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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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'Basque entrepreneur' Aspiri is more pleased by jobs created than fortune made

In the course of launching or growing a dozen companies over a half century, first as an entrepreneur then as an investor in entrepreneurs, Ray Aspiri expresses more pleasure at the jobs he's helped create than at the business success he's achieved.


And he's brought an unusual business philosophy, gained from his Basque roots, of avoiding what he refers to as the "perverse incentive" of excessive CEO pay.


Born John Ramon Azpiri in Boise, he wears his Basque heritage like a badge of honor. And he is particularly proud of being referred to as "the Basque entrepreneur from Seattle" when he is called upon to speak on entrepreneurism and his philosophy of leadership here, and several times in Europe.


Ray Aspiri
Ray Aspiri 

While Aspiri has largely avoiding the limelight in his business involvements, though those seeking his backing and the business partners he accumulated knew where to find him, he agreed to an interview following the recent sale of one of the companies he built and guided.


Houston-based Oil States International is acquiring Kent-based Tempress Technologies, which Aspiri and four partners had founded 15 years ago and where he was chairman and former CEO. Oil States, a publicly traded, diversified oilfield services company, paid $52.5 million for Tempress, which has an array of specialized drilling products for the oil and gas industries.


Aspiri's entrepreneurial career began when, at age 24 in 1961, as a Boeing employee who had dropped out of Seattle University, he co-founding Credco, which provided data credit reports for the mortgage lending and banking industries.


Over the next decade, with his initial partners, he launched and guided Color Control, a company that did photo-lithography for major retailers and mail-order catalogue companies, and Precision Automotive, an engine-rebuild firm in the aviation industry.


Aspiri was still top executive at Credco and Color Control when he got involved financially in the medical-instrument business that would occupy much of his focus in the coming years.


He recalls that Bill Gates Sr. called him in 1967 to tout him on an opportunity to invest in Redmond-based Physio, then on its way to being a world leader in heart defibrillators. He remembers that investor involvement as "one with which I made a lot of money, but I got 1,000 times more value" out of the leadership skills he learned from watching Physio's iconic CEO Hunter Simpson.


Credco, Color Control and Precision Automotive were all sold in 1978 and Aspiri spent the following two years reviewing 400 companies to determine where he wanted to next focus his attention. That turned out to be twin ventures: the predecessor of Tempress Technologies and his second investment in the medical-instruments industry that has been a high-visibility part of Seattle's technology successes.


In 1980 he became a major investor and board member at Quinton Medical, the Woodinville company where founder and leader Wayne Quinton was guiding what became the largest U.S. provider of cardiac stress testing systems and cardiac rehabilitation equipment.


Aspiri has been an investor in and has served since 1995 on the board of publicly traded Omeros, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering, developing and commercializing products for inflammation, "coagulopathies" and disorders of the central nervous system.


I asked Aspiri if, scattered among his array of investor involvements, were any that had failed and he quickly ticked off several.


Interestingly, one of his less successful investments was in a business that nevertheless turned out successful.


He and three partners funded the launch of Flexcar, a concept he says his wife, Edith, "Loved," which helped guide his decision to invest.


"We probably got about 12 cents on the dollar back from the investment, but we helped establish a concept that has taken off" he said of the idea that eventually became part of Zipcar, which was just purchased by Avis for about $500 million.


Aspiri wanted to focus, during our interview, on the importance of encouraging entrepreneurism and on his compensation philosophy, which he calls the "Mondragon concept of employee ownership," gleaned from one of Spain's most successful companies based in that country's Basque region.


At Mondragon, a federation of worker cooperatives that is Spain's seventh largest company with 84,000 employees in 256 companies and named after the town where it was founded, the CEO can't make more than six times the salary of the average employee, Aspiri explained.


"I'm a real advocate of that concept, which largely eliminates the perverse incentives that contribute to many of the problems of governance found in organizations with more traditional management structures," he said. "In all my years, I haven't exceeded that ratio."


Aspiri's investments extend to his community involvement where he was one of three business leaders who helped found the Catholic Fund to sponsor scholarships for private Catholic education in Western Washington, raising more than $25 million for scholarships from 1986 to 2002. His partners in that initiative were Seattle attorney Joh Hempelman and Jack McMillan, then Nordstrom president.


A $3 million contribution from the fund in 2002 launched what is now the Fulcrum Foundation, which annually raises funds for Catholic schools from K-12 through university for the Seattle archdiocese.


As to what lies ahead, Aspiri says he intends "to make selective investments in the future that can improve the quality of life for people," and and also plans to work with both University of Washington's Foster School of Business and Seattle U's School of Entrepreneurship.  

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