The Gold in Golden Pond

By Mark Fischetti

Robert Pamplin led the Georgia Pacific Co. for 20 years. His son, Robert Jr., was a superstar investor who had already made a fortune. Why did father and son join forces late in life in order to form a family business?

Starting with an inheritance, Robert B. Pamplin Jr. made his first million in the stock market before he graduated college. He then parlayed his earnings by buying and selling timberlands and farms, making millions more. He earned eight business-related degrees, and became an ordained minister after completing the Baptist seminary.

In the meantime, his father, Robert Sr., was busy running Georgia Pacific, a lumber and natural resources conglomerate. He was the company's fifth employee, and became president in 1957. Under his leadership sales had risen from $121 million a year to $3 billion.

The two men had absolutely no reason to change course and start a family business. But in 1976 they did just that. Today, R.B. Pamplin Corp., headquartered in Portland, Oregon, owns 14 textile mills and a concrete and asphalt company. Last year sales reached $697 million, making it the largest closely held corporation in the Beaver State.

Robert Sr., already 65 when he went into business with his son, could have retired to a life of luxury. Robert Jr., already a superstar investor, could have continued as master of his fortune. But both men gave up these pro spects. Robert Sr. “started over” in the chairman's seat of a company with two employees; in becoming president, Robert Jr. readily accepted Dad as his boss.

In an interview with Family Business, Robert Jr., now 52, explained why both men chose to start a second career that was unnecessary, and why they started a family business after having been fiercely independent. He described how he and his father managed their sudden business relationship without compromising their personal one, how they have turned family values into corporate values, and how they have inspired their employees. He also described a quest he and his father, now 82, have taken to trace the family's heritage back 1,000 years.

Family Business: It's unusual for a family business to be started by two relatives who are already in successful careers. Why did you and your father decide to become partners?

Robert Pamplin: It was a natural extension of our being friends. A friend is someone you want to be with, someone you want to do things with. Also, our strengths complemented each other. Dad is reserved; I'm more outgoing. His forte is finance and accounting; I'm a good motivator. I'm good at finding a practical way to accomplish a dream.

FB: How did you come to terms with surrendering responsibilities to each other?

Pamplin: Both my father and I had been successful independently. We built our own fortunes. That gave us credibility with each other. Also, if I hadn't succeeded on my own I would never have had the self-confidence it takes to run a company. Learning how to manage people, inspire them, knowing whom to trust, can't be learned when you begin your working career as the boss's son.

FB: Both of you “had it all” already. What new satisfaction were you able to get once R.B. Pamplin was up and running?

Pamplin: We both appreciate challenge. When people are interested only in their own accomplishments, then they are satisfied to go it alone. We became interested in aiding each other in accomplishing new goals. We wanted to build something more for the family.

We also feel a responsibility to the people who work for us. A lot of family business owners feel, “I've got to carry this on for the good of my family.” You can't think that way. There are many other people who are dependent upon you. We're dealing with livelihoods here, not “workers.” We have a responsibility to provide stability. And our challenge now is to build the spirit and talents of our employees.

FB: How do you do that?

Pamplin: First, emulation. Let people see what you do and how you do it. Don't stay in your office or keep your work secret. Everyone emulates his or her heroes.

Second is empowerment. Give employees hands-on training, then let them implement what they've learned. Let them take responsibility for a piece of the company. You've got to be a motivator. It's the same as being a good parent: You let them grow and monitor that growth, but they have to accomplish things on their own.

FB: Your title at R.B. Pamplin is president. Your father's is chairman. Are you partners, or does one person call the shots?

Pamplin: I believe very strongly in being dutiful. Not subservient, but dutiful. We work most things out, but if we have a disagreement we can't resolve, Dad's decision holds. There has to be a person who breaks the tie. He's the patriarch so it's his decision. I have to be dutiful to that.

FB: One of the first business decisions you made together was to buy Ross Island Sand & Gravel, a local company with 250 employees. How did you present the father-son relationship to them?

Pamplin: The company was here in Portland, so most of the employees already knew of us. But we met them and were very open with them about our philosophy of management. We told them we would stand solidly behind them. We also told them what we wouldn't stand for. You've got to deal with people directly; they'll figure out real quick if you're a straight shooter or only in it for yourself.

FB: You have called your father your lifelong tutor. Yet in the business you operate as equals. How do you maintain this seemingly contradictory relationship?

Pamplin: Our relationship has been built on Biblical values: integrity, honesty, faith, discipline, and responsibility. These build self-reliance. When you have this kind of relationship you don't have to separate feelings from work. It allows the elements of love and friendship to penetrate the business operation.

FB: Most family members don't use the word “love” in a business context; they feel that personal emotions only cloud business decisions.

