LEADING BY EXAMPLE

“…and that’s what it’s all about, no matter what you do with your life, learning how to build trust – and good teams are very important. A lot of people helped me get to where I am today. My responsibility is to pass my good fortune along to others in my work and personal lives.”

Mike Henley, Mill Manager
Idaho Forest Group
Chilco and Laclede Idaho

Talking with Mike Henley is like drinking from a fully charged fire hose.

Henley, 47, manages the Idaho Forest Group’s mills at Chilco and Laclede. He talks a blue streak, and probably covers 20 miles a day on foot, all of it between his office, the Chilco log yard and every nook and cranny on the sawmill site eight miles north of Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. Nothing escapes his watchful gaze – including a scrap of paper that he picked up as we walked [briskly] toward the log yard.

IFG’s board chairman, Marc Brinkmeyer, hired Henley – fresh out of Sandpoint High School – in 1988, 30 years before IFG was formed through the 2008 merger of Riley Creek Lumber and Bennett Forest Industries. Brinkmeyer, a former Arthur Anderson auditor and chief financial officer for Oregon-based Brand-S Lumber Company, had purchased Riley Creek in 1982

Henley started at the bottom, on a cleanup crew at Laclede, a fact that explains his penchant for picking up waste paper wherever he finds it. On the day in question, he stuffed it in his pants pocket, and there it stayed until we walked past a trash bin. Neither of us said anything, but I knew in an instant that he cares very much about the reputation of the company that hired him 28 years ago.

“IFG has owners,” he would later say in an oblique reference to his awareness of the fact that corporations are faceless. “But IFG is really its people, and there are more than 800 of us who are the image and likeness of this company, which is by far the largest lumber manufacturer in the state of Idaho.”

It is indeed. In fact, IFG, which owns mills at Grangeville, Lewiston and Moyie Springs, plus the Chilco and Laclede mills that Henley oversees, is now the ninth largest lumber manufacturer in North America – still small when compared to Weyerhaeuser, Canfor or Sierra Pacific, but not bad for a company that did not exist a decade ago. Its size is perhaps best understood in log truck measure. Five of 10 loaded log trucks seen on Idaho highways is headed for an IFG mill.

“We average about 150 loads a day here at Chilco,” Henley replies when I ask about the 20 or so loaded trucks lined up in the log yard. “But right now, we’re getting 240 loads. The trucks start lining up at about 3 a.m. We strive for a 20 minute turn around because we know time is money to our drivers. They don’t make any money sitting here waiting for us to unload them.”

Henley’s awareness of the time cost of money came swiftly and without warning when the housing market crashed in 2008. There being no market for its products, the Laclede mill was shut down for a year. Henley was transferred to Chilco. He took 40 of his best people with him.

“You could use all sorts of adjectives to describe it: hard, painful, difficult, challenging. It was that and more,” he recalls. “I couldn’t take everyone, so many of our Laclede families lost their jobs. Those of us who went to Chilco took pay or benefit cuts, but we pulled together and we learned how to be the low cost manufacturer.”

“And how did you do that?” I ask.

“By digging,” Henley quickly replies. “We learned what things actually cost, how to buy better, how to work more efficiently, how to exploit technology and how to leverage our assets. It’s a process few mill people ever get to experience, but we did and we are better for it.”

The result is a special bond that joins Henley with his leadership team – men and women he has known and worked beside for 28 years. If there is anything that binds them other than their shared experience with hardship, it is Henley’s belief that he should never ask an employee to do a job he has not done himself – and he never has, but it took him a long time to slow his own torrid pace, so he could learn how to manage people.

“Mutual respect is the key,” he explains. “You learn how to gauge people, how to treat them, and that comes only with time and experience. Not everyone has the same ambitions. When I joined the cleanup crew in Laclede, I knew I wanted to move up the ladder as quickly as I could, so I always raised my hand whenever something new showed up on the job board. But not everyone is like that. Not everyone wants to learn how to do every job here. I did.”

