Don Munro: A Remembrance by Bob Royer

  • By Bob Royer
  • Posted 6/14/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10132

Don Munro (1940-2012) had a 30-year business career as co-founder and CEO of Coastal Environmental Systems, a company that he built into the world’s leading manufacturer of air traffic control meteorological instrumentation. Before starting the firm with a $500 investment, Munro had worked as a land surveyor, civil engineer, transit planner, and policy advisor to Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935). This reminiscence by his friend Bob Royer is reprinted from The Cascadia Courier (April 29, 2012) with kind permission.

Don Munro

A  friend and I drove out to Vashon Island to visit Don Munro a couple of weeks ago, a mutual friend who was, it turns out, in his last days of life and would soon die, last Friday morning, of prostate cancer.

Ultimately, we got around to the subject of death.  To paraphrase Don, he felt no particular fear about it. To him, death was merely the absence of life, a problem he could no longer make right, a state of being that would remove him from fixing other things that needed fixing, friends and colleagues who needed nurturing, keeping in touch with the business he founded, loving his wife, Carolyn, in the warm, simple and happy house on Quartermaster Harbor.  

Many prostate cancers are so slow growing that doctors decide not to treat them, like Warren Buffet’s recent diagnosis and treatment plan. But doctors told Don he was soon going to die more than seven years ago when they found a particularly aggressive strain. Then, other doctors at the University of Washington said he’d be an ideal candidate for this new, experimental drug that had not been tested yet on humans and Don was one of the first to try it.  He got seven years of a very good life from the experiment and suffered few side effects.  He was able to smoke the cigars he liked, consume the red wine he loved as the barbecue crackled on the back deck of his Vashon home, one he built, with his son, from lumber they salvaged at a torn down warehouse on the Seattle waterfront. The accomplishment of building that house together repaired a strained relationship and created a friendship to accompany the bond of father and son.

Don grew up in the political culture of end-of-the-sixties Seattle. We talked about that time when we were last together. At the University of Washington, Don became friends with Bob Gogerty, a young man who yearned to be at the center of political and business life in Seattle and they would talk about what they wanted to achieve over beers and cigarettes at the old Red Robin, just east of the University Bridge along the ship canal.  Don would become an engineer and work for a highway design firm. He was busy there and designed an I-5 overpass that ‘is still standing.’ Don needed much more out of his work than freeway overpasses and Gogerty brought him to it.

He hired him to work on Mayor Wes Uhlman’s staff right after the new mayor was elected in 1969. It was a terrific time for Don. The political culture in 1969 grew from of a powerful optimism and sense of purpose with roots in the middle 50s when the region leveraged its technical dominance in commercial aerospace, demonstrated it could hustle the world at Century 21 and understood the need to address what were called in that day ‘metropolitan problems’ -- those problems that did not respect traditional political boundaries -- water and air pollution, sprawl, transportation, recreation, open space. King County voters approved a regional government, Metro, in 1958, similar to what citizens did in Toronto, Canada, and later Vancouver, B.C.  Metro began with a limited mission, the clean-up of Lake Washington, and its success, so obvious and complete, helped lead to a burst of civic energy 10 years later, Forward Thrust, that took the regional thinking into parks, recreation, open space and the building of a regional multi-purpose stadium, the Kingdome. The only thing they didn’t get, though it had a slight majority, was a light rail system. Three years after that, the legislature entrusted Metro with the authority to create a county-wide bus system.

This was Don’s time, the time when he was truly maturing as a person and a professional. It offered tremendous opportunity to him and young people like him who would join government and have remarkable responsibility for their years. 

Many of these new people were thrown together in the savannah between City Hall on the hill and Pioneer Square below. Metro’s offices were in the Pioneer Building, forming one side of the square, and many of its young workers would head out after work for the dark and smoky Central Tavern for beers or the J & M Café, three doors up the street, if a martini was necessary.  At the same time, five blocks up the hill, Wes Uhlman’s staff and those from a younger city council would leave city hall, obeying the gravity that pulled them to the same places. Model Cities, the Johnson-era urban renewal program, also contributed new young practitioners, many who had been denied opportunity in the past but who would seize it now.

