Stoltze’s Century of Innovation

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Paul McKenzie stood near a doorway at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company’s sawmill and offered an observation.

“It doesn’t look like much from the outside,” McKenzie said, “but inside it’s really state of the art.”

For an outsider, a tour through Stoltze’s sawmill is revealing if not surprising. Computer monitors display detailed 3-D images as part of an “optimization” strategy that ensures each log is efficiently utilized. Dozens of miles of wires form lifelines between pieces of heavy industrial equipment. Red lights blink and cameras take in the whole scene.

Outside the mill, McKenzie, the lumber company’s lands and resource manager, points to the site of Stoltze’s soon-to-be-built biomass cogeneration plant. And under construction elsewhere on the property is Algae AquaCulture Technology’s cutting-edge biorefinery, which seeks to use algae and wood waste in a closed-loop energy system.

In other words, Stoltze doesn’t shy away from innovation.

“Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted 100 years,” General Manager Chuck Roady said last week. “We’ve always allowed these opportunities to come along and we’ve always looked at trying new things.”

Stoltze is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, with an official celebration planned in August. The company, which was officially incorporated in 1912, has remained under family ownership for the entire century, beginning with F.H. Stoltze and continuing with his heirs today. All but two members of the current board of directors are family.

F.H. Stoltze’s granddaughters Sallie O’Brien and Carolyn Benepe, who both live in Minnesota, are proud of how the company has remained true to the family’s vision, Roady said.

“They’re very proud of allowing (Stoltze’s) lands to be open to the public,” he said.

Around 1880, F.H. Stoltze began his association with James Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad. At the time, Stoltze was a large shipper on the railroad and reportedly employed 700 people to collect buffalo bones to be used as fertilizer. Hill enlisted Stoltze to build general stores along the railroad to supply both the railroad and settlers heading West.

Stoltze’s railroad ventures brought him to the Flathead Valley where he expanded his business interests into the timber industry. Around the turn of the 20th century, Stoltze became a partner in three Flathead lumber companies: State, Enterprise and Empire.

Then on Aug. 31, 1912, he formed the F.H. Stoltze Land Company. Articles of incorporation were amended in 1933 to change the name to F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company. The mill itself began taking shape in 1918, when Stoltze transferred equipment from State Lumber to a site on modern-day Halfmoon Road west of Columbia Falls, where the mill is still located today.

The first logs were sawed at the Halfmoon mill in May of 1923. Nearly 90 years later, the saws are still buzzing, though with decidedly more technological assistance.

“Not many companies in Montana can say that they’ve been around 100 years,” Roady said. “The list is even shorter for forest products companies like ourselves. It’s just a real feat and we’re proud to be part of a family-owned operation that has been around this long.”

Roady became general manager in 2008, taking over for the retired Ron Buentemeier, who had been with the company in various capacities for more than 40 years. Roady took over at a deeply uncertain time for his industry, with a collapsing housing market and plummeting lumber prices. But, as he points out, Stoltze has endured dark storms in the past.

Stoltze Lumber’s Paul McKenzie looks out across the sawmill lumber yard on a rainy afternoon.

Stoltze lost its three other sawmills in about a decade span, beginning with the shuttering of its Dillon mill in 1990. The company then sold its Darby mill in 1993. Most recently in 2001, Stoltze was forced to shut down its aspen mill in Sigurd, Utah, after losing access to both its federal and private harvest lands.

But the original mill remains. And after enduring the recession, Roady and McKenzie see specks of light on the horizon. Lumber prices are still depressed but demand is rising. The company worked hard to avoid layoffs during the downturn, though it did shut down for six weeks in 2009. Now Stoltze is pleased to have 120 skilled employees who thoroughly understand their jobs, plus another 65-85 contractors.

Roady and McKenzie are also excited about the cogeneration plant, for which the foundation is currently being built. The plant will produce energy to heat the mill and steam for the kilns to dry lumber. Electricity from the plant will also go to the Flathead Electric Cooperative through a power-purchase agreement.

The cogeneration plant replaces the last existing structure from the original mill: an aging power station with a 156-foot smokestack rising from its roof.

“This is like walking through a museum,” McKenzie said as he passed a 1909 boiler inside the station. “When your boiler is 100 years old, it’s maybe time to be thinking about something else.”

The energy company Algae AquaCulture Technology is building a full-scale biorefinery on Stoltze’s property, based off a smaller model. If the biorefinery works on a larger scale as its creators hope, it could be a breakthrough in energy innovation. Stoltze could benefit by receiving energy and utilizing its wood waste.

“We’ve more or less given them a place to do their experimenting,” Roady said. “We hope the best for them and we’d really like to see them do well.”

Company officials pride themselves on land stewardship and in 2011 Stoltze became certified to meet the “Certified Fiber Source” standard of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The company owns nearly 40,000 acres of land.

“We believe in stewardship – you work to meet the needs of today without compromising the future,” McKenzie said.

And that’s just it. For a century, Stoltze has proven adept at working for today with an eye toward tomorrow, as multiple generations of leadership have carried on the spirit of innovation.

“Over the last 100 years, we’ve never been afraid to try new things,” McKenzie said. “It’s kind of how we’ve survived.”

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