wilderness with snowy mountains in background

Moving West – A Family Legacy

Posted: September 1, 2020

Over 70 years ago, friends Fred Johnson and Oscar Mood, were looking for an opportunity to move west from Northern Minnesota. With experience in Minnesota’s timber industry, the pair happened to be looking at just the right time. A lumber trader, based in Spokane, Washington, had built Bockmier Mill in Seeley Lake, Montana. The mill had never run, so the owner decided to put it up for sale. Johnson and Mood knew this was the opportunity they had been searching for and agreed that they would purchase the mill and make Montana their new home.

In 1949, the friendship became a partnership, and J&M Lumber was established. Nearly a decade later, in 1958, the company restructured into a family-owned corporation, when second-generation family members took the reins. During this transition, J&M Lumber was renamed Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Inc. and would be run by Mood’s three sons and Johnson’s son, Roger. Little did they know, Pyramid Mountain Lumber would become the oldest family-owned and operated lumber mill in Montana and the largest employer in Seeley Lake.

Decades later, the mill is still owned and operated by the Johnson family. Roger Johnson, is the President of the company, and at 84 years old is still one of the first employees at the office each morning. His son, Todd Johnson, is the Plant Manager, overseeing operations, and his brother, Steve Johnson, serves as the Sales Manager. In 2000, the Mood family sold their ownership to Charlie Parke of Drummond, Montana. Parke assumed the role of Vice President, and as such, plays a vital role in the success of the mill. Charlie also runs a ranch in Drummond, Montana, a farm in Idaho and an established logging operation in Western Montana.

Over 70 years and three generations have passed since Johnson and Mood headed west to fulfill their dream, yet Pyramid Mountain Lumber continues to carry on the tradition of selling quality lumber, while being good stewards of the land. They hold true to their slogan, “the stewardship company,” as they place importance on maintaining and managing Montana’s natural resources. (cont’d on page 7)

When I asked Todd Johnson, the Plant Manager, about their successful history in the lumber industry, he credited the personal relationships they build with landowners. “All of the timber we purchase is from the State of Montana, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Also, people would be surprised to know that a large portion is purchased privately from land owners who want to manage their timber for future generations, open up their land for cattle, etc. We go take a look at the private land and advise land owners on what to do with their land for long-term utilization.”

Pyramid Mountain Lumber purchases timber and sells lumber, wholesale, to lumber brokers and distributors all over the country. Lumber brokers buy and sell the lumber, without ever taking possession. Distributors buy the lumber in large volumes and then break them up and send them to distribution centers, which sends loads of lumber all over the world.

Seeing their lumber being used across the globe is just one of many reasons Todd is proud to work at the mill. “Our proudest accomplishment is taking over a business that our grandfather started. We also pride ourselves in being a good steward of the land and a large part of the Seeley Lake Community. We provide employment to 140 people, which trickles down to all of the businesses in town.”

That pride began at an early age for Todd, even before he knew he’d grow up to manage the plant. When I asked him if he’d always wanted to follow the family path, he chuckled, “I didn’t always envision working at the mill… I wanted to be a cowboy!” While he never did become a cowboy, he did spend many of his early years working at the mill. Todd and his brother, Steve, began working at the mill in grade school and spent their summers working production. In college, Todd attended the University of Montana and earned a degree in Business. “I graduated college in the late 80’s and at that time the economy was stagnant, so most graduates went to larger cities to find work, but I didn’t want to leave Montana. That made my career decision pretty easy. This company and industry are all I’ve ever known. I’ve never drawn a paycheck from another company in my life.” When Todd graduated in 1988, they needed someone to manage human resources and safety, so he filled that role for about 20 years before becoming Operations Manager and then finally transitioning into his current role of Plant Manager.

Although they each have their specific roles, every day at the mill is different and exciting. They usually start their day around 7 AM and tackle paperwork before heading into the plant. The best part of Todd’s day is being out in the plant, visiting with employees and managers, and overseeing the logs coming in, the lumber going out and everything in between. When I asked him what a good day at the office looked like, he chuckled and replied, “A good day at the office is a good day at the plant! In my role, I try not to spend too much time in my office. The best part of my job is being able to watch operations. My brother, Steve, is the Sales Manager, so he spends more time making sales calls in the office.”

There are always challenges to a job, regardless of the industry you’re in. When I asked Todd if the family element complicates things, he said, “It’s always challenging to work in a family business. Everyone seems to think it would be easy, but the problem is that you never get away from business.” Laughing, he added, “Another challenge is that we all know each other too well.”

I was surprised to learn that their biggest challenge is employment. “We could easily hire 20 more people. Unfortunately, housing and rentals are very limited, which can make recruitment a challenge,” Todd stated. He continued, “Another factor is that our industry is very physical and requires hands-on labor, which deters many people.” To address this challenge, they’ve invested a lot of money into the plant over the past few years to automate and remove some of the physical elements of the job to make the mill more attractive to potential employees. They’re looking to hire entry-level workers and skilled laborers, like electricians and saw filers. Not only do employees have the opportunity to work for a well-established company, in a beautiful community, but employees also receive a generous benefit package, which includes no-cost health insurance for employees and their dependents. They are currently accepting applications and have asked that interested parties download an application on their website or call the office at (406)677-2201, extension 22.

Missoula Electric Cooperative (MEC) has served power to the Seeley Lake community and Pyramid Mountain Lumber since the mid-50’s. Pyramid Mountain Lumber operates around the clock, 365 days a year, making them one of MEC’s largest load members. Todd responded quickly when asked what the best part of working with the co-op is, “Their customer service!” Delivering safe, affordable and reliable electricity is the main objective for MEC. Equally as important is ensuring that both residential and commercial members feel they are more than just a customer to the co-op… they are part of MEC’s family of members.

When asked what the future would hold for Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Todd discussed the 4th generation of the Johnson family. The 4th generation could potentially include one or more of he and Steve’s four children. Todd has a daughter who is a nurse, and a son that is studying Pharmacy at the University of Montana. Steve also has a son at the University of Montana, who is attending the School of Business Administration, and a daughter who is in high school. Todd and Steve’s sons spend summers and holiday breaks working at the mill, just as they did when they were growing up. As Pyramid Mountain Lumber inches closer to celebrating a century in business, our curiosity is overwhelming. Will the 4th generation continue the family legacy? We’ll just have to wait and see.