A Cut Above

At RBM Lumber’s family-owned timber mill, the Thompson family has carved out a niche business with conservation as its core principle and slow growth as a staple

By Tristan Scott
Ben, left, and Roy Thompson, at RMB Lumber in Columbia Falls. - Greg Lindstrom

COLUMBIA FALLS — Skating his fingertips across the concentric rings of an old-growth Douglas fir, Roy Thompson traced the tree’s 200-year history in the Northern Rockies like a blind man reading braille, deciphering the conifer’s tactile timeline from its genesis to its recent autumnal demise, when his brother Ben and 81-year-old father Malcolm hand-felled the mighty giant with a chainsaw.

The brothers Thompson like to say they have sawdust and timber in their blood, a genetic makeup hardwired in their DNA, predetermining their fate as loggers. In junior high, they peddled hand-tooled leather wares and cut lawns with borrowed mowers to earn pocket money, which they used to buy a bow saw and a wagon to cut and haul firewood.

In high school, they traded 10 cords of wood for a chainsaw and, with the help of their mom, Evelyn, started their own post-cutting outfit. Since then, they’ve dedicated themselves to working with the forest to preserve wildlife and old-growth timber, imitating the forest’s natural rhythm by timing their restrained harvests to when a tree reaches the end of its normal lifespan at 150 to 200 years, while selectively harvesting other timber that is wind-blown, diseased or fire-killed.

Today, the family’s successful business dovetails with those youthful entrepreneurial endeavors and eco-friendly ethics, and their early ingenuity remains on full display in the evolving model at RBM Lumber, which stands for Roy, Ben and mom.

Still, watching Roy solemnize the slab of vertical-grain, old-growth fir with the sanctity of a Samurai sword-smith appraising a length of gleaming steel, the birthright might well have been delivered yesterday.

“Look at how tight the growth rings are. You can see when the climate changed, when there were heavy rains, when it was a dry year,” he said. “A tree is basically a history book.”

If the old fir’s life had been cut short, it would have produced far less wood, but by allowing the tree to reach the end of its lifespan, the Thompsons maximize the economic contribution to the forest and their business.

Allowing sustainable methods to prevail, the brothers say, is a win-win.

Roy and Ben Thompson track their own family history through a forested timeline bristling with trees, and with the same depth of knowledge and intimacy as they gauge the quality of the old-growth fir, they’re careful to count every ring.

After more than 40 years running a family-owned timber mill, scabbed together with grit and a flair for healthy forests, the concentric lines binding the Thompson clan are even tighter than those aging the tree.

Tools of the trade at RBM lumber. – Greg Lindstrom

“We didn’t start doing this to make any money; we started doing this because it was fun,” Ben says. “It’s like hunting or fishing — you don’t always catch or shoot anything, but you enjoy getting out in the woods. ”

Still, it’s the trees in the region that keep them rooted here, a mixed-age affair that makes for a healthy business operation, and which preserves the Thompsons’ teenage enthusiasm for the business and the forest.

Indeed, time moves slowly at RBM. It was two decades before playing in the woods turned lucrative, but it’s been fun all along. The family has sacrificed quantity for quality, foregone speed for precision product, and wastes nothing in the process, inventing new products to avoid wasting edges and slabs.

Like a frugal butcher, RBM uses everything from the forest but the oink, and by sticking to that business model, they’ve thrived.

“We don’t do anything fast,” Roy said. “We pride ourselves on how slow we are, and that’s how we get the most value out of every tree. It’s all built around trying to get more out of every tree.”

Key to understanding RBM’s success story despite its sluggish cutting tempo — a timber company like Weyerhaeuser mills in a week what RBM does in a year — the real point of clarity begins with their fence-post cutting days as teenagers.

The Thompson boys were hired out to cut posts as high school students when they learned they could make more money bidding on their own forest sales. At the time, November 1974, Ben, 17, was recently graduated from Columbia Falls High School and Roy, 16, was beginning his senior year. Because the brothers were both minors, their mom, Evelyn, had to sign the contract papers with the U.S. Forest Service.

That first summer, they won two bids for Forest Service post sales, and began skidding logs with the family’s beat-up Dodge pickup. Evelyn, who was working in the school’s hot lunch program, pitched in with a $500 tricycle tractor, and the boys raced to finish the jobs before the school bell rang Roy back indoors.

When the classroom called and the sales still weren’t finished, mom was reluctant to send Ben off into the woods to work alone — so she picked up a chainsaw, quit her job in the cafeteria and joined him.

It wasn’t long before they moved up from posts to house logs, buying a log truck and a little bulldozer before setting up a Mighty Mite portable sawmill in the backyard of their parents’ home on Columbia Heights, powering the mill with a Volkswagen engine.

The quality of their lumber, known for its precision cut, soon had the business booming, and they expanded onto 14 acres nearby. In 1981, they bought an adjacent property where an old roller rink once sat, and three years later they cobbled together a mill from steelyard scraps, using the first of three Small Business Association loans. Today, the same mill still turns out lumber for the business and stands out as an impressive feat of engineering.