Once gathered in the Pioneer Square, the work day proceeded by other means. “We’ve got to go to work tomorrow” they would say, after an evening of work -- gossip, boasting, positioning, proselytizing.

Sometimes the same people would find themselves together during the noon hour in the basement of the Pioneer Building, the home of Brasserie Pittsbourg, once Pittsburgh Lunch, now turned into a French buffet by a real Frenchman named Francois.  Of the many cool things at Brasserie Pittsbourg was the butcher paper that covered each table for each setting.  Our young, eager bureaucrats would make notes during their certainly important conversations, tear off the piece of paper where this now vital information, partly obscured by the blotting of spilled water or a shimmer of butter from Francois’ Geoduck steaks with garlic, and head upstairs or up the hill to an afternoon meeting where millions were on the table and, quite theatrically, pull out the creased butcher paper and make the killer points they had honed so cleverly at lunch.

Soon, Don was Deputy Policy Director and doing what he was really good at, creating and developing interesting ideas for the Mayor, who, by the way, really needed them.  Uhlman’s first term had been rough, a constant war with public employees, their unions, and the council, and he was heading into a re-election campaign where it was clear he could easily lose.

Don had an idea that there should be free bus service in the downtown and the Mayor jumped at it. The Boeing recession was still biting sharply and retailers downtown were looking for anything that might help.  It was an instant success. It was also a timely success. Service began nine days before the 1973 primary election and clearly had an effect on that election, improving a dismal performance in which Uhlman finished a poor second, but also enhancing the general election where the mayor won handily. It was Don’s idea. The timing was Wes Uhlman’s. 

Don moved on to Metro after the election to work on the bus system and was in charge of the planning for the bus tunnel in downtown Seattle. Later he handled the acquisition of the hybrid electric buses that would run in the tunnel, the first diesel/hybrid electrics to be deployed in scale anywhere. Think about it -- a fleet of hybrid electric buses in the late eighties when we are struggling to bring on a few thousand cars with the same technology today.

He was very pleased to have thought up the idea to renumber the Metro buses the way it is done in the Paris bus system, an operation he admired.  Don would think of stuff like that but not always talk about it.  Sometimes, however, after dinner in a hotel bar, a cognac in hand, he’d reach over the table, grab a colleague’s arm and whisper:  “You know, I re-numbered Metro’s buses just like they do in Paris,” his eyes gleaming. There was an important purpose for it, but I never quite understood it, though you had to be happy for Don.

He left Metro for a while, consulting, and created the Ben Franklin Transit system in Tri-Cities.  He did everything and was proud that he not only ran the election that approved the bonds but hired and trained the drivers.

His real talent was business and he was successful because his greatest skill was recognizing talent in people and nurturing it. Don was no magician, but even if you lacked talent, Don could conjure up a bit of it in you. With Don, you always felt like the most important person in the room. In fact, you were, because Don told you to your face that you were the most important person in the room. This sentiment was quietly shared with many others, often on the same day and sometimes in the same room.

He co-founded a company in 1981 with $500 that became Coastal Environmental Systems and was its CEO for 30 years. Originally selling weather buoys for ocean use, then weather stations in the arctic for scientific purposes, Munro found those markets too limiting and began experimenting with other uses for scientific caliber weather systems. Over the years, fire departments began using Don’s weather sensors to make hazardous materials response safer and more effective and, as the software development at Coastal improved and then became the very best, his products found their way to airports to feed excellent weather information to pilots and air traffic controllers. First with the military and then for hundreds of civilian airports across the world, Don’s remote air traffic control weather systems became a standard.   

