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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Richards, former Potlatch CEO, remembered for loyalty to workers

John Richards is shown with Fernan Elementary kindergarten teacher Teri Burch in this 2004 photo. Richards had given a grant to the EXCEL Foundation on behalf of Potlatch Corp. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

On the day they sold the family sawmill business, John Richards and his twin brother, Tom, got up at 3 a.m.

They visited the company’s three mills, personally telling each shift of workers about the decision to sell Idaho Forest Industries to a Portland firm, Stimson Lumber Co.

John Richards died July 25 at 81. He was part of a storied North Idaho timber family and also worked for Potlatch Corp., where he retired as chairman in 1999.

Richards and his brother were known for their ability to relate to shift workers as well as managers. Under their leadership, Idaho Forest Industries had a reputation as a steady employer during turbulent years in the timber industry. The Richards were also philanthropists who quietly gave back to the community.

“John really looked at the employees as an extended family. He did things for workers I didn’t see another CEO do,” said Penn Siegel, who worked with Richards at Potlatch and later succeeded him as the chief executive.

When Potlatch moved its corporate headquarters to Spokane from San Francisco in 1997, a consultant advised Richards to transfer key employees and offer severances to the rest.

“John decided that they were all key employees, and we’d take care of them,” said Siegel, who retired from Potlatch in 2006.

When an Asian-American employee and his African-American wife were followed in a Spokane store by one of its workers, Richards made a point of talking to the manager about the discriminatory behavior, Siegel said. Richards also helped employees through family crises, including finding a way to provide health insurance to a child with a serious illness not covered under the company’s policy.

John Richards and his brother, Tom, were born March 17, 1937, in Spokane. When the twins were 5, the family moved to an old farm house in Hayden Lake. Their father thought a country lifestyle would be healthier for the boys. The twins went to Hayden Lake Grade School with children who would later work for them.

John Richards graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics and earned an MBA at Harvard Business School. In a 2000 interview, Richards recalled that his dad frequently called him and his brother while they were in graduate school, encouraging them to finish their studies at Harvard and return home to run the family business.

Richards’ grandfather started working in the timber industry in the 1920s, supplying ties to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. Richards’ father, John S. Richards, later ran Atlas Tie Co., which merged with several other companies in 1969 to become Idaho Forest Industries.

John Richards started his career in the family business. He ran a mill in Fernwood, Idaho, and helped build a plywood plant in St. Maries. The plywood plant sold to Potlatch Corp., where Richards had a 29-year career while his brother ran Idaho Forest Industries.

“Like most people in the industry, John was honest,” Siegel said. The wood products industry is unusual, because large transactions are made with “handshakes over the phone … the paper work follows,” he said.

Richards’ tenure in the industry spanned several boom-and-bust cycles. He was active in lobbying for tariffs on softwood lumber imports from Canada, which U.S. producers said were unfairly subsidized by the Canadian government.

In 2000, the Richards sold Idaho Forest Industries to Stimson Lumber. They picked the Portland company from among several bidders, choosing it because it was also family owned, with similar values, they said at the time.

In 2014, both John and Tom Richards were inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame for their leadership in the timber industry and their charitable giving. The many organizations they supported included North Idaho College, Kootenai Health Foundation and the EXCEL Foundation, which provides grants to Coeur d’Alene teachers for innovative projects.

Richards is survived by his wife, Joy Richards of Hayden Lake; two sons, John Richards of Hayden and David Richards of Bellingham; daughter Morgan Richards Dyer of Hayden; brother Tom of Hayden Lake; three grandchildren and a niece and nephew.

A celebration of his life was held Sunday at the Hayden Lake Country Club.