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Building an Empire

Bob McCracken’s relationship with Edward Suttell quickly blossomed. “We got on very well,” Suttell said. By 1977, Bob and his partners had convinced Suttell to leave Gunnerson and come to work for Patrick Lumber in the U.S. The idea was that it would be a good idea to have an Australian in the U.S. handling that business as a means to make Australian customers more comfortable dealing with one of their own. It was also an opportunity for Suttell to learn more about the business in the U.S.—get to know the suppliers and help them to understand the subtleties of the Australian market.

He moved to the U.S. in 1977 and worked for Patrick in Portland for a little more than three years. By that time, the Australian business was very strong. Sales to Australia in 1979 totaled nearly $12 million, fully 45% of all export sales at the time. The wood going to Australia and other export markets at the time was coming from dozens of different mills large and small, including Avison Lumber, Willamette Industries, Simpson, Roseburg Lumber, Sierra Pacific, D.R. Johnson, Rough & Ready, Zip-O-Log, and more than 60 others. Martha Kessler, who joined Patrick Lumber in 1976 and is still working for the company now, nearly 40 years later, remembers handling bulk break shipments out of the Port of Coos Bay, bound for Australia. “About once a month we’d send dozens of trucks of lumber to Coos Bay to be loaded break bulk style right into the ship’s hold,” she said. “We also shipped quite a bit of wood overseas by barge.”    

With Australia such a big part of the business the company decided the time was right to establish an in-country presence and in 1980, Edward Suttell was send back to his homeland to open Patrick Lumber (Australia), Pty. Ltd. in 1980, with offices in Melbourne. Establishing this in-country presence served as a springboard for Patrick to gain significant market share. By 1990 Patrick held 25% of the Australian market for North American softwood, which at the time was estimated to be 200 mmbf. Much of the product being shipped consisted of “Australian Merch” (6×12 and wider and 8×10 and wider, up to 34 feet long) and Australian scantlings (2×4 to 2×12 up to 24 feet long.

“In the hey day,” recalls Gary Pittman, a mill salesman for Roseburg Forest Products, “we were shipping millions of feet per month through Patrick to Australia. It started out as mostly Australian Merch, which was being remanufactured over there into scantlings. The scantling were subject to a pretty high import duty over there which is why we didn’t ship much of that product. But then we figured out we could avoid the duty if we made scantlings and then roughed them up a bit. So we started making scantlings, running then through a planer to make ‘em smooth and then running them through again with a rougher head to rough them up. And that put us in the scantling business.”

In 1977, just as the Australian business was beginning to take off, Bob McCracken hired his nephew, John McCracken. John’s father, Paul McCracken, had partnered to open Tumac Lumber in 1959, but Tumac had an unwritten policy that the owners would not hire their family members. So John went to work with Bob at Patrick and Pete McCracken, another nephew did the same. John McCracken stayed with the company for about 15 years, most of that time working with Bob, Tom Carstensen and Edward Suttell on export business in Australia and Europe.