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Don’t be afraid to deliver bad news, says Boise Cascade exec

Inside the Boise headquarters of Boise Cascade, the company devotes a wall to its longest-serving employees, of which John Sahlberg is one.
Inside the Boise headquarters of Boise Cascade, the company devotes a wall to its longest-serving employees, of which John Sahlberg is one. adutton@idahostatesman.com

John Sahlberg has worked for Boise Cascade for 34 years, seeing the lumber, construction and wood products company through its many corporate changes — growing, shrinking and moving on and off the stock market.

Sahlberg, 63, who lives in Boise, started in Boise Cascade’s legal department, working on labor and employment law. He moved into human resources to work on labor bargaining, then became both the head of human resources and the company’s top lawyer about six years ago.

“I don’t know whether I jumped in or was pushed in, but somehow or other I ended up in the pool,” he says.

The key to managing Boise Cascade’s workforce of more than 6,000 people, he says, is making sure communication flows when bad news or good news hits, and as the company adjusts to construction booms and busts.

He learned that in his first job at Boise Cascade. The company had lost a lawsuit that wasn’t major but, to him, seemed like “a big deal.” That’s when he got a piece of advice he continues to rely on today: “Whenever bad news occurs, be the first one to communicate it as quickly as you can up the organization.”

His boss at the time thanked him for his work on the lawsuit, putting to rest Sahlberg’s fears of his supervisor reacting “adversely to the decision and to me.”

“Fortunately, we have an organization that doesn’t shoot the messenger,” he says. “They might not like the message, [but] you’re so much better off letting people know about the bad news and deciding [what to do about it] than spending time trying to figure out how to manage the news. ... Integrity really is letting people know bad news as well as good news.”

Boise Cascade’s Idaho operations include its headquarters at 1111 W. Jefferson St. in Boise, building-materials distribution yards in Boise and Idaho Falls, and an engineered wood-products plant in Homedale. The company has 453 employees in Idaho, up from about 320 two years ago.

Q: What are the largest Boise Cascade workforce changes you’ve been part of?

A: In 2004, there were in excess of 30,000 employees, and then when OfficeMax was spun off, there were around 10,000 employees. We spun off an entity that took about 5,000 of those employees, and then hit the downturn and went from 5,000 employees to well under 4,000 employees.

We are now about 6,300 employees, with some acquisitions we’ve done and our growth.

Q: How have you managed the workforce through that much change?

A: No. 1 is communication. Clear communication about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. The key is doing a good enough job so that people understand the changes that are coming and why they’re coming. They don’t need to agree with the change, but they need to understand it.

No. 2 is consistency in executive style and management. We have a friendly and open culture. It seems to be easier to make change [that way] than in a simply top-down organization. We are a very decentralized organization. We have [more than 50] distribution facilities and ... manufacturing facilities in the U.S., and those managers make the day-to-day decisions. That helps both in communications of change — because [employees] know the person there is part of the process — but also in being able to effectuate the change.

Q: How do you attract and keep talented workers in the current economy, where good employees can find other jobs?

A: I think talent acquisition is one of the more critical issues for any organization right now.

11-12% Voluntary turnover rate at Boise Cascade, heavily concentrated in the first two years of a worker’s employment at the company

Our view is if we can get someone in the door, and they can stay here three or four years, we will have them for an entire career. That’s not always the case, but if you look at senior management, everyone has been here 30-plus years.

How do we find the talent? We’re struggling with the right answer. So far, we’ve been very fortunate. But it is the No. 1 issue on HR’s mind right now.

92 Jobs posted on Boise Cascade’s careers website in early September

We try to provide extensive training and opportunity in those first two years [for] a person who sees themselves as possibly having a career instead of a job. But, quite frankly, our industry may not be the industry for everybody, and we recognize that.

Q: What’s one of your recruiting and retention challenges?

A: We like to bring engineers into our manufacturing organization to help run facilities. Engineers are very in-demand these days.

We have a very rigorous statistical process control where we have [data-driven quality and process improvement] projects. Our engineers, from the moment they come to work for us, are thrown into those projects and immediately learn how what they do affects the manufacturing process. It’s an opportunity to be a part of the organization that’s making a change — and not necessarily following someone around.

Q: What kind of training do you offer?

A: We have only recently come out of private equity [ownership], and one of the things we cut back on was training, and we’re in the process of reinvigorating our training programs. We have a program from a number of professors from the Boise State College of Business and Economics.

Q: What do you pay?

A: Our starting wages on distribution side are probably $12 to $13 an hour, and on the manufacturing side closer to $15 … [and] the full panoply of benefits in addition to that. But those wages can go up considerably the longer a person is with us.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey. This story appears in the Sept. 21,-Oct. 18 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).

What happened to Boise Cascade Corp.

Boise Cascade Corp. was an iconic Idaho company that fell on hard times more than a decade ago. It was publicly held until 2004, when it bought OfficeMax, assumed the OfficeMax name, and moved its headquarters to the Chicago area.

OfficeMax sold most of its interest in the former Boise Cascade timberlands, the paper-making business, and the wood-products and building-materials distribution business to Madison Dearborn Partners, a Chicago private-equity firm.

Madison Dearborn created Boise Cascade LLC. It first sold off the timberland. Then, in 2008, it sold the paper, packaging and newsprint operations to a pair of New York investors who turned them into a publicly held company called Boise Inc.

Both companies were based in the old Boise Cascade Corp.’s headquarters building, the Boise Plaza at 11th and Jefferson streets.

Boise Cascade LLC went public in 2013, becoming Boise Cascade Co. The same year, Packaging Corporation of America bought Boise Inc. Both companies kept their offices in the Boise Plaza.

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