When you grow trees for a living, you tend to make plans for the long term.
That’s the way they do things at Starker Forests, the Philomath timber company founded by Oregon Agricultural College forestry professor T.J. Starker in 1936 with 110 acres of second-growth trees in the Coast Range.
T.J. Starker’s strategy of buying cut-over ground and nurturing trees to maturity has paid off, resulting in a company with 20 full-time employees, 87,000 acres of standing timber in Benton, Lincoln, Lane, Linn and Polk counties, and annual sales of around $15 million. So has his vision of grooming younger family members to take an active role in the business, with a fourth generation of Starkers now involved in the company.
But sometimes life gets in the way, as it did in 1975, when T.J.’s son, Bruce Starker, died unexpectedly in a small-plane crash, thrusting his own sons, Bond and Barte Starker, into management positions years earlier than expected. It happened again last year, when health issues forced Barte Starker, the younger brother, to retire prematurely.
Now 69, Bond Starker is preparing to step down as president and CEO, even though the next generation isn’t quite ready to move into the executive suite.
“We figured (Barte) would be the bridge,” Bond Starker said in an interview last week.
Instead, the company is launching a search for a new chief executive who can lead the firm into the immediate future. Both brothers have two grown children apiece, but one of them is not involved in the family business. The other three all serve on the Starker Forests board but still have young children at home and are not prepared to take on more responsibility just yet.
“As we know, accidents can happen,” Bond Starker said. “We wanted to make sure we had a planned transition as opposed to an unplanned transition.”
Starker plans to retire after the April 22 board meeting, about a week before his 70th birthday.
“Our goal is to have somebody identified (for the CEO position) by mid-March and have them start sometime between then and mid-April,” he said.
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After that, he’s looking forward to a celebratory family trip to Hawaii and hopes to have more time to devote to his favorite hobby, photography. Also on his retirement bucket list: a boat tour of Crater Lake and an overnight stay at the park lodge.
Even with the new CEO in place, however, Starker will stay on as chairman of the board and will continue to come into the office on a regular basis, though with scaled-back duties.
“Hopefully I can do more of what I like to do and less of what I don’t like to do, businesswise,” he said.
That means he’ll get to spend more time away from the office, checking on the family’s scattered timber plantations stocked with Douglas and grand fir, cedar and hemlock, with a smattering of pine and spruce.
“It’s really good to see those trees you remember when you planted, and now they’re 12 inches or bigger in (diameter),” he said.
As a company that has always believed in long growing rotations to maximize the value of its timber, Starker Forests is only now reaching what it considers a sustainable harvest level of about 44 million board feet a year.
“We’ve cut some of the trees Mom and Dad planted back in 1949 or 1950,” Starker said. “But we haven’t cut all of them yet.”
As for the trees he and his brother planted when they were just starting out with the family firm in the 1960s and 1970s, it will be up to their kids to cut them — when the time is right.
“That was kind of the plan from the beginning, I guess,” Starker said. “We wanted to make sure there was something for the next generation to harvest.”