Boise lost one of its corporate and philanthropic kingpins Saturday morning when John Fery, former CEO of Boise Cascade, died of acute leukemia at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., surrounded by family. He was 86.
Fery worked for Boise Cascade for nearly 40 years and served as CEO from 1972 through 1994, an era when the company was its most visible and active in the community. He restored profitability by ending diversification, selling off money-losing operations and returning to Boise Cascade to its root businesses, timber and paper.
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In his CEO years and afterward, Fery served on the boards of some of the nation’s largest companies, donated millions of dollars to Idaho charities, and spearheaded fundraising campaigns that brought in tens of millions more.
A lifelong Republican, Fery contributed to political campaigns at all levels of government. He helped win some fights, such as a drive to increase education funding. He was on the losing side of others, including the creation of the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, which cut off access to valuable timber stands.
He was major donor or key fundraiser for a dozen community projects, including the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the Boise Art Museum, and he founded the Idaho Community Foundation. He donated $2.5 million to build the Treasure Valley Family YMCA’s youth camp at Horsethief Reservoir in Valley County.
“John was truly was a colossus,” said Mark Hofflund, managing director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. “He had one foot in the business world and one foot in the community, and he built both of them.”
He and his wife, Dee, helped raise three sons and lost a daughter in infancy.
Fery lived enough to fill several lifetimes, said Cecil Andrus, the former Idaho governor and Fery’s friend — as well as sometimes political adversary and golfing partner.
“John Fery was a mountain of a man,” Andrus said. “Idaho has lost one of its sons. No one contributed more in time or money in the state to create opportunities for young people.”
Fery was born on Feb. 16, 1930, in Bellingham, Wash. He shared his name with his painter grandfather, who gained national acclaim for massive canvases depicting landscapes and wildlife of the West.
John and his parents moved from Orcas Island to Seattle when he was in third grade. His mother, Margaret Fery, worked six days a week at a department store to support the family. Fery’s father, Carl, a forester, fell ill and was often unavailable.
“It was John and mom against the world,” said Alice Hennessey, a former senior vice president at Boise Cascade. “John really learned to fend for himself.”
As a boy, Fery spent long hours by himself, said Jim Everett, the former executive director of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA. He discovered a second home at the Y between his Seattle home and school. The Y was little more than a converted house, with a ping-pong table downstairs and a wood shop.
He worked a paper route to earn money to go to the Y’s youth camp on nearby Orcas Island, where he later worked as a camp counselor.
After high school, Fery studied business administration at the University of Washington. He served in the U.S. Naval Air Reserve, including a stint in Japan in 1950 in an anti-submarine unit. He graduated in 1953 and married Dee.
The Ferys owned homes in Boise, Sun Valley and Rancho Mirage, Calif.
CONSOLIDATING BOISE CASCADE
In 1955, Fery graduated with an MBA from Stanford University and moved to Boise to join a management team that created Boise Cascade Corp. in 1957. Under then-CEO Bob Hansberger, Boise Payette Lumber Co. merged with Cascade Lumber Co. to form Boise Cascade.
Hansberger’s team merged the sawmill operations and bought others to make use of wood-chip byproducts to make paper, said John Sahlberg, a fly-fishing partner of Fery’s and the senior vice president of human relations and general counsel for the now-defunct corporation’s direct descendent, Boise Cascade Co.
The lumber and paper businesses thrived. By the late 1960s, Boise Cascade controlled 11 paper mills, 34 wood-products plants, three specialty mills, 17 container plants and a growing building-materials distribution business, Sahlberg said.
Fery moved to Boise in 1960 after Hansberger promoted him to vice president. The company began sprawling into new lines of business, including envelope production, office products, manufactured housing, low-income housing, land development, recreational vehicles, school-bus manufacturing, cruise-line operation, publishing, sugar plantations, lawn-mower manufacturing and ranching in Hawaii. Boise Cascade operated businesses in Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Philippines, all of which reported to Fery, Sahlberg said.
Most of the condominiums built in Sun Valley in the 1960s were Boise Cascade manufactured homes, including one the Ferys bought, Sahlberg said. The couple became prominent members of the Wood River arts and business worlds.
But the good times did not last. Boise Cascade started hemorrhaging money, taking an $85 million loss in 1971 and $171 million in 1972, when Hansberger resigned and Fery took over as CEO. The company wrote off $278 million in 1972 as a result of land-development projects gone bad. No public company had ever written off so much money before, said Tom Corrick, CEO of Boise Cascade Co.
“John was moved up to fix the many challenges associated with way-too-fast growth,” Corrick said.
Fery retrenched. Boise Cascade sold most of its nonwood and nonpaper businesses and reinvested $1.5 billion into its paper operation, including buying state-of-the-art equipment. The company returned to profitability in 1973, and forest-related revenue increased from 47 percent of all revenue in 1970 to 99 percent in 1979, Sahlberg said.
Hennessey started working at Boise Cascade as Hansberger’s secretary before working her way up . The pair and their families have been close friends over the years, Hennessey said. Fery was dyslexic and leaned on Hennessey for help preparing presentations and speeches.
“John trusted my judgment and perspective on things, which I think was very unusual,” she said. “I was treated well when it came to responsibility, compensation and recognition.”
He related to our workers in the mills very well because, as a kid, he’d done so many jobs himself. He parked cars. He worked in a drug store. He worked in the forest. He did all kinds of jobs that made it possible for him to relate to our people at every level of the organization.
Alice Hennessey, former Boise Cascade senior vice president
Fery was a demanding and often critical leader, she said. Wanting to please him, Hennessey hated times when he would discover problems and beat her to the punch to fix them.