These days, Henley divides his time between product-related strategic planning and customer relations. IFG sells much of its lumber to Home Depot and Lowes, the so-called “big box” stores that sell most of the nation’s retail lumber. The Chilco mill manufacturers dimension lumber, everything from two by four’s to two by twelves.

“It’s the stuff you cover with sheet rock,” Henley explains. “But at Laclede we make high quality appearance grade lumber, including a fair amount of cedar. We buy every species that grows in Idaho, so in a sense, we’re providing a service – and certainly a market – for landowners that grow trees for a living. And being a low cost producer means we can pay them more for their logs than we otherwise could.”

The race to be Idaho’s low cost lumber manufacturer is mind-bending and costs millions of dollars. Henley explains that while IFG’s mills all deploy state-of-the-art processing systems, today’s best of breed technologies will be outdated in two years.

“Our upgrading goes on constantly,” Henley says. “We process lumber 16 hours a day five days a week. Our systems are sophisticated and sensitive. Preventive maintenance is constant, and we’re always replacing processing systems with new systems that increase speed, efficiency or log recovery. Our only limiting factor is processing speed, which doubles every two or three years, just like is does in your laptop computer.”

One eye-opening result of operating such complex technologies, is that while the Chilco mill runs 24-7, five days a week, it only mills logs 16 hours a day. The other eight hours are set aside for maintenance – the recalibrating of systems whose performance is measured in milliseconds and thousandths of an inch. But not every task is controlled by microprocessors. In fact, one of the most important jobs in IFG’s mills is still done by hand.

“Our band saws, which cut every log that passes through our mill, are still filed by hand,” Henley explains. “It – and emptying waste baskets and cleaning toilets – are the only jobs left here that are done by hand, and I mean no disrespect to saw filers or janitors. The fact is that some jobs can’t be done by computers. It takes years to learn how to file band saws.”

Chilco’s saw filers work in a quiet, well-lit room a floor above the ear-piercing scream of the 20-foot continuous loop band saws they file on benches laid out in a way that allows them to hand file saw teeth one at a time. Each filer is assigned his own inventory of band saws, and saw blades are generally changed every four hours, so Chilco’s two band mills go through eight blades in a 16-hour day. No wonder saw filers are among the highest paid people in a saw mill.

When Henley tours customers through the Chilco and Laclede mills, he makes sure they see the saw filers at work. In a world increasingly controlled by computers, it’s comforting to know that that one of the most important jobs in a saw mill is still done by artisans who practice their craft the same way they did it a century ago.

“It’s all part of the wow factor that goes with marrying art and technology,” Henley explains. “We want our customers to know that we cut no corners and spare no expense in our effort to produce high quality lumber products at very competitive prices.”

If Henley sounds a bit like a television commercial, it is intentional. He is a company man in the best sense of the word. There isn’t a pretentious bone in his whole body.

“I’m from Sandpoint, Idaho,’ he explains. “Pretty much all of us learned how to work, and we appreciate the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than each of us, bigger even than IFG’s owners. “

Bigness has translated itself into a kind of gratefulness that is shared by those who own IFG and those who work for it. It is evidenced by the publicity-shy company’s quiet commitment to education and its more visible support for numerous community activities and events

Henley estimated that at least 40 Chilco employees worked the Kootenai County this year. Another 30 from Laclede worked the Bonner County Fair. IFG employees also volunteer their time on school boards, and are members of most every civic group in northern Idaho, including Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions and chambers of commerce.

Henley and his wife, Jennifer, live in Coeur d’Alene. They have four children: Parker, 13 and Sawyer, 8, at home, and two grown daughters, Vanessa, 25, and Heather, 23, both in Sandpoint. Although his day usually begins before daylight, Henley still finds time to coach baseball, soccer, basketball and football. “I love it,” he says with a smile. “You’d be amazed what you can learn about team building from kids…and that’s what it’s all about, no matter what you do with your life, learning how to build trust and good teams are very important. A lot of people helped me get to where I am today. My responsibility is to pass my good fortune along to others in my work and personal lives.”

  • Jim Petersen, the Evergreen Foundation