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Tragesser honored as Oregons 2007 small business champ

by: Vern Uyetake, 
Charlie Tragesser, Lake Oswego, has been named Oregon’s 2007 Small Business Champion of the Year.

When Charlie Tragesser was a student at Southern Illinois University in the late 1960s, he noticed that computers were becoming a driving force in how businesses were run. This motivated him to major in business administration and computer science.

'Computers today can help the smallest of businessmen. I thought computers and a business background was a great place to be for the future,' Tragesser said.

Based on his glittering career that included 22 years with IBM, current ownership of Portland-based Polar Systems, Inc. and most recently, Oregon's 2007 Small-Business Champion of the Year, he made a wise decision.

The Lake Oswego resident was honored last month by America's leading small business advocacy association, the National Federation of Independent Business. Each year the NFIB selects a small-business owner from each state. Tragesser said that the award, which is in recognition for time and effort to small business issues, is 'very much appreciated.'

After spending more than two successful decades at IBM, rising up the ranks to an executive position, Tragesser retired in 1992. Reorganization in IBM and a retirement plan that offered an eight-year leave of absence before full retirement, were reasons for his departure. Tragesser, however, had no desire to quit the technology business.

The following year he and a partner purchased Polar Systems. In 2000, Tragesser became the sole owner after buying out his partner. Polar Systems provides local networking for small businesses. The company also offers data storage, security and accounting software.

'I wanted to try to do something a little different,' Tragesser sad.

He was adamant in a change of scenery because he could not see himself working for any companies besides IBM.

'IBM was a great company, so why go to a company that is less than the best?'

Tragesser's willingness to try new things and take risks has been the base of his success since his college days. In his senior year, Tragesser had a campus job in the college's career center. One day the placement director, who knew of his technology interest, recommended Tragesser interview with IBM representatives who were coming on campus.

Tragesser was already working towards his MBA as an undergraduate and had not been job searching, but decided to do the interview anyways. To his surprise, Tragesser was called to St. Louis and was offered the job immediately.

'I was practicing with IBM just to have experience,' Tragesser said laughing. 'It was like going on a first date and then getting married.'

Leaning towards his MBA, Tragesser asked for 30 days to look around for other jobs just to see what else was out there. In 1970, he started working with IBM as a sales trainee.

It didn't take long for Tragesser to become a regional manager. His improved status forced him to relocate every two to three years. After starting in St. Louis, he also had stints in Houston, Dallas, Seattle and other locales.

Business was good for Tragesser. As regional manager in Seattle, he was responsible for 1,100 workers covering Alaska, Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon who annually generated $968 million.

His work brought him to Portland in 1991. He and his wife Debbie, married for 38 years, have lived in Lake Oswego since. Their son Tim went to Lakeridge High School and graduated from Santa Clara University with a finance background.

Tim joined his father at Polar Systems and, according to Tragesser, has been helpful as a business developer and sales manager.

The transition for Tragesser from IBM to Polar Systems was smooth. He already understood the industry and had an arsenal of skills acquired from IBM that included budget, community relations and hiring responsibilities and great management training.

He had also established plenty of contacts, which, according to Tragesser, provided instant credibility with people. No matter what, Tragesser was enjoying himself.

'(The change) made for a lot of fun. Then I just tried to improve the company,' he said.

Tragesser helped shift the company's financial base from only selling hardware to a company that provides networking services.

Tragesser also is an advocate for small-business issues. He said that small businesses have no voice because they don't have the financial support from sponsors as large businesses do. To solve this problem, he joined the NFIB.

'The NFIB has the resources to protect small businesses,' he said. 'It is good at looking at what is good or bad for small businesses. It's a great way to make headway.'

After several years as a member, Tragesser was elected to be the vice chairman of the state's NFIB Leadership Council. He is also the Portland Area Action Council chairman. These groups allow small businesses to have a collective input on issues.

According to Tragesser, some of the largest issues for small businesses in Oregon are health insurance and state taxes. Bigger companies have less expensive premiums because they have a larger buying power. Not only is this something small businesses lack, but the NFIB has to get approvals from the insurance commission before changing insurance plans.

Tragesser believes small businesses deserve better because they are an integral part of the state.

'Small businesses hire the majority of the people while also providing a hell of a lot of jobs. Since there are not many big businesses in Oregon, small businesses pay a good portion of the tax money to help run the government,' he said.

Recently Tragesser's passion to fight for small businesses has been slowed by illness. Last June he was diagnosed with cancer in his lymph system and the treatments have taken up time and energy. He said he is 'winning the battle.'

As Tragesser aims to get back on track, he is eager to continue his work at Polar Systems and he has already set his sights on improving business rights with the NFIB.

'There are a lot of issues that need to be fixed. I want to impact politics on the state and federal level. I encourage all small businesses to sign up for the NFIB and have their voice heard.'

Tragesser didn't become Oregon's small business champion of the year by shying away from challenges. If he had, the interview with IBM may never have happened.