Death by a thousand cuts

Pacific Northwest corporate history began with timber, and with the demise of Weyerhaeuser it's a fast-fading cultural heritage.

Friedrich Weyerhaeuser. (HistoryLink.org)

Friedrich Weyerhaeuser. (HistoryLink.org) None

Loggers in Grays Harbor County, Wash., date unknown. (University of Washington)

Loggers in Grays Harbor County, Wash., date unknown. (University of Washington) None

"Weyerhaeuser cuts take a painful toll," screamed the banner headline this week in The Seattle Times. That splash was accompanied by a large photo of a now-former employee of what used to be a forest products giant loading boxes of personal items into his car after receiving his pink slip.

While nothing can compare to the pain of getting fired from a job — in my years as an executive search consultant, I called it the "Royal Order of the Boot" — there is yet pain in watching the company's current machinations. Like the fellow in the photograph, one of 1,500 in this current go around, I'm also a member of the Weyerhaeuser chapter of the Royal Order.

In 1981, I was called into my boss's office at the company's massive Longview, Wash., manufacturing complex for a little talking-to. It was about my attitude and all the trouble I seemed to keep causing with the unions representing company employees.

"Kid, you're nice, but not here," my boss said. "Frankly, you scare the hell out of us." Harshly put, perhaps, but the labor relations office where I worked wasn't known for compassion. Nor, in my then relative youth, did I particularly care, which was my bad, not the company's. It was then I realized that I wasn't cut out to be a corporate guy.

Since then, it's been onward and upward — well, sideways at least. But that's another story.

This story, and it's a sad one, is about watching one more giant figure of the Pacific Northwest shrink into a shadow of its former self.

Decades before there was a Microsoft or a Starbucks, Boeing and Weyerhaeuser represented the business of Seattle and Washington. When Boeing beat feet to Chicago a few years ago, the big "W" was left as perhaps the only game in metro Puget Sound with deep and multi-generational roots — not just fathers and sons, but grand and great grandfathers who had handed jobs down from one to the other.

Founded in 1900 by German immigrant Friedrich Weyerhaeuser, the company grew from holdings of nearly a million acres of Washington Douglas fir timberlands to become an international player in solid wood production, the pulp and paper industry, real estate, rail and freighter transportation (two company vessels were torpedoed and sunk during World War II), and a myriad of industries.

Nothing beats the romance of the woods, and Weyerhaeuser was a huge part of that. Grainy photos of loggers with two-man crosscut saws standing next to old growth timber can be seen in every museum in town. The colorful and descriptive nomenclature of logging resonates with unique symbolism: Bull of the woods, choker setter, whistlepunk, and a term first coined in Seattle, but soon to be part of the national vocabulary, Skid Row or Skid Road.

Somehow, "techie" or "barista" lack the same cultural or emotional impact. And I suspect that neither wear black woolen long johns that go days or even weeks without a wash.

Trees growing on the land and the products made from them are, as much as anything can be, what the Bible calls in Psalm 24 "the fullness of the earth." For more than 100 years out of that fullness, Weyerhaeuser and kindred forest products companies literally built scores of communities, paid for schools from the proceeds of logging on state-owned land, and created thousands of good paying jobs. They left an indelible cultural stamp on the Pacific Northwest, affecting even those who don't know the difference between a couch (pronounced "cooch") from a dandy on a papermachine, or what it means to work the hoot-owl shift.

Only in a company like Weyerhaeuser could you see executives in $1,000 suits all sitting around a conference table spitting snoose into Styrofoam cups. Old habits born in the woods don't die hard — they don't die at all.

Over the years, Weyerhaeuser was in the fish-farming and grass-seed businesses, manufactured private label baby diapers and adult incontinent products, and became a major national player in real estate, home construction, and residential mortgages. Of these, only its interests in Puget Sound-area residential developer Quadrant remain.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

I'd like to see some analysis: This piece was full of emotional content, nostalgia, and even a little (interesting) history. But I was dissatisfied reading it.

...So here's this giant company selling off assets like there's no tomorrow. The headquarters is a stripped-down ghost town. All the company owns any more is a few scraggly trees. But why why why?

I think Mr. St. Clair has done us a disservice. The picture he paints is of a robust corporate giant that suddenly puts itself on a crash starvation diet. What are the economic reasons? Were they losing in the marketplace? Was International Paper beating the pants off them? There is no mention anywhere in the article of any kind of economic pressure forcing their downsizing moves. Perhaps this article was intended only as an atmosphere piece, but really, I'd like to see some analysis.
Eric

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Old economy companies: "Nothing beats the romance of the woods, and Weyerhaeuser was a huge part of that."

Indeed, Piper, Weyerhaeuser did beat the romance out of the woods. There's certainly nothing romantic about a hill full of stumps.

Frankly, it's hard to feel much respect for old economy companies like Weyerhaeuser. Their business model basically goes as follows: grab as much of the earth's resources as quickly as you can and sell them back to the people. Gee, how innovative and clever.

I have much more respect for the newer companies in the region like Boeing and Microsoft, who actually build novel products that require some brain power and ingenuity. Weyerhaeuser could have been started by any slobbering brute with a toddler's grabby mindset and boat loads of cash.
Sean

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: However you may feel about "old-economy companies," how do you think places like Seattle were built in the first place? No Weyerhaeuser --> no Boeing --> no Microsoft. Or, more simply, no old economy --> no new economy.

I also think you severely underestimate the abilities needed to run a successful company in any economy. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and the like weren't exactly slobbering brutes, as you put it. "Grab as much of the earth's resources as quickly as you can and sell them back to the people" misses a few crucial middle steps. Without modern industry we'd all be living in villages.

