly basis.

Holt is also pleased with how the new office design supports his company philosophy.

“The building works very well for our philosophy. I have a fairly egalitarian approach to management. We don’t have private offices. We all have open cubes. I would take the best space and allocate it to employees, so that more people can use it rather than less. I have always regarded our executive team as being enablers. Our job is to help other people get their work done. Often, I think executives think that it’s everybody’s job to help them. I prefer to flip that around. I’m here to help make the thing work. The more accessible we are, the more leverage we create,” said Holt.

Cobalt hired International Architects and GLY for floor plans and construction. The work started in September 2010. They eliminated ceilings, complexity of the previous detailed layout, and high walls that separated the cubicles.

When more than 3,000 Amazon employees moved out of their Union Station offices, it was bad news for many ID businesses.

“I think the [Union Station] building will be losing more employees of other companies by May,” said Ryo Izawa, the vice president of Samurai Noodles. The restaurant is located across the street from the Union Station offices. “The circumstance will be worse to the area. I know [other companies] will be moving in sometime soon, but I don’t think the number will be the same as the Amazon’s employees. Blue Nile Co. will be moving out as well. Fortunately, I have another store and will have a new store in spring soon, so I guess I can survive, although the damage to the store in [the] International District was pretty serious. We still have good weekends, but during weekdays, yes, it has been quite difficult.”

Other ID businesses have experienced a 30 to 40 percent business drop during weekday lunch hours.

“Amazon employees moved out in four stages. More than half of them are gone now [from the ID]. Cobalt’s move-in did help. We are starting to see new faces,” said Tom Dang, owner of Sub Sand. The restaurant relies heavily on take-out lunches.

“It definitely affects business. We would like to see more companies move in [to the ID],” said Dang. ♦

Sarah Yee can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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