Don’s company was a regular on the Deloitte Touche Northwest 50 Fastest Growing Companies for many years and he was once runner up for the 2004 Ernst and Young National Entrepreneur of the Year. The winner got a $100,000 prize. Trying to look like he didn’t care, he would say: "I never got a damned penny!"

I worked at Coastal a couple of years on a team developing new software for a product that would use a variation of his weather stations for public safety. It was the first place I ever worked where people actually manufactured something. Located in a brick building in Pioneer Square across from the football stadium, you can’t miss it.  The roof is covered with weather apparatus being tested.

Inside, software designers in flip flops clack away at their several computers while in another room someone is bending metal into a container to hold their software and maintain it at just the right temperature. There is an international look to the people in the building and a consultative culture. On my second day at work, Munro called a meeting of all employees and asked me to tell them what my job was going to be and how I hoped to do it.  

During baseball and football seasons, Don allowed a group of his employees to make some extra money by bringing a food cart to the parking lot and sell food to passing fans. Some of his employees were new to the country and had limited language skills in English. But over the year, Don would corner each of them in the shop where they assembled the systems and say to them in ways that pushed through any comprehension problems that he or she was the most important person working here.

Don was deliberate in most things and moved very slowly around the shop, but his slow movement disguised a lot of energy he needed to work out. He adopted the management-by-walking-around style and would come into one of the small offices, few of which had doors, and plop down in the extra chair, if there was one, or simply lean against the door sill, staring silently across the desk and its computer to its operator. Sometimes I tried to wait him out. But I always talked first.

He had an unusual sense of humor and it gave him great pleasure. Once I walked into his office, really a wide spot off a hallway, and saw him working along at his computer, I supposed he was working on an Excel spreadsheet at which he was highly skilled.

“Get a load of this, Royer,” he said, turning the screen my way.

It was a letter from Charles T. Firbolg, an alter ego of Don’s that emerged more than 30 years ago, who complained, on Don's behalf, to the Vashon Beachcomber and other publications or customer service departments of large companies about pomposity, failed communications, ignorance, or whatever else got under Firbolg’s skin. He had other alter egos, but Firbolg was writing the letter I saw on the screen, a note to the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea.  Firbolg had heard that the dictator’s favorite song was “Song of Comradeship” and was hoping that Mr. Kim could send along the words and music to America.

Don also had a striking resemblance to the actor Donald Sutherland, particularly when he was clean shaven and on one of his diets. Once, on a business trip together, we were ordering breakfast and I could see the light of a potential celebrity sighting in the waiter’s eyes. After Don had ordered and the waiter turned his attention to me, I confirmed what the waiter was thinking:

I'm having what Mr. Sutherland is having.”

Actually, Don didn’t think it was funny.  He did not approve of deception even though he tolerated Firbolg’s misrepresentations.

When Don retired from Coastal, a year ago, the employees in the shop fashioned a plaque and presented it to him.  It contains these words:

Coastal Farewell

Coastal has brought us together from all over the world with various aspirations and hopes of fulfilling the "American Dream."

Your fairness and generosity regardless of faith, color or nationality, were invaluable tools in our quest for meeting personal goals and also becoming a professional team.

In a final tribute and expression of gratitude you shall be remembered as the guy who meant a lot to us and give practical meaning to the words:

He's not heavy, he's my brother."

Don loved to say, as part of his introduction of the company, that Coastal 'landed the space shuttle' because his company had weather systems at the Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base.  During the George W. Bush administration, he didn't say much about Coastal's systems at Andrews Air Force Base that also provided weather for Air Force One.  He did, however, thoroughly enjoy the idea that he was making life a little safer for Barack Obama.

King County, the successor to Metro, decided to scrap the free bus zone this year after 40 years.  The story was in the paper his last day of work at Coastal.  On the day he died, the shuttle Enterprise was flying low over New York on its last flight and I was reading that story online when I heard that Don had died.
"I know the guy who who helps bring that sucker back to earth," I thought.

He was a wonderful citizen of Cascadia.


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