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Sean get off your high horse. Trees have been replanted since at least the early 1940's. Every one of those "hill full of stumps" is replanted. You can argue the enviromental part of what kind of trees are replanted, etc. but don't stick to the lies told during the early 1990's spotted owl debacle when enviro's completely misrepresented that part of the argument to their East Coast friends.

Logging takes brains just like any profession. Maybe not to the level of Boeing or Microsoft but you have to know what you are doing. And running a business, any business, takes intelligence and understanding of your product, the consumers and market in general.
Oneguy

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Replanted as farms, not as forests.

If that's what you want, perhaps you're the whacko.
mhays

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Weyerhaeuser has been a very good steward of the land. Sure it would be a wonderful utopia if everybody in the Northwest lived in gleaming skyscrapers slurping lattes while endless virgin forests stretched beyond the horizon. Actually, it would suck, but don't let that get in the way of utopia. Weyerhaeuser pioneered replanting strategies to bring forests back. Maybe they're not "natural" forests by your definition, but there are trees growing there when in generations past the land was left barren (like Britain was). Commercial logging has made housing affordable to all Americans. And those wood houses and the new generations of trees they spawn sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so even Al Gore should be happy. Sure beats utopia.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Yes, new economies do evolve from the old. Things would certainly be different if Standard Oil, Weyerhaeuser, the coal mines of West Virgina, and the slave-driven plantations of the south never existed.

But that doesn't mean I'm obligated to celebrate these institutions (as seems to be the point of this article) or mourn them when they finally die off.

Whatever the implementation details, "grab as much as you can and sell it for as much as possible" is the essence of Weyerhaeuser's business model. Not much creativity there. As for the implementation details of buying land, cutting down trees, sawing them into lumber, and loading them on boats and trains, that's not exactly complicated stuff. Personally I'm more impressed with the rocket scientists at Boeing.

P.S. Carnegie and Rockerfeller may not have been slobberers, but I think "brute", as in brutal and savage, is a fitting characterization.
Sean

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Speaking of Boeing, do you think aluminum grows on trees? (I guess even if it did you'd object to their harvesting it.) The point is, our economy has many interdependencies. You may think your life is somehow post-industrial but in order to read this you are relying on a whole host of materials that somebody had to first dig up out of the ground...

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 5:01 p.m. Inappropriate

It's part of our story: While I have no nostalgia for Weyerhaeuser per se, I can appreciate the overall point that what it represents is a big part of our past and identity. The history of the West is full of contradictions that include that fact that we romanticize stuff that was injurious to our environmental health, from cowboys to goldrushers to loggers. My grandfather invented equipment that made it easier for companies like Weyerhaeuser to strip the steep hillsides. My father worked in logging camps out near Neah Bay in the 1930s and told stories that were both wild and sobering, just as the tales by people like Mark Twain or Jack London often were. Environmental devastation wasn't the only legacy: it is about human strength and weakness, bravery and brutality, our foibles and achievements and the sometime butchering of nature to make a place for ourselves. We all contain the contradictions and live them, but it's part of our story.

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 9:46 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Mhays work on that who reading comprehension thing and then read my post again. I plainly stated that they type of trees planted and whether that was good is bad was up for debate. The fact that Weyerhauser and like businesses were as intelligent as Microsoft/Boeing, etc for the most part is not.

To bad your only argument is name calling. Might try adding something to the conversation next time. Just a thought.
Oneguy

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 9:47 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: ....and maybe I will work on my spelling ability.

Oneguy

Posted Sat, Aug 9, 9:20 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old economy companies: Maybe I'm seeing things. I thought your post had called environmentalists whackos. If it never did, I apologize. If it did and got changed, then I'll stay with what I said.

mhays

Posted Tue, Aug 12, 7:12 a.m. Inappropriate

I want to know more...: Interesting topic...
I ever see this type of topics...
I really wonder how it is happened..?
I want to know more about this story...
Nice view...

Thanks for providing new info,

===============
AleX

Washington Treatment Centers
alex45

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 8:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Calendars?: Can anyone tell me where some of Weyerhaeuser's old propaganda calendars might be found? As a kid in Everett I remember seeing them everywhere - they must have been given away by the boatloads.

They were classics. Each month outdid the last with some sort of bucolic scene from the high-yield forest. Standard fare would be something like a mother bear carefully watching from a stump while her too-cute-for-words cubs played below her, while in the background forested ridge after forested ridge receded into the distance, with the requisite one or two tiny little clearcuts just barely discernable amid the endless sea of forest.

The reality, of course, was mile after mile of stumps, and the bears would have been shot on sight. But I'd still love to see some of those calendars again, although I do not know where any might be found. Who saves old calendars?

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 11:50 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Calendars?: UW Libraries Digital Collections' Pamphlet and Textual Ephemera Collection?

Posted Sun, Sep 19, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

back in the mid 80's Weyco was backing federal legislation that was intended to give large landowners (farmers) significant tax breaks because their land was not in production or producing income during certain periods. one part of the legislation required i believe, that 65% of the corp's income had to be generated by the land holdings. also during this time, Weyco had an eye on Willamette for dual purposes, their production capabilities & their sound retirement portfolio. Word was that Weyco's retirement program was not as sound as everyone (employee's) had been lead to believe. the Willamette & Mac assets under the Weyco umbrella would make them more desireable to whoever came along to buy them out. one point that is not covered is that prior to the massive sale off to IP, Weyco would shutter some plants & sale them whole to an interested party that after the plant was dismantled would ship/barge the components to China where the plant would be reassembled & put back into production. it's unfortunate that the Willamette mills now sit idle. it was a proud & productive Oregon company that was undermined by Weyco's & it's shareholders greed.

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