Smokestacks and vents pour out plumes of foul-smelling steam as workers straggle out of the Amalgamated Sugar Co. plant after a 12-hour shift.
Walt Minnick is waiting. Dressed in a short-sleeved Western shirt, black jeans and cowboy boots, he’s tanned and smiling.
“How ya doing? I’m Walt Minnick,” he tells a long-haired, soot-covered worker carrying a cooler and a towel.
The worker introduces himself, shakes Minnick’s hand, and says he hasn’t quite decided how he’ll vote in the U.S. Senate race. “We’ll check this out,” he says, waving Minnick’s flier as he heads for his car.
Minnick is eager and animated, and seems to be having fun. In this setting, with the plant’s putrid mist settling over an unusually warm fall evening, Minnick doesn’t look like a corporate CEO, a man who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, an aide to President Nixon who designed the Drug Enforcement Administration.
He doesn’t even seem to mind the smell.
This ability to walk in two worlds helped Minnick rise at Trus Joist Corp., where he required all executives to spend one day a year working in a plant. It also angered forest industry leaders, as Minnick became a high-profile spokesman for wilderness and against subsidized public timber sales at the same time he led a wood-products firm.
Now, the former Republican is running for office as a Democrat. He likes to portray himself as an independent, and those who know him say he’d certainly fit that label.
Minnick’s ambitions have long been clear: He’d like to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Some critics say that drove him to push the company he headed for years to grow at a risky pace. That push included a venture into a business sideline that eventually forced the company to write off millions in losses, and led to his departure from the firm.
But Minnick also presided over many risky but successful ventures, building the company from a small firm with $78 million in sales and fewer than 1,000 employees to a world leader in engineered lumber products, with $630 million in sales and 4,000 employees.
“I think the essence of being an effective CEO is being willing to take large risks if they have large gains associated with them,” said Minnick.
FROM WALLA WALLA TO WHITE HOUSE
Minnick grew up on a Walla Walla wheat farm that was homesteaded by his great-grandfather. It was 30 miles downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Both of Minnick’s sons were born with birth defects; he wonders if there’s a connection. “That’s one of the things that made me sensitive to the nuclear issue,” he said.
The local boy shone at Whitman College, where his dad was a trustee. He took national honors in debate, was fraternity president, graduated summa cum laude.
“He was extremely popular, had a very high profile at Whitman,” recalled Minnick’s first wife, JoAnne. “He excelled at whatever he did.”
The only boy among four siblings and two cousins, Minnick said his family expected him to be a farmer. He decided to be a lawyer like his father.
After he earned law and business degrees from Harvard and did his Army service in Washington, D.C., a law school friend who was on the White House staff recommended Minnick to his bosses. Nixon aide John Ehrlichman was looking for someone to coordinate a new international anti-drug effort.
Minnick, age 27, got the job.
Egil “Bud” Krogh, who was deputy assistant to the president, said, “He struck me as one of the brightest people I’d ever met.”
Krogh credits Minnick with designing the DEA. “He saw that the overlapping jurisdictions, the interagency conflict and the sheer redundancy within the United States government impeded its ability to be effective in the international arena.”
“It was very, very exciting,” Minnick said. “We basically put together the foundations of the nation’s drug program.”
After three years at the White House, Minnick resigned in protest over Watergate. Krogh was among those who served prison time.
Minnick began searching for where he really wanted to live. An avid fly-fisherman and outdoorsman, he picked Boise, and started at Trus Joist Corp. as a management trainee.
‘BEST JOB I EVER HAD’
One year after arriving at Trus Joist, Minnick was made Boise plant manager. He remembers that as “the best job I ever had,” although he held it for less than a year.
“You were a very important person in the lives of about 80 people and a set of customers.”
The plant had no executive perks, and everyone used first names. Within a few years, Minnick was company president. He was 36.
He pressed for “participative management.” Minnick decided that employees should be called “associates.”
Workers owned a third of the stock and had a stake in the company’s performance. “Associates” voted on what benefits to add when company profits were up, and what to cut when times were tough.
Bob Linville, a Trus Joist board member for 29 years, remembers being impressed that Minnick could walk into a plant anywhere and strike up a conversation with the workers.
ENVIRONMENTAL STAND MAKES WAVES
Outside of work, Minnick worked for his two favorite causes: education and conservation. He served on boards and committees promoting education, and was a trustee of Albertson College.
He also testified in favor of more wilderness, and wrote frequent letters to the editor opposing below-cost timber sales on public lands.
“It made a lot of suppliers and customers mad as hell,” he admitted. “I would try to keep it from affecting our business.”
But Minnick liked to point to his company as an example of environmentally responsible use of forest products.
“We always stretched the forest resource further,” he said. One of TJ’s best-known products, an engineered I-beam that creates a “silent floor,” uses 55 percent as much wood fiber as standard 2-by-10 board construction.
Minnick likes to say he made his living “turning trees into jobs.”
