Columbia Vista: Lessons from a turn-around

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A thriving sawmill on the Columbia River offers insight into the importance of land, labor and capital for one company — or even a region — to turn itself around.

Though healthy today, Vancouver-based Columbia Vista Corp. suffered an economic crisis of its own in the mid-1990s, when Japan’s real estate and stock bubble burst. Buyers from that country had been Columbia Vista’s primary customers, making frequent payments that allowed the sawmill to keep the lights on, the logs coming in and the paychecks going out. Now its primary source of capital was gone.

Just as, a decade later, Clark County’s over-reliance on one industry for job growth — housing — would exacerbate the worst local recession in more than a generation, Columbia Vista’s over-reliance on one line of business left it teetering on the verge of ruin.

Firmly rooted in the natural resources economy of Clark County’s past, the company looked unblinkingly toward the future. To turn his business around, Bob Lewis, the company’s president, wanted to diversify into new product lines, build better relationships with suppliers, and invest in training and education for his employees. To fund the plan, the company would need a loan.

Were it faced with similar challenges today, an era of caution and conservatism in the banking sector, it’s unclear whether the Columbia Vista would be able to find the capital it needed. But in the mid-1990s, Lewis was able to convince a key investor — what he describes as “a golden angel” — that his business was worth the risk.

With the capital it needed, Columbia Vista successfully turned itself around. Revenues at Clark County’s last remaining sawmill climbed from $29 million in 1997 to $44 million in 2009. Staffing today has reached 108 workers — up 16 workers since September.

photoIn the weeks and months ahead, The Columbian will review the obstacles slowing Clark County's recovery, and will examine how well local leaders are working together to overcome these hurdles. The first installment of our "Getting to Growth" series kicks off the search for a path to recovery, in part, by showing how one company came back from the brink. Columbia Vista's example also sheds light on the broader challenges the county faces as it struggles to effectively position its land, labor and capital.

Though capital funded the turnaround, Lewis also depended on a trained and able labor force to execute his plan. Lewis’ basic philosophy is that a company is only as good as the people who work for it. By spending dollars to help workers build their skills and knowledge, the company sees multiple long-term benefits, including more loyalty from employees and less staff turnover which bolsters the bottom line.

The land beneath Columbia Vista’s main plant is also central to its continued success — a seemingly obvious fact, but one that the company has had to fight to protect from county zoning changes that might have forced it to shut its doors. The company’s collection of manufacturing and office buildings, where the sounds of saw blades and fired-up big rigs fill the air, depend on the “industrial” designation in county land-use codes. With ever more land plowed into housing instead of businesses over the past two decades, companies such as Columbia Vista have fewer options when they want to set up shop.

Despite the challenges that Clark County’s economy faces, Lewis, a soft-spoken 60-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee, looks to the future with optimism drawn from Columbia Vista’s successful turnaround.

“Anybody can do the things we did,” said Lewis, recalling how his company breathed new life into itself after nearly dying in the mid-1990s. “You just have to want to do them.”