August 27, 2010
His ‘Second’ Best Decision: David Brown ’80 put his financial savvy to work
This is the second in a weekly series of stories profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
It’s hard to believe that someone with so much success names a failure as their proudest professional accomplishment, but that’s just how David Brown, senior principal and co-founder of Portland-based Obsidian Finance Group, LLC, answers the interview question.
The Class of 1980 alumnus recalls his company’s unsuccessful effort to acquire Washington-based paper mill Longview Fiber, with plans to transform it into a combination biorefinery and mill that would produce bioethanol and biodiesel, as well as pulp and paper.
“While unsuccessful, it was a very interesting and significant project for us,” Brown notes. “I’m glad we did it and glad with what we accomplished in the process, even though, ultimately, we were not the highest bidder.”
Before starting Obsidian in April 2003, with co-founder Kevin Padrick, Brown practiced law for nearly 22 years with Miller Nash LLP. His practice focused on a wide array of business, tax, and finance law, including both successful and distressed companies. One of his larger clients was Willamette Industries, Inc., a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Oregon that manufactured and sold paper, boxes, building products, and other forest products throughout the world. When Weyerhaeuser acquired Willamette Industries, and several other large bankruptcy estate clients wound down, Brown saw an opportunity to go down another avenue.
“I needed to pursue new practice opportunities and expand my practice,” he says.
Brown spoke with one of his former law partners who, as he says, “had gone to the dark side,” and was encouraged to pursue non-law opportunities. While he knew he was taking a huge risk by leaving a successful two-decades long career, Brown says it has been incredibly enjoyable watching Obsidian grow and prosper.
“I loved practicing law,” says Brown. “But starting Obsidian was probably the best, wait, second best decision I ever made (I’m sure my wife is going to read this).”
His decision, regardless of where it falls on the best-worst scale, certainly has served Brown well throughout the past seven years. As senior principal at Obsidian, Brown has served as president of companies in liquidation in Europe and South America; managed lawsuits on behalf of bankruptcy estates in a dozen countries and 20 states; and provided financial advice to a range of clients from paper companies to investors in distressed home mortgages.
Additionally, Obsidian recently launched Obsidian Renewables, LLC, a company focused on renewable energy that seeks to develop large-scale ground mounted photovoltaic solar energy projects in south-central Oregon.
“We have had renewable energy as one of our key focuses ever since Obsidian was formed,” notes Brown. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, however, financing for renewable fuel projects seemed to disappear overnight. “With the 2008 financial crisis eliminating private capital for renewable fuel projects, we refocused our efforts to solar where there were still a lot of financial resources and incentives available.”
Brown has found his law degree and education to be invaluable as Obsidian continues to grow and expand.
Brown always planned on going to business school, and, after moving to Eugene from the MIdwest in 1975 to finish his bachelor’s degree in marketing at the University of Oregon, he applied to both the UO’s business school and law school.
“I had the idea — in 1977 — that a law degree could be very useful in the type of business that interested me at the time, which was forest products,” Brown explains.
He was admitted to both graduate schools and ultimately chose law school.
“Eugene is a wonderful college town. UO is a great place to be a student. It was an easy choice to stay.”
Brown thoroughly enjoyed his law school experience, even the classes, as he notes particularly liking Frank Lacy’s Civil Procedure course and Tax with Milton “Death” Ray. Brown goes on to boast that Obsidian has hired a number of lawyers ’— eight out of its 18 employees, four of which are Oregon Law graduates.
In his precious free time Brown likes to travel and explore new places. He’s visited every state except Alaska and every continent except Antarctica. When asked where his favorite place is, he laughs a little and responds, “Oregon — and Paris.”