Joe Hinson, vice president of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, said, “The thing that probably has aggravated our folks as much as anything else is Walt portraying himself as a timber person. Timber people are people that own sawmills and make boards out of logs. Walt’s company bought finished lumber and turned it into trusses and other products.”
Minnick made some high-risk moves that paid off big for Trus Joist, including moving the company into products for residential construction and going into a partnership with a Canadian timber giant. That partnership brought in new engineered lumber products and helped open international markets.
But his investment in the wood window business went sour in a big way. After a couple of highly profitable years, the wood window business began to suffer both from market conditions, and from the advent of cheaper vinyl windows.
“Maybe Walt hung onto it too long, trying to turn it around,” said Steven Dietrich, an analyst with Jensen Securities in Portland.
After the losses, Minnick wanted to replace the window operations with other companies. The joint venture with Canadian timber firm MacMillan-Bloedel diluted profits from TJ’s core products, and he worried that if TJ didn’t grow in other ways, it could be dominated by its much-larger partner.
The company’s board refused. Board members wanted to focus on their original products, which always had been successful.
Linville said he thought Minnick had become infatuated with growth. “He wanted so bad to be in the Fortune 500. He wanted to be a big shot, wanted a big, growing company - to the point where he got away from the bottom line.”
Minnick said making the Fortune 500 was among the company’s stated aims for several years. But he couldn’t persuade the board to stick with his aggressive strategy, after it was “spooked” by the window loss.
“The board decided I wasn’t the right person for the job any more, and I did not disagree,” Minnick said. “I really should have been moving to a larger company anyway. … If you’re a professional manager, most of us would like to manage a Fortune 500 company.”
TJ sold the window business, and reported a $30 million loss in 1995. But it remained well-respected by the stock market.
“Walt definitely wanted growth and a bigger top line and a larger … company,” Dietrich said, “but I don’t know any CEO of a publicly held company who secretly wouldn’t want the same thing, maybe even to a fault.”
Three years after Minnick became president at TJ, he and JoAnne separated, then divorced. She went back to school, and became a school teacher. The two are friendly, and she’s supporting his run for office.
Minnick remarried nearly a decade later. Now he and A.K. Lienhart-Minnick, a former television anchorwoman, have a 3-year-old son. His other two children are grown.
Minnick’s departure from TJ came with a year’s pay and stock options. He’s a multimillionaire, and planned to take a year off before seeking a new CEO job.
But Minnick’s jogging partners include some state Democratic Party officials. They, along with Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, leaned on Minnick to run for the U.S. Senate.
Kerrey told Minnick the Senate needed people who are non-ideological. Kerrey has been recruiting non-traditional candidates, including successful business people.
Minnick wasn’t persuaded until Kerrey brought him a poll that suggested he could beat Sen. Larry Craig.
“I was always a moderate Republican,” Minnick said. “I never voted for a Democrat until I came to Idaho.”
Minnick was upset when George Hansen, whom he considered a “right-wing nut,” defeated Idaho Congressman Orval Hansen in a primary.
“I found myself increasingly supporting Democrats, who in Idaho are pretty moderate. These are not Seattle Democrats, the Cecil Andruses of the world.”
Andrus has strongly backed Minnick, although Minnick endorsed Republican Brent Coles over Andrus’ daughter, Tracy, in a Boise mayoral race. Minnick said he preferred Coles’ stand on growth.
Once he decided to run for Senate, Minnick said he knew he’d have to pour his own money into the race, because unknown challengers can’t raise enough to be competitive. He’s put in more than $300,000 so far.
“I did not enter this race to lose, or as a stepping stone to something else,” he said. “I entered it with only one thought, and that was to win.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WALT MINNICK Resume: Age, 54 … bachelor’s degree in economics from Whitman College, MBA and law degree from Harvard … Army ROTC, served as Army officer in Washington, D.C., as the Vietnam war was winding down … practiced law in Portland, then served on President Nixon’s White House staff from 1971 to 1973; joined Trus Joist Corp. in 1974 as a management trainee, rose to president and CEO, left the company in 1995 … first run for public office … headed Albertson College of Idaho board of trustees, Bogus Basin Recreation Association Board, Business School Advisory Committee for Boise State University; served on board of Wilderness Society, Eljer Industries, MacMillan-Bloedel Ltd., Idaho Business Council, American Business Conference … Born and raised in Walla Walla, moved to Boise in 1974 … married with three children. Finances: As of last finance report, had raised $1.1 million, including $670,157 in individual contributions, $28,653 from PACs and $371,643 of his own money. Why running: “Because I think the direction that the federal government is going is fundamentally wrong on some issues of critical importance to Idaho and America: federal fiscal responsibility, funding for education, nuclear waste, campaign finance reform. I think it’s time to replace a few career politicians with some folks who have lived their life in Idaho, met a payroll and raised a family here, and better reflect Idaho values.” What would he do first: “Stop future shipments of nuclear waste into Idaho - that’ll be my first and most immediate priority.”