47 minutes | Mar 2nd 2020

S01E08 One Hundred Fifty Years of Stewardship and Luck With René Ancinas

Stewardship is a big part of it, but so is luck. In today’s episode, we sit down with Rene Ancinas, president, CEO, and fourth-generation family member of Port Blakely, about how the company’s vision to leave the world better than how they found it, plus a few fortunate circumstances, have kept them going for over 150 years.  Episode transcript: Hi, I'm Kathleen Farris, and this is Very Different Roles, a podcast featuring conversations with family-owned business members, leaders, and advisors. Today we'll be talking with René Ancinas, Chief Executive Officer, fourth generation of Port Blakely. René, welcome to the show!   René Ancinas   Thanks for having me.   Kathleen Farris   You're welcome. We're glad that you took time out. We know you've got to be really busy up there with all those trees. So, we'll start today, René, to talk about, really, Port Blakely's success and the longevity that's allowed your family business to really continue, and of thriving in carrying your family values, your wealth, forward over the last 150 years. So if you can talk a little bit about your history and your family business and what you do for them.   René Ancinas   Sure, I'd be happy to do that. So, Port Blakely is actually a little over 150 years. It was founded in 1864 in the Puget Sound in Seattle. And it was not founded by an Eddy family member; it was actually founded by a gentleman named William Renton, who was kind of an icon in early pioneering history in Seattle. He had been a merchant marine; he had been an orphan, and like a lot of people at that time, he came west with that pioneering spirit and wanted to start something.   René Ancinas   He actually started in the milling business. He started a couple of different ventures which were not successful. One, he had started the company in a bad location with lots of high winds and notoriously bad Seattle weather.   Kathleen Farris   Probably hard for trees.   René Ancinas   Yeah, exactly. And then he... No, he was only in the mill business.   Kathleen Farris   Oh, got it, okay.   René Ancinas   This was before what we know today as sustainable forestry, which is a whole different world.   Kathleen Farris   Okay.   René Ancinas   Then he tried it again, and there was actually a boiler explosion and he lost his eye, and so he had this great eyepatch for the rest of his life. He went to the Bay Area to recover, and then he came back a third time and he found this great harbor on Bainbridge Island, which was sheltered and deep, and that's when the company really started and he really got going. So early on it was shipbuilding; it was the largest mill west of the Mississippi, one of the first to have electricity. And the family lore and the company lore is that it burned down at least two times. That was kind of the nature of it.   René Ancinas   But our family company came across from... They started in Bangor, Maine in the 18th century. They had been in the lumber business, like a lot of other families. They had gone, like a lot of business family members for a lot of different companies... Weyerhaeuser and everybody else... They migrated to the Midwest. Our family went to Michigan; we had operations there for the second generation, and different kinds of things. There was lumber milling, but the family member there was also in banking and dry goods. And then the next generation came west, like a lot of other folks, and they bought the company in 1903.   René Ancinas   Our family bought the company from the founders' estate in 1903, and at that point it was a mill, and over a period of time, Renton had also stockpiled some of his savings into forests. So back in the early days of big tree harvesting... A lot of people will have seen those famous pictures of the giant trees and... steam engines and people standing on these giant saws and all that kind of stuff. At that time, it was easiest to harvest closer to the water in Puget Sound and they would float and raft these logs around, which is why the mill worked on an island. But he was smart: he started buying forest land inland from there, figuring that at some point that was going to be valuable.   René Ancinas   And some of that forest land formed the beginnings of... When my family came on board, they made a good stab at the mill company. They got into shipbuilding during the first World War, but the forests were always in the background. And roundabout 1930 or so was when the family really focused on forestry and sustainable forestry, and that's the legacy that our family now... So we're fifth generation as of 1903, but if you count back to Maine it's probably a couple more.   Kathleen Farris   Wow. Okay, so-   René Ancinas   Yeah. It's a really interesting history, obviously. I could talk about it for a long time. And when you're part of western pioneering culture like we are, there's a lot of salty and interesting characters back there.   Kathleen Farris   I love the stories and the innovation piece, though, going all the way back to the 1800s. I'm curious to hear your perspective on, when they decided to innovate... Maybe they didn't know that they were innovators back then. You know, like when electricity was created, right? What is your perspective on that? Have you been told stories about, how did they get to the point? Was it a bunch of people around a table? Were they out on the mill? I'm just curious to hear your perspective of how it continued to carry forward, especially way back when.   René Ancinas   You know, that's a really good question, because modern management theory is just that: it's modern. There wasn't a lot of these things that you could go and read about how to solve these problems back in 1880 or whatever, and it was really kind of a scrappy perseverance entrepreneurship, and just... a fair bit of luck, I imagine.   René Ancinas   But I think at the time, they were dealing with the transcontinental railroad, and they realized that they had a mill on an island, and now the mill's going to be on the mainland, and so they tried to figure out how to raft lumber off to be closer to the railroad. The electricity was another thing. I don't know all the origins of that, but I think the mindset of people who were trying to build businesses in the wild west at the time had to have been very, very creative.   René Ancinas   And that DNA is definitely still part of the company, even though... I mean, there's a similar DNA that, over a couple of generations, you pick up roots and you move west each time for new business opportunities. It takes a certain mindset, and I think that our family members had a similar one, because when they got out here and they realized that they mill probably wasn't the best business, they pivoted pretty quickly into shipbuilding and partnering with other family members.   René Ancinas   And then after the first World War, when that really declined they had to pivot again, and then, with my great-grandfather, they spent quite a bit of time looking into forest genetics, and he ended up founding the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville to really study long term bug resistance, fire resistance, genetics, to figure out ways that forestry... to be sustainable. But it was really... Like I said, it took a certain mindset to pivot that many times.   Kathleen Farris   Yeah, and to really, the perseverance piece, I think, is fascinating, especially going back then again to the modern management time. How did they come together and keep the company going, the family business going forward and looking at everything that they needed to think about. Who would have thought they were thinking about, back then, what's going to impact the tree, because if there is something that impacts it of course it's not going to grow, right?   René Ancinas   Right.   Kathleen Farris   And then it dies off, like other businesses do. So yeah, I love the stories, which is a great part of having people like you come on our show, so our families can hear about, you know, how did you continue to innovate? And what I love, too, is what you were talking about the communication piece, because a lot of our families, that's a huge issue. And for some it's a positive, right? They're, "This is an opportunity for improvement!" And others are like, "Oh, no. Uncle this and that." So what I love about your company's vision is... and I read this... that it's to cultivate a healthy world, to leave things better than you found them, including your family. So I'd love to hear your perspective: where did that come from, and how do you continue to carry that forward as the CEO?   René Ancinas   Yeah. Well, it's a really interesting one, because I think what we learned after 150 years is that each generation has to drive its own vision within that context. If I think about those stories I just told, I'm fairly certain, although I... I would bet that they weren't talking about long term vision so much as, "How do we survive the Great Depression?" Or, "How do I survive the fact the mill just burned down a second time?"   Kathleen Farris   "How do I feed my family?"   René Ancinas   "How do I feed my family and take care of all these people that I've got employed?"   Kathleen Farris   Right.   René Ancinas   And so, some of those aren't a lot different, but in a lot of ways, we are in a very different world than we were then, and forestry in particular has gone through major revolutions and innovation and different mindsets in terms of its role in society. I mean, it used to be really, really frowned upon as the dark beasts of industrial extraction.   Kathleen Farris   Interesting.   René Ancinas   We all know about the timb
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