The eastern white pine panels in Matt Hancock's office, straight from the Hancock Lumber sawmills down the road, smell like a fresh pine forest. A large, scenic photograph that Hancock '90 proudly displays above his desk boasts the focus of a recent land deal,the purchase of famed Tumbledown Mountain in western Maine.
More and more in the lumber business of the 21st century, the two,business and natural beauty,go hand in hand.
Hancock and his brother, Kevin, a Bowdoin graduate, run Hancock Land Company and Hancock Lumber Company, a family enterprise started in 1