Article by Dan Shell
Talking with Timber Processing 2019 Person of the Year Red Emmerson and touring Sierra Pacific Industries’ new sawmill in Shelton, Wash. last year, two themes kept popping up: self-reliance and full utilization. Emmerson, age 89, SPI founder and Chairman Emeritus, has ridden the pursuit of both in support of his company’s sawmilling operations and built one of the largest family-owned lumber manufacturing companies ever.
Born roughly six months before the 1929 market crash, Emmerson took hard times and humble beginnings and transformed them into hard work and a desire to build something bigger and better. Sent hundreds of miles away to attend high school south of Spokane, Emmerson remembers he stood out as the new kid from western Oregon with the limited wardrobe and one old sweater.
It’s easy to imagine how such feelings may have lit Emmerson’s desire in a way. It’s human nature, after all, to think: I’ll show them!
Emmerson says when he was in his early teens he already knew he wanted to have his own business and not work for anyone else. (There’ve been lots of business articles written on Red during the years, and in one interview he noted that he’d earned every dollar he’d received since he was eight years old.)
And once he was given an opportunity to get into sawmilling working with his father in northern California, Emmerson’s business efforts ever since have focused on making that mill—and all the others that have followed—as efficient as possible. (And with plenty of timber to feed them.)
To hear Emmerson tell it, his career has just been a matter of following opportunity where it led in pursuit of business growth through self-reliance, manufacturing efficiencies and results that are borne out in the marketplace. “It seemed like the bigger we got the bigger the challenges were, but the bigger challenges don’t bother me any more than the little challenges bother me,” he says.
Such quiet leadership, combined with boundless enthusiasm and personal integrity, is a big reason why a banker would give Red more than three times what his company was worth to buy 500,000 acres of northern California timberland in 1987.
The deal was Emmerson’s biggest to date, and it’s one that’s kept on giving: The land, bought from Santa Fe/Southern Pacific Railroad, has doubled in value, fed SPI mills for 30+ years and still has more timber inventory on it than when Emmerson purchased it. “I still believe in buying land,” he says.
Asked about the critical aspects of running a sawmill, Emmerson says a mill is no stronger than its weakest link, and it’s a constant effort to maintain processes and efficiency. “Everything has to be right, but you know it’s never a perfect situation,” he says with a smile. “You can ruin lumber sawing it, drying it, planing it, lots of ways.”
Emmerson’s influence extends well beyond the mill floor, and his leadership moves are legendary: buying the company back after briefly taking it public in the early ‘70s, embarking on the land acquisition program to feed SPI’s growing mill lineup, helping lead SPI to its expansion into Washington during the past 20 years, making it the largest lumber producer in that state.
Not bad for a kid from western Oregon whom folks said liked to work with his hands and he was really good with numbers. Timber Processing is proud to name Red Emmerson its 2019 Person of the Year.