From left, Shannon Smith is VP of Human Resources, Chris Swanson is executive VP, and Steve Swanson, president and CEO. ERIN TIERNEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO
Who are the ones that seem to be able to withstand the darkest of hours? Who are the ones that leave an indelible mark on the pages of history after surviving and overcoming the unfathomable? What is it about these individuals that they are able to pull themselves, and others, up and out of the ashes to live on and fight another day? Are you personally affiliated with such individuals?
Well, here in Springfield, we have such an organization led by these types of persons. It is the Swanson Manufacturing Group at 1651 S. F St. They have re-engineered, redesigned and rebuilt a business that literally burnt down to the ground in approximately 30 minutes in 2014.
Their journey and story began in 1937. The patriarchs of the family – the grandfather and his brother – formed the Swanson Brothers and purchased a saw mill in Noti that was owned by the Georgia Pacific Railroad.
Both of these men were born in the 1880s. After surviving the Great Depression, they pooled the resources they had for this purchase. They learned about running a business as they owned a Chicken Ranch and Manure production facility. The oldest son of Grandpa Swanson delivered the only paper, The Oregonian, for revenue. He had three other boys, two went off to World War II and one was too young so he stayed home. Both sons who went off to the War returned home safely. Dean Swanson went to business school. Rod Swanson went to Oregon State University to become a Chemical Engineer.
In 1951 the brothers, along with a family friend, pooled their resources together to enter into a new business venture. With the help of their grandfather, three of the brothers, Rod, Dean, Harry and family friend Ed Combs, purchased their first Sawmill in Glendale, Ore. All of the brothers were in their 20s.
Dean served in procurement, Rod served as the mill manager and Harry was in shipping. These were the days of non-automated mill work. It was hard labor. The mill was very basic in operation and had no electronics. Though rudimentary in function it still employed 40 people. They were the first company to put into operation a true small, log mill.
Swanson Brothers merged with Superior Lumber Company to create Swanson Superior. This new venture purchased a second Sawmill in Noti. The foundation had been officially laid for the future of their family pursuits in this wood products industry.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, sawmills were very small. Most were four or five individuals. Mills were on farms as farmers wanted to remove the timber to increase available farm land for crops and other farming opportunities. Oregon itself was supplying 25% of the wood products to the nation. It was a prosperous endeavor until the Oregon Forest Practices Act of 1974, when Oregon began regulating timber harvesting on private forest land.
Now, 30% of our timber products come from Canada, and over 60% of the harvest belongs to the federal government. All of these realities permanently altered the once thriving timber industry here in this state.
Fast forward to 2014. Here in Springfield, there was a lumber mill called McKenzie Forest Products. This company had fallen into very serious financial trouble due to the recession. They were put up for sale. Steve Swanson, along with his son Chris, purchased the company renaming it their family namesake of Swanson Manufacturing Group. As an organization, this was the Swanson family’s fifth purchase of a distressed organization.
The acquisition brought hope to our City and for the employees of the old McKenzie Forest Products. The cash-starved organization had a facility that was very old and inefficient. Steve Swanson and his executive team invested $25 million into the operation to retool it and make it profitable and viable. They had achieved that goal in running two and three shifts making wood products.
Then, one morning, employees looked up only to see fire in the rafters. The employees took up their positions with the hoses to fight back. The others began the evacuation process. Falling debris from the fire incapacitated the sprinkler system and shut off water to the hoses. All anyone could do now was run to safety. The fire was so destructive that debris had blown out as far as nine miles. Supervisors were writing the names of employees on their hands to account for everyone. A different wind that day would have taken the flame of the fire over to Roseboro Wood Products and downtown Springfield. Providence provided the perfect crosswind so nothing further was lost. All employees made it out safely, though there were injuries from the flames.
In 2016 operations were relaunched. Steve Swanson and his executive team made the decision to stay right here in Springfield. They would rebuild, retool, redesign and relaunch what is now the most technologically advanced wood products operation in all of North America.
All 250 positions have been restored. From the restoration process of the fire the organization had to withstand the fallout of the pandemic. The Federal Paycheck Protection Program money and an upswing in the wood products market nationally has provided a banner year for the organization. The owners are about to provide the employees with a third bonus check for the year. Other benefits have now been restored as business has been profitable.
As a new employee of Swanson Manufacturing Group, I can tell you there is a great pride and commitment to the end product of the goods manufactured here. There is an awareness of all that has been lost and all that has been restored. There are generations of families that work here together. There are husbands and wives, parents and their children, employees with generations of family history in this industry. The employees look like America. They range in ages from 18 to over 70. There is every culture, demographic, gender, and ability all working together as one.
Thank you Swanson Manufacturing Group for choosing to stay in Springfield. Thank you for allowing our City to have a hope for the future for ourselves and our families. Your example has proven that we are all indeed, in this together.
Mark Molina is owner of Molina Leadership Solutions. Contact him at [email protected]