Business Columns & Blogs

Local family ties that bind to companies evolve through the years

Before his untimely passing, George Weyerhaeuser Jr. compiled an admirable résumé of community involvement as well as professional accomplishment at the family business that bears his name.

Except that, as stories about his life and career remind us, it’s not the family business anymore. The Federal Way-based forest products company is still called Weyerhaeuser, and it’s still closely identified with the family.

But George Weyerhaeuser Jr. has been retired since 2008 from Weyerhaeuser. His father relinquished the chief executive’s title in 1991, and retired as chairman of the board in 1999.

Since George Sr.’s retirement as CEO, Weyerhaeuser has had three non-family members in that job – Jack Creighton, Steve Rogel and the current chief executive, Dan Fulton. Neither the board nor the list of the company’s top corporate officers includes anyone with the surname Weyerhaeuser. The proxy statement, in the section listing any investors holding 5 percent or more of the common stock, names three investment firms.

Such is the evolution of large legacy American companies founded by and named for an individual and often run by several generations of the founders’ family. That the company Frederick Weyerhaeuser founded in 1900 had family involvement as long as it did is a story that some well-known Washington companies, still bearing an individual’s name, never matched.

Other companies, however, continue family management to this day, even if they are, like Weyerhaeuser, publicly traded.

Most people who know of Boeing are vaguely aware there was a Mr. Boeing who started the company, and if they’ve read anything of its history, visited the Museum of Flight or taken the Everett plant tour they might even be able to conjure up his first name – William.

But Bill Boeing, who started his company in 1916 as Pacific Aero Products, changing its name to his own the next year, stayed with it only to the mid-1930s. Irked by legislation that broke up Boeing and its ownership of an air-mail service (a forerunner of United Airlines), Bill Boeing, according to a company history, “left the aviation business to raise horses.”

On the other hand, not only is the retailer Nordstrom still known by that name, there are still Nordstroms running it – four, in fact, according to the corporate website, Blake (president), Erik (executive vice president and president, stores), James F. Jr. (executive vice president and president, Nordstrom Direct) and Peter (executive vice president and president, merchandising).

Nordstrom family members are on the company’s board and hold a considerable chunk of stock. William Pigott did not put the family name on Seattle Car Manufacturing Co. when he established it in 1905, but the family’s influence is very much in play at what is now known as Paccar. Mark Pigott serves as chief executive and as a director, and a brother is also on the board.

The habit of putting the family name on the business has fallen out of fashion, and the practice of the founder or his family controlling and running of company may be on the wane as well. Most people with a passing knowledge of regional business history can identify the founders behind such influential regional companies as Microsoft (Paul Allen and Bill Gates) and Amazon (Jeff Bezos). Nor is there doubting their influence, real or potential, over their respective companies; Bezos, according to the most recent proxy, holds 19 percent of Amazon stock. Gates, according to the last Microsoft proxy, holds about 5.5 percent of that company’s shares.

But none of the three named their ventures after themselves, nor did most of their generational or tech-industry peers. And unlike many CEO-founders of past generations, today’s crop is quite willing to move on to other interests and activities. Gates still serves as chairman of Microsoft, but hasn’t been chief executive since 2000; he’s far more identified these days with the activities of his foundation. Bezos is still in the thick of managing Amazon, but he too has worked on side projects and interests. And even if they had children of an age or interest to do so, few contemporary corporate CEOs seem interested in directing the kids toward someday taking over the business they run.

That evolution is neither good nor bad, it just is. Family leadership can be inspired, community minded, capable of handling change and as adept as the founder, or it can be insular, ossified, remote and untalented. The involvement of a family may give a company a legacy and an identity, but the next generation may decide it wants to do something else. Business entrepreneurialism isn’t going to change, but its face may have a different appearance if the companies that are established and endure go by names other than Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Jeff’s Books ‘n’ Things or Bill’s House of Software.