“Having to fend for himself growing up, finding the best in people could be tough,” Hennessey said. “I spent a lot of time arguing with him vehemently, making sure he was being fair. But he was kind and very caring. I never saw anybody who could maintain friendships over the years the way John did.”
Few women became executives in the corporate world during Hennessey’s time. She entered clubs through the back door when she and Fery traveled for business meetings.
“I worked like a dog,” she said. “In those days you put up with what came along. I didn’t go around with a chip on my shoulder. I was grateful for opportunities and hoped in time things would change, and in time, they did.”
He truly cared about the company. I can recall one really bitter strike when John came to me to ask whether he should contact the local churches to make sure that families of striking workers had enough food. We did.
John Sahlberg, longtime general counsel for Boise Cascade
Fery stepped down as CEO in 1994 and from the board in 1995. The wood-products manufacturing sector entered an era of struggle as prices failed to sustain profits. Under successor George Harad, Boise Cascade closed pulp mills and became primarily a distribution business.
A dizzying series of transactions broke up the company. In 2003, Boise Cascade bought OfficeMax, the office-products distributor. The next year, Boise Cascade sold its plants, land, headquarters and name to Madison-Dearborn Partners, a Chicago private equity firm, took the OfficeMax name and moved its headquarters from Boise to Illinois.
Madison sold the paper, packaging and newsprint operations to a pair of investors who took it public in 2008 as Boise Inc. Five years later, Illinois’s Packaging Corp. of America bought Boise Inc. for $1.3 billion.
Meanwhile, Madison held onto the remaining wood-products and distribution businesses by creating Boise Cascade LLC. In 2013, Madison took that company public, creating Boise Cascade Co.
Boise Cascade LLC and Boise Cascade Co. kept leased headquarters space in Boise Cascade Corp.’s former headquarters, the capacious Boise Plaza building Downtown that is now owned by Rafanelli and Nahas, a local real estate company. Boise Inc. kept its headquarters there, too, and its successor, PCA, has its local offices there.
Among Fery’s contributions to a plethora of charities in the Treasure Valley and beyond, perhaps his greatest contribution was throwing his checkbook and efforts behind the Y’s Horsethief Reservoir camp.
Fery was among the first donors for the camp with an initial gift of $1 million. He later gave $2.5 million more. But Everett said his greatest contribution was leading the fundraising campaign.
The Y launched the campaign in the years after the 2008 recession, funding a $23 million youth camp. Fery raised more than $16 million himself, Everett said.
“I’ve never seen anybody work harder at it or be so successful,” he said. “Everybody takes John Fery’s call.”
Today, more than 2,500 youths attend the camp each summer.
“John gave me a Ph.D. in life,” Everett said. “He didn't have to say much. I wanted to walk across broken glass for the guy.”
Fery also was among the important donors and fundraisers for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Hofflund said. Under his leadership, Boise Cascade donated hundreds of acres to the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands. That land included the 12 acres the foundation later donated to the festival that are now home to its amphitheater, parking lot and William Shakespeare Park.
THE ODD COUPLE
Fery was a staunch Republican who threw his clout and checkbook behind GOP candidates in local and national races. That included four times when he supported candidates running against his friend, Andrus.
Andrus, a Democrat who was governor from 1971 to 1977 and from 1987 to 1995, was President Jimmy Carter’s interior secretary from 1977 to 1981.
“He was a tough, tough adversary,” Andrus said. “He looked at the big yellow pines from the ridges of the Salmon River and saw boards and paper boxes. I saw beautiful, pristine areas that should be protected for future generations. There were loud voices at times, but there was never an evil or nasty word. That’s the way politics should be.”
Andrus found a powerful ally in Fery on other matters, especially when it came to increasing education funding or teacher pay.
“I can’t think of a time I ever went to John Fery and asked for his support for funding for education when he turned me down,” Andrus said.
Before winning his fourth consecutive gubernatorial race, Andrus went to the fifth floor of Boise Cascade headquarters to meet with Fery. “It’s about time you were on the winning side,” Andrus told him. “Why don’t you make a contribution to my campaign?”
Andrus knew Fery wouldn’t.
“Oh, Cecil. You know I’m a Republican,” Fery replied. “You’re a Democrat, and you are recognized nationally. I can’t have my name on your contributions list.”
“Well,” Andrus said, “you’ll end up the same way as you did the last three times.”
He and Fery laughed.
Andrus said he occasionally took “50 cents or a dollar” from Fery during Wednesday golf wagers, though Fery was the better golfer. Fery was an even better gin player.
“He was a fierce, tough, ornery participant at the gin table,” Andrus said. “There were always a few shekels involved, and I don’t remember him coming out on the negative side very often.”
Fery is survived by his wife, Dee, 86, his college sweetheart and partner in philanthropy, and their sons Brent, Bruce and Michael.
A corporate giant
John Fery influenced the corporate and charity world in Idaho and beyond. Here’s a collection of his various posts over the years:
F&C Corp., Director
Idaho First National Bank, Director
Union Pacific, Director
Saint Alphonsus Health System, Chairman
Idaho Community Foundation, Founder
Saint Alphonsus Foundation, Founder
The Business Council, Member
Stanford University School of Business, Chair
Here’s a list of causes that Fery financially supported:
Bishop Kelly High School
Boise Art Museum
Idaho Shakespeare Festival
William Shakespeare Park
Idaho Community Foundation
McClure Center for Public POlicy
The Nature Conservancy
Saint Alphonsus Medical Center
University of Idaho
University of Washington
WWAMI (Washington Wyoming Alaska Montana Idaho regional medicine support organization)
World Center for Birds of Prey
Treasure Valley Family YMCA and Y camp at Horsethief Reservoir
Boise Art Museum
Fery also held ownership stakes in the following companies:
Loving Creek Ranch
Robinson Bar Ranch