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Three decades of wins and losses for Oregon business

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0111_0881Story by Ben Jacklet

A lot has changed in Oregon business over the past 30 years. And it isn’t just the bushy moustaches, the plaid slacks or the ads for new-fangled gizmos like the $13,385 Durango F-85 desktop computer, a futuristic machine able to “do all your accounting, maintain inventory control, perform job costing, sales analysis and much more!”

In 1981, Oregon had eight publicly traded wood products companies: Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, Willamette Industries, Pope & Talbot, Alpine, Bohemia, Dant & Russell and Medford Corp. It was a formidable group led by Georgia Pacific, a $5.4 billion business and the largest timber company in the world. Willamette and L-P also topped a billion dollars in annual sales. The state hummed with mills.

Georgia Pacific was the first to leave, departing for Atlanta in 1982. Then Alpine and Dant & Russell folded. Next, Texas millionaire Harold Simmons bought Medford Corp. in a hostile takeover. Willamette bought Bohemia in 1991, only to be bought in a hostile takeover by Weyerhaeuser, based in Washington, in 2002. Louisiana Pacific left Portland for Nashville in 2004. That left Pope & Talbot, which declared bankruptcy in 2008.


It isn’t just the timber industry that has seen seismic shifts. After Georgia Pacific left, the top six Oregon-based public companies were the utility PacifiCorp, the retailer Fred Meyer, the tech giant Tektronix, U.S. Bancorp, and L-P and Willamette. These companies employed a combined 85,000 people in 1986. Not one survives as an Oregon-based business today.
But for every company that left, another grew up and prospered here. The first issue of Oregon Business contained an interview with Phil Knight explaining the decision to take his small but promising shoe company public. Three decades later Nike is a $20 billion company, the world’s dominant player in athletics. And the little ad agency it spun off in 1982, Wieden+Kennedy, isn’t doing badly either. Those two companies now anchor two of the state’s most dynamic industries, the creative sector and the outdoor and athletics cluster.

In 1982, FLIR Systems was a struggling startup looking for investors. Wieden+Kennedy was an untested ad shop with one client. Leatherman Tool Group was an idea in the making. Tripwire, Ziba Design, New Seasons Market, Laika, HemCon, Gerding Edlen, WellPartner, Jive Software and Puppet Labs did not exist. Intel was a fairly minor employer in Oregon.

Not all of the changes have been dramatic. It is a little disconcerting to be reminded how many of Oregon’s “next big things” have been next big things for 30 years and counting, including wood pellet stoves, biomass energy and solar power. Thirty-year-old headlines like “Timber companies await recovery,” “Hope springs eternal in real estate market,” “Turning downtowns around” and “Bringing Oregon into the big leagues,” could just as well have been written last week. Chances are they will still apply 30 years from now. But history reminds us that you never know what will happen.

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