Pamplin: Many sons who are in family businesses come to me and say, “It's not working.” Most of the time it's because the father has proprietary ways, and the son sees this as a breakdown in their relationship. But this is strictly a business problem. If the relationship is sound—if it is built on love and that love is expressed—the business problem can be fixed and there will be no breakdown in the personal relationship.

FB: How do you build love into a business relationship?

Pamplin: If you wait until you're in business, you've started too late. It doesn't just happen one day. You don't say, “Okay, we're going to have real love and friendship.” It is a training process that starts with childhood and continues into adult life. To fathers with sons who are still young I'd say, to give a family business a chance, you have to build a loving relationship and keep working at that through the child's adulthood. Then you can decide later if you both want to do some business together.

One of the main reasons my father and I work together so well is that we like each other and have fun together. He made it a point to take me hunting and fishing in the swamps of the South when I was just 6 years old. Some of my earliest memories of Dad are ones of listening to stories by lantern light, sleeping in a shack, catching fish, and eating squirrel stew. Our bond of affection is the foundation of trust. My father can trust me with anything because he knows I love him.

FB: Knowing how to love can be considered a personal asset. What was the most important business skill you learned when you were growing up?

Pamplin: The most important business asset a person can have is common sense—to be simple and practical. As you raise your son or daughter that should be the focus. I made my first million during college, but I could still be one of the boys because I hung out with mill workers and dirt farmers as I grew up. They taught me common sense. I'm able to hang out with our employees today the same way, and teach them to be practical and simple, and they get things done.

FB: You hired genealogists to trace your family's history, which dates back 1,000 years to the Crusades. You wrote a book about the findings, which has just been published (Heritage: The Making of an American Family, MasterMedia 1994). Your ancestors were involved in the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, the Civil War, and other historic dramas. Had any of them been in business together?

Pamplin: Not in a traditional sense, no. Many of my ancestors were agrarian. So they worked as families on farms, in England and America.

FB: What family business lessons did you learn from their stories?

Pamplin: They passed on the feeling of wanting to work for the good of the family. They passed on the values of hard work and integrity. And farmers, above all, learn how to be practical. They have common sense, humility, an ability to get to everyone else's level. These were by far the most important assets passed on from generation to generation.

FB: Why did you write the book?

Pamplin: As I researched the family's past I found a number of people who made it through difficult struggles. They became my heroes. They prevailed, they achieved a quality existence, and they showed concern for the welfare of their neighbors. They enhanced human life. I wanted to show how love, integrity, discipline, and an abiding faith in God got them through. I wanted to show how these values were what became important to the Pamplin family over the years.

Some part of it was also for my father. The book chronicles how he helped lead Georgia Pacific during its years of fast growth. A patriarch who is getting old naturally wants to see what his life has meant. He wants to know if he really did something good for his family, for mankind.

FB: Did the project bring you and your father closer together?

Pamplin: No. Our relationship was already established. It did explain our relationship to other people, however.

FB: You have two daughters, ages 23 and 26. Was your relationship with them as they grew up the same as your father's was with you?

Pamplin: When I was a boy it was traditional that the son would follow in the father's footsteps, and that the father would train the son with what he knew. Dad was in business and he inculcated me in business. Had I been a girl I would have been trained in home economics.

Today there are so many opportunities for young people that parents have to make a real effort to determine where their kids' abilities lie. My wife and I wanted to make sure we did this. Both girls, academically, were more associated with verbal skills than quantitative. In extracurricular activities, both were excellent tennis players. Now my youngest daughter is a tennis pro, and the older one works in the retail clothing business. Every child has a great skill; parents just have to help them find it.

FB: How did you help your daughters succeed?

Pamplin: By instilling in them the values that are so important to me, my father, and our family's history: discipline, integrity, and fairness. I firmly believe these are the fundamental values necessary for success, and that they form the foundation on which parents and children build a loving relationship. If you raise your kids with these values, and help them find their natural gifts, they will feel good because they will be succeeding.

Mark Fischetti is managing editor of Family Business.A dream letter to parents

In his book Heritage: The Making of an American Family, Robert Pamplin makes note of a letter he wrote to his parents in 1972, when he was 30 years old. It sums up his inspiration for his business and personal goals.

Robert began the letter by speaking of his early ambitions for the money he inherited: “I would dream,” he wrote, “of how great it would be if I could build this [money] into a fortune, one like you read about in books on business tycoons. I am sure this was important to me because of the benefits money could bring, but probably more important was my continual, lifelong ambition to do things that would earn my parents' respect and admiration, and make them generally glad they put me on earth.”

Later in the letter Robert made it clear that this dream had come true. “Being the son of such outstanding parents, it becomes imperative to me to be a man of achievement and improver of things which are given me. I think perhaps to some degree I have done this. To you, my parents, my deep-felt gratitude for allowing me the opportunity to experience what success I have.

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Summer 1994

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