Q&A with Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott

Columbia Industries
President & chief executive officer

Number of employees you oversee: We have about 200 team members at CI.

Tell us about your organization and its commercial ventures:

Columbia Industries is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company that operates solely for the benefit of our community (the Tri-Cities and surrounding areas). We work with persons who face significant barriers to employment and/or meaningful social involvement as a result of challenges such as disabilities, homelessness, prior incarcerations, substance abuse, inadequate education and so on.

Our mission is to support and empower those individuals to help them achieve personal success and community engagement. We do that by offering employment services; specialized job training and vocational skills; direct employment opportunities; centers for life skills and social enrichment; foods and housing assistance; and, guided access to a broad assortment of other community resources.

CI has a long history of operating commercial businesses to help support its mission services.  Some of those ventures have directly employed or involved the clients we serve. Others have been intended to simply generate positive cash flow to help fund our mission programs. In the last three years CI’s board and leadership team made a significant commitment to aggressively add more commercial ventures in order to provide additional, and more sustainable, operating funds to CI.

Those funds will not only make up ongoing gaps between the costs of running our programs and moneys raised from government agencies and public donations but will also allow us to significantly expand our service offerings. In the last year, we added two very significant new mission programs, Opportunity Kitchen and Empowerment Place, that have greatly expanded the number of people we serve and the types of challenges we can address.

We are a nonprofit (all of the profits generated by our commercial ventures stay within CI and benefit our mission activities) but we identify far more with the “social enterprise” model than with a traditional nonprofit structure and way of doing business.

How did you land your current role? How long have you been in it?

I joined CI in December 2017. Ending up here in the Tri-Cities and assuming the CEO duties for CI was the result of a long, focused search on my part and a very thorough and wide-reaching recruiting process by the company, but the actual connection came through a posting on an internet job board.

I had lived in Los Angeles for 34 years and had run a number of for-profit businesses as a partner in a private equity firm. I then acted as a consultant, advisor and board member to a number of small and startup businesses – really a “pay it forward” role for me.

I have always loved the process of building and improving a business — developing a sound vision and solid strategic plan, then getting a group of people fully bought-in and excited about the path forward. I decided that I wanted to find another company to run and grow.

But I also realized that I had a strong desire to be part of an organization that was doing good things for its community.

I decided to look for a senior management position with a charitable, nonprofit company that had a desire or need for development and growth. I looked first in the LA area, but the nonprofits I talked with were looking for candidates with traditional nonprofit experience, which I had as a volunteer and board member, but not as a manager. So, I widened my search to the national level, primarily identifying opportunities through job boards and my LinkedIn network.

Apparently, I viewed the CI posting at the same time that Marie Lathim, CI’s administrative and human resources director, saw my résumé on the same site.

When I applied for the position, Marie recognized my name and was very responsive. We had an excellent dialog via telephone, and I was one of six finalists chosen to meet with a number of board members, CI community supporters and management team players in a very thorough day of round robin interviews. For my part, I was intrigued by the use of commercial operations to fund programs, the board’s desire be aggressive in growing the company’s community impact and its willingness to support a nontraditional, social enterprise approach to doing so.

I guess we all agreed that my experience building good businesses and the set of core values that I shared were a good fit with CI’s leadership needs.

I can’t speak for the board, but for my part the experience has been exactly as described and just what I was looking for.

What should the Tri-Cities know about how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting your clients and your organization?

I can honestly say that the pandemic has been one of the greatest and most complex challenges I have encountered in my career. As it has virtually every business, Covid-19 has had a profound impact on how we conduct business at CI and on the services we can deliver to those in need.

Demand for our services and community-wide needs for support have gone up significantly at the same time our options for providing services have been reduced. In most mission services, we have experienced an increase in demand.

In our employment services for persons with barriers to employment, we have seen our caseload grow threefold; we have able to help some in-person when they have “essential” jobs, meet with persons virtually to prepare them for job search, but because of the current restrictions and some individuals opting out, many of the services will have to wait until things open up.

With Empowerment Place, our outreach and resource center, we have experienced a significant increase of persons experiencing homelessness and needing food assistance; thankfully, we have been able to help many with virtual visits.

In Opportunity Kitchen, a food service vocational training program, we found ourselves not able to hold fundraisers or dine-in events; however, we have been able to successfully pivot the program to provide emergency meals to families – more than 5,000 provided so far.

Our Community Center, a day program to support families needing respite services while offering life skills and social inclusion opportunities to individuals with acute disabilities, has been closed to in-person sessions; however, we have been able to hold regular virtual sessions, leading the clients through many craft, exercise and self-care activities while they are at home. Still, we are experiencing challenges to providing safe access to services.

Not everyone has a stable home environment with internet and phone access. We are continuing to develop the technology that will make it easy for persons to access the available services, and also working hard to analyze how in-person services can be done safely and at the appropriate time.

Overall, CI has had to adjust to entirely new ways to work and communicate (working from home, Zoom meetings and so on), but we have been fortunate in that most of our activities are considered essential in nature. While business is clearly down due to restrictions on how business can be conducted, the closure or activity reduction of many of our corporate customers and by our very determined desire to protect our customers, team members and clients, we have continued to provide most of our services throughout this very difficult time. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the truly exemplary attitudes and efforts exhibited by our team members across the entire company and the strong, ongoing support we have received from our board. I am really grateful for, and proud of, the CI family!

