Seeing the Forest for the Trees
PROFILE Kevin Hancock
Kevin Hancock is intent on both the big picture and the little
Only a few of Maine’s natural resources have become synonymous with the state’s image. There is the blazing red lobster, the plump blueberries, and, of course, the eastern white pine tree.
As the tallest tree in the eastern United States, the hardy white pine has long thrived in Maine’s cool but humid climate. The minimally branching tree has been exceptionally popular ever since it was sawn into wide boards and long beams at the nation’s first documented sawmill near York in 1623.
In those days, the British Navy claimed the straightest, tallest white pines in the name of the king. The “king pine,” as they came to be called, were emblazoned with the royal mark before they were cut down and hewed into masts and spars for sailing ships. At the birth of the nation, white pine was one of America’s most sought-after commodities—and the Maine woods, in particular, were overflowing with it. In fact, by the time Maine broke from Massachusetts in 1820 to become the 23rd state, it was already recognized as the “Pine Tree State.” The eastern white pine has since become the official state tree, and its pinecone and tassel the state flower.
Today, a single Maine company is the largest producer of eastern white pine in all of North America, churning out some 90-million board feet of the lightweight, durable wood per year. It would be unsurprising if such an operation were run from swanky offices in a major urban center, but instead the nearly 160-year-old Hancock Lumber company has remained in the location where its roots first took hold. Kevin Hancock, the sixth-generation Hancock to sit at the helm of the lumber dynasty, presides over the business from a pine-paneled office overlooking Pleasant Lake in Casco. His modest office is just a few yards from the site of the first permanent Hancock sawmill that was built after the company was established in 1848.
What began as a logging operation with two-man crosscut saws and a few teams of horses has grown to encompass three large, modern sawmills in Casco, Pittsfield, and Bethel; nine retail lumberyards; 30,000 acres of timberland; and more than 500 employees.
Even though Hancock Lumber experienced a great deal of growth under the leadership of Kevin’s father, David, the business has grown even more since Kevin took over the reins in 1998. But Kevin Hancock’s tenure as the president and CEO of Hancock Lumber wasn’t a forgone conclusion—in fact, it almost didn’t happen.
Born into Wood
Hancock, who looks particularly young and bright-eyed for his 41 years, was born and raised around lumber. While old family photos capture Hancock and his younger brother, Matt, sitting atop stacks of pine or playing in piles of sawdust, Hancock insists that he never seriously considered joining the family business until much later in life.
Hancock went through Casco’s public school system and graduated from Lakes Region High School in 1984. At Bowdoin College, he continued to pursue his passion for basketball, eventually becoming the team captain before graduating in 1988. After college, Hancock taught history and coached boy’s basketball at Bridgton Academy for three years. Though Hancock dreamed of coaching college basketball, and even considered leaving Bridgton for a coaching position at Illinois State University, he simply couldn’t bring himself to leave Maine. Rather than leave, Hancock decided to enroll in the University of Maine School of Law in 1991. But, just two weeks before the start of the school year, Hancock changed his mind and began working at the front counter of Hancock Lumber’s Yarmouth store. “I’m not an impulsive person,” Hancock says today, shaking his head with a look that seems to say he’s still somewhat surprised by the decision.
Though David Hancock was diagnosed with cancer the same summer his son took the Yarmouth job (he eventually lost his battle against the disease in 1997), Kevin Hancock can’t trace his decision to join the family business back to any one event or moment—rather, he says, it was the result of a confluence of life experiences. “My father never pressured me to work here,” Hancock says. “I chose to do this. In any kind of family business, I think it’s important that family members feel free to make their own decisions.”
Today, Hancock appears mindful of, yet not stifled by, the Hancock legacy. “The way I see it,” he says, “I work for this company; this company doesn’t work for me. I believe in stewardship more than ownership, and I intend to leave the business in better shape than I found it.”
Stewardship is an important word to Kevin Hancock. Beyond the family business itself, he extends the principle of stewardship to the careful nurturing of Maine’s precious pine resource. “We grow trees—that’s how I think of our business,” Hancock says. “And then we harvest some.”
Hancock sees wood—“renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable”—as the most environmentally friendly resource on the planet, and he says that the company’s lumber practices are the antithesis of those dark days when the timber industry simply clear-cut huge tracts of land and moved on. Three full-time foresters are employed on Hancock’s staff, and they strategically plan out how the company’s 30,000 acres will be harvested. While many mature white pines are cut down to open the forest canopy, allow in more sunlight, and accelerate the growth of younger trees, Hancock says that many older trees are left undisturbed so that they can drop their pinecones and continually rejuvenate the forest. With the timber it does harvest, Hancock Lumber goes to great lengths to ensure that every inch is utilized.