“Ben and I did all of the fabrication because we couldn’t afford to hire anybody. We milled the wood to build our mill,” Roy said. “We didn’t make any money until 1995. Our parents had to co-sign on our first loan. Now the banks are begging us to take out a loan, but we’ve been completely debt free for 15 years, which is a good way to be.”

The tale of bootstrapping a high school hobby into a successful timber business culminates today in much the same way it began — by adhering to an ethos of manufacturing low-volume, high-value, visually pleasing products, with conservation as a core principle.

“We break all the rules,” Ben said. “We never made a business plan and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I never dreamed I’d have a sawmill like this. But I didn’t like the way clear-cuts looked in the forest, and I thought maybe we could do something about it. The forest is too precious to waste.”

A log goes through a vertical saw at RBM. – Greg Lindstrom

What started with a trade of firewood for a sawyer’s saw at the Columbia Falls Saw Shop has evolved into a specialty mill that supports the families of more than 60 employees in Columbia Falls, and which, until her death this spring, was an endeavor held together by the family matriarch, Evelyn, who served as the operation’s head-rig sawyer — today, the ‘M’ in RBM stands for Malcolm.

Another aspect of RBM that defies the industry standard is its happy-healthy employee campaign, which offers catered nutritional meals to its workers and yoga and fitness classes at its on-site gym. The biggest problem for the Thompsons isn’t finding the right trees to cut down; it’s finding skilled workers who can endure the physical labor while creating the best, most attractive product.

“An unhealthy body isn’t going to be able to stand up to this kind of work,” Ben said. “When our employees are living on energy drinks and pizza pockets, it’s only a matter of time before their health goes downhill. So we got people working out.”

At first, RBM paid for memberships at a local gym, but no one went. Then the Thompsons hired a personal trainer and a yoga instructor, and outfitted the front office with an on-site gym. To encourage the employees to exercise, they offered financial incentives.

Still, there was resistance.

“Now we require them to go work out,” Ben said. “It’s a major investment, but I would rather pay for this than pay an insurance company to provide my guys with painkillers. We’ve had people quit smoking and chewing and drinking pop since they started working here. Having an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle is critical.”

“It takes years to develop the program and see the results, and we are starting to see the results,” he added.

Whether it relates to the health of the forest or its stable of mill workers, conservation is a core principle that has driven RBM’s growth.

RBM’s reinvented timber economy mostly relies on damaged, stunted, fire-prone forests, which the timber giants have largely left behind. Their task is to restore, rather than deplete, the wild old-growth forests, adopting a time frame of 200-year intervals rather than quarterly dividend statements or annual timber-cut targets.

“The vast majority of timber we remove is salvaged from wind-blown, diseased, insect-infested, fire-killed trees or from timber cut in a thinning operation to promote growth in the remaining stand,” Ben said.

The viewpoint emerged in part because the old paradigm no longer is tenable.

A single daily truckload of timber provides RBM with enough inventory to run the business, versus 20 or more truckloads per day at a larger firm.

As fierce advocates for old-growth forests, and with a knack for imitating nature, Ben and his father, Malcolm do the logging while Roy manages the mill and Ben’s wife Joy runs the business side.

The Thompsons are so passionate about their principles that they have led a citizen revolt against an old-growth timber sale on a state forest along the North Fork Flathead River near Glacier National Park, rankling some neighboring logging outfits.

“They didn’t like that because they expected everyone to be on the same page,” Ben said. “But we’re not seen as competition to the big guys. We’re in our own universe.”

RBM’s customers prefer the raw beauty of the fine-grained, slow-growing timber used in its thousands of distinct products, including RBM’s door shop, the most recent element to the ever-expanding business.

“The wood we use in our custom doors would go into any other mill’s chipper,” Roy said. “But we don’t waste wood. We haul our waste away in a wheelbarrow, not a dump truck. That’s a statement right there.”

“We’re not making any money on doors, but they are an excellent way to showcase the tree,” Ben added. “It’s just a great way to make people appreciate the wood and the tree, and it makes them interested in our other products. So we make doors.”

RBM’s business plan, or lack thereof, might be unorthodox, but it’s one of the reasons they’ve flown under the economic radar. They weren’t affected by the crash of the beleaguered timber industry, in part because they were playing in an entirely different league.

“We never slowed down during the recession,” Roy said.

“That’s because we were never going that fast in the first place,” added Ben.

RBM’s wares are showcased at numerous businesses throughout the Flathead Valley — the tabletops at Loula’s in Whitefish, throughout MacKenzie River in Kalispell, and at Backslope Brewery in Columbia Falls.

The mill also turns out the highest-grade lumber on the softwood market, like the vertical-grain Douglas fir whose narrow contours tell the tree’s entire story.

“The driving force behind our story and our evolution is getting the highest value out of the forest,” Roy said. “We’ve always had our own ideas. But they’re pretty simple ideas.”