What Kind of Footprint Will You Leave?

BerndThough Bernd Hummel and Jim Potter never met I like to think they would have enjoyed one another’s company – but I’ll never know. Earlier this month Jim died at age 58 while Marilynn and I were visiting Bernd and his two daughters in Germany. The two men were quite different on the surface of their lives but similar in their deep commitment to the communities where they live and work.


I met Bernd last weekend at his home in Pirmasens, though I felt that I already knew him through his daughters whom I have known and spent time with in Seattle, Amsterdam, Saigon, and Pirmasens. I met Jim 13 years ago and had dinner with him less than a week before his terminal cancer diagnosis.

The difference between these two men is dramatic; Bernd is a sophisticated global citizen, an art collector and wine connoisseur, a businessman with interests in Europe and Asia whose two internationally educated daughters have been positioned to take over the business when he retires. Jim on the other hand was a no-nonsense, laser-like visionary who, though he had lived in New Zealand and South America, was essentially a street-smart Seattle business and family man who moved to rural Snohomish a few years ago so his wife, Rebecca, could be closer to the horses she loves and cares for.

It’s difficult to construct a sentence that includes the phrases “real estate developer” and “well respected” without drawing a smile from the reader, but Jim and Bernd fit that description perfectly. They’ve both had their critics, but it’s hard to imagine a developer who doesn’t. They have been smart, strategic, courageous and experienced in what it takes to see a project to its successful conclusion – no matter how many years it takes.

I didn’t know Bernd Hummel until recently, but I have seen what he’s done for his community and I think Jim would have admired the result. He lives in Pirmasens a south German town of 40,000 that was once, not so long ago, the shoe manufacturing capital of the world. Everyone in the shoe business, worldwide, knows about Pirmasens – but then came globalization and outsourcing and Pirmasens hit the skids.

When that happened, Bernd’s company, Bernd Hummel Holding, GmbH, did what other companies felt compelled to do to survive. He outsourced the manufacture of his brand, KangaROOS, to China, but kept the company headquarters in Pirmasens and did what he could for the community. He bought two of the old bankrupt shoe factories in town. He restored one; a lovely old 1900-era building by retaining its exterior but converting the interior to modern minimalist office space. He moved his own company in and built two restaurants, an art exhibition space, and offices for other companies to lease. Then he had the other factory building redesigned, renovated, and converted it into loft living spaces. Now, instead of having two giant, decaying factories as eyesores, the town has two dynamic modern structures that update the town’s architecture, provide jobs, and enhance the community.

Jim and Bernd were both savvy investors and their ability to see beyond the near term future enabled them to anticipate trends and make courageous decisions. Recently, Jim started a new company, called Footprint, that builds micro-housing – tiny, affordable multiple housing units with shared kitchens – that fulfill a temporary housing need in dense urban communities. 7 of these projects were completed and he had 10 more under development in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, and Detroit when he died.

But, it isn’t business success that sets these two men apart; ultimately both are community builders and community investors. Bernd did what he could for Pirmasens when globalization devastated his community and he recently purchased a factory going out of business in order to bring some manufacturing back to Pirmasens. The new factory is making handmade leather KangaROOS – beautiful shoes.


So far he’s only breaking even on the new factory. His plan is to train more shoemakers in partnership with local schools which will help reduce unemployment in an area where it is high while at the same developing a market for these handmade shoes that he thinks will eventually make the project profitable. In the interim he’s creating jobs for some of the people who lost them to Asia a few years ago.

Jim was also about community building, but in a different way. First and foremost he was a family man. As a former Eagle Scout, he served as a Boy Scout leader for 7 years when his boys were growing up, and, building on his experience as a Rotary exchange student to New Zealand, was an active lifelong Rotarian. At home he promoted and supported PeaceTrees Vietnam, a Seattle-based organization that clears unexploded ordinance in a war-ravaged part of Vietnam, and he helped found the Academy of Finance to teach high school students in Seattle Public Schools to prepare for careers in business. He was always generous with financial support and his own time for these civic efforts. Yes, he was financially successful but he was much more a giver than a taker and that isn’t always the case with real estate developers.

Bernd Hummel’s efforts are different. He has helped Pirmasens maintain its dignity in the face of economic stress. In 1994 he started bringing world-class artists to Pirmasens for exhibits in the renovated Neuffer am Park building. He showed Picasso and Dali. He invited Christo, Tom Wesselman, Gunther Sachs, and Mel Ramos to come to Pirmasens and exhibit, and recently, working with a German art dealer friend, he began showcasing contemporary Chinese artists. Last week’s opening featured young female artists.

Young Chinese

On Sunday night while we were visiting, KangaROOS helped sponsor and bring a famous tenor, who otherwise wouldn’t visit a small German town, to Pirmasens to sing in the town’s beautiful old Festhalle. These are the kind of things successful entrepreneurs with money and connections can do to improve their communities.

I will miss Jim. He was a friend, philanthropist, and strong family man and I will look forward to knowing Bernd better and to seeing both men’s legacies inspire more successful people to follow their examples. Financial success and community investment are not mutually exclusive. In the best way they are complimentary.


Footnote from Bob Watt on Jim’s passing:  “Dear friends, Jim finished his days on this earth yesterday, May 6th 2014.  He and I figured out in our last conversation that we ran together more than 2300 times, many of those times with you. We figured we covered more than 12,000 miles together during the 30 years of running and friendship that we were able to enjoy.”



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