The company’s “100% Log Utilization” system uses the bulk of a tree for boards and lumber, but then sends bark mulch to landscapers, saw dust to local farmers, wood chips to paper mills, and wood shavings to manufacturers of animal bedding. Signs bearing the phrase “Eastern White Pine is Our Gold” are commonplace around Hancock Lumber, and the company’s conscientious practices have earned certifications from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council.
“There is so much in Maine that we’d all like to bottle and preserve,” Kevin Hancock says. “But then, like people in every other state, there are things we’d like to change, too. The question often ends up being, how can we do both without spending too much money?” While he doesn’t claim to have all the answers to that question, Hancock isn’t sitting back and waiting for someone else to come up with answers, either.
Last year, a lengthy report, entitled “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places,” was released by the Brookings Institution, the oldest public-policy think tank in the country and the same group that President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to for advice during the Great Depression. While many people across the state eagerly awaited the report, Hancock actually helped raise the money that GrowSmart Maine needed to commission the report in the first place. “It can be tough today to get the citizenry of Maine thinking longer term,” says Hancock. He hopes the suggestions offered in the Brookings report will provide some guidance. “‘Always changing to remain the same’ has become something of a motto around here,” Hancock says. It’s a phrase he lives by.
For many in the business world, “globalization” has become a scary word. Hancock, on the other hand, has kept an incredibly positive attitude about the opening of the world market. Where others have worried about losing business to faster and cheaper competitors, Hancock has seen globalization as an opportunity to raise his company’s standards of quality and compete in the global market. “Your attitude tends to become your self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says, “and I believe globalization has had a positive effect on this company.”
“We’re now competing with mills around the world,” Hancock says matter-of-factly, citing Scandinavia, Chile, Russia, and New Zealand. As a response, Hancock has turned what was once a little sawmill in Casco into a major player on the national and international scenes—of the 90-million board feet of white pine the company produced last year, Hancock estimates that just 5 million stayed in Maine and New England, and the other 85 million was shipped across the United States and to far-flung destinations in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Hancock is currently working to negotiate new contracts in China.
Hancock has also kept a positive attitude about the occasional and inevitable downturns in the construction market. He says that each decline in the market has been an opportunity for the company to not only refine its core strengths, but also diversify its business. “Those downturns force us to look at every corner of our business practices,” Hancock says, “and encourage us to remain diversified.” He likes to look at every minute detail of what Hancock Lumber does, from how the retail stores are run to how its sister company, Hancock Land Company, is managing the woodlots. And it’s the company’s commitment to ongoing refinement and diversification that has led to much of its success. For example, Hancock’s custom-kitchen de-signs are so popular that the operation is almost a business within the business. The company also offers construction financing for builders, has struck a nearly exclusive alliance with Marvin Windows and Doors, and recently began producing engineered building components such as wall panels and roof and floor trusses.
“Diversity is a hedge against slow business,” says Hancock.
“Simply put,” Kevin Hancock says, “I’m passionate about Maine.” He is so passionate, in fact, that he still regularly coaches basketball, serves as the President of the Bridgton Academy Board of Trustees, and is on a special committee weighing the realities of Maine’s consolidation and regionalization of its school districts. Hancock is so ardent about public service that he even considered running for governor in the last gubernatorial election. While the timing didn’t feel right, for both his business and family obligations, Hancock doesn’t rule out the possibility of seeking the state’s highest office at some point in the future. “Right now,” he says, ”I am 100% focused on Hancock Lumber but given the right set of business conditions I would consider devoting a few years of my career to public service.” Until then, Hancock seems intent on spreading his infectious passion for Maine in as many ways as he can.
Hanging from one of the many large industrial buildings at Hancock’s sawmill in Casco is a banner that reads: “Manufacturing Stays in this Country.” In the Planer Mill, where finished white pine boards run along a brightly lit conveyor belt and a row of men sort them into various grades of quality, there is a slightly different version of the banner. In bold red type below “Manufacturing Stays in This Country” are the words “Lean In!” While the first banner may seem like a simple morale-building motto, the second one adds a sobering qualification to the statement: success is fickle and it depends on the continued effort and investment of the entire team. The banner couldn’t be more appropriate to the company or its president. For while Kevin Hancock has experienced great success leading his family’s company over the peaks and through the valleys of the timber and construction industries, he would be the last person to sit back and grow complacent.