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Wow, that’s an extremely hard question because I think true and effective leadership requires a number of positive talents and attributes. But if I had to distill it down to one characteristic, I guess I would identify a hybrid quality I call “responsible vision.”

I think every leader must understand very clearly that he or she is completely and fully responsible for the proper and mission-responsive conduct of their organization. With that clear understanding, a leader must then be able to craft an effective vision that fosters buy-in and excitement and serves as a clear road map for the planning and execution of growth strategies.  To me, a clear and compelling vision is a necessary, unifying tool – a universal language that everyone can understand and embrace. And, once a leader gets buy-in to a vision, the process of realizing it becomes much easier.

What is the biggest challenge facing business owners today?

Wow again – tough question!  I would say that, in a world that is increasingly complex and crowded, with so many different communication modalities and information sources, it is both extremely difficult and yet more important than ever that business leaders are able to create clear, strong and positive cultures within their organizations. Culture is so key to accomplishing the goals and realizing the mission of any organization!

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your industry/field?

Justin Crume, our director of mission service, offered this gem: he would have everyone in the community walk in the shoes of our clients for an hour, just to truly understand the challenges they face. I think that’s a wonderful idea.

But my team and I also see a need for a great deal of innovation in the nonprofit world – everything from diversifying and broadening the sources of funds, to making the government agencies that oversee and fund our activities more technologically current and responsive to our needs, to reducing both paper processes and many repetitive and unproductive requirements in the compliance arena. I also would mention that funding and service priorities are influenced far too much by swings in political thought. We need to establish, sustain and fund programs on a truly long-term basis, which provides much-needed continuity and security to those receiving assistance.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

First, I would suggest that he/she identify a clear set of core beliefs that will guide all of their decisions and actions – and to keep evolving that set of beliefs. Second, I would say to be humble and remain teachable throughout her career. And I would tell him to listen first, learn and then lead. Finally, I would remind her that it is all about your people – you are only as good and effective as the people around you.

Who are your role models or mentors?

I am fortunate to have had a number of good mentors and role models. First, I grew up the youngest child in a family of seven, so my older siblings were all important role models for me.  Second, I had a teacher in 10th grade, a Jesuit priest, who was a soft-spoken and kind but very perceptive individual who simply would not let me get away with less than a full effort in his class.

He showed me how much more I was capable of doing if I gave something a true and full effort.  My swimming coach in college, a man who is still in my life, was a terrific motivator who combined great knowledge and ability to teach with a genuine connection and concern for his charges and nonetheless ran a highly competitive and successful program. Lots of lessons there. Finally, I would say that I have benefited from some true mentorship by my senior partner in our investment firm and by two particularly sharp board members with whom I worked.

On a personal note, I am delighted to say that my four grown children are just about the best role models I have seen!

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today?

Well, I have benefited the greatly by the kindness of others and their willingness to give me opportunities to grow and succeed. As a result, I have been fortunate to have had great experiences in business and life that allowed me to develop a pretty strong set of skills and beliefs. When contemplating my next (and possibly last?) leadership opportunity a few years ago, I realized that I had a deep appreciation for what I had been given and a desire to do some true “heart work” (rather than just “money work”) in the latter part of my career. And voila, here I am…

How do you measure success in your workplace?

While I still use many traditional, time-tested financial measurements to evaluate effectiveness, efficiency and progress towards attainment of goals, I am delighted to say that at CI we measure success by the number of people we serve, the degree to which we help them achieve their goals and personal success and by the overall impact we have on the community. It’s wonderful to evaluate our effectiveness in the success of those we support.

What do you consider your leadership style to be? 

Rather than answer that myself, I asked my leadership team to describe my style. They surprised, flattered and delighted me by comparing my leadership approach to that of John Wooden, the influential and longtime men’s basketball coach at UCLA. I shared with them a book by and about Coach Wooden as part of our first strategic planning process together in early 2018. I think what they are saying is that I share Coach Wooden’s belief in thorough preparation, attention to details and fundamentals, establishing clear priorities and sharing a compelling vision.

At least I hope that is what they mean. I also try to be as personal as possible in dealing with others and use a lot of humor in my leadership.

How do you balance work and family life?

I try my best to invest my energy in activities and efforts that I consider very important, high value-added and/or of personal interest. If I do that well, I find I am pretty effective in balancing demands on my time.

What do you like to do when you are not at work? 

One definite perk of moving to the Tri-Cities from LA is that I was able to buy a nice property that contains a one-acre wine grape vineyard. I spend quite a bit of time working on growing grapes and trying my best to sell them at harvest time. I also love listening to music and going to concerts (love The Gorge!) and I have two great dogs and a terrific girlfriend with whom I like to spend time. I travel as much as I can as well.

What’s your best time management strategy?

To me, it’s all about having as few, high impact priorities as possible – no more than three at a time – and putting my efforts there.

Best tip to relieve stress?

If I do the things that I really value and enjoy, stress kind of takes care of itself. But staying in touch with my children may be my best stress reliever of all.

What’s your favorite podcast?  

“Armchair Expert” by Dax Shepard

Most-used website?

I use LinkedIn a lot in my business dealings.

Favorite book?

Just too many good ones to name a favorite but I have loved both “The Lord of the Rings” and the Harry Potter series.

Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote you like to use?  

Every morning when I wake up, I tell myself to just focus on today and to make it the best day possible. It’s simple and not hard to execute but really keeps me present sets me up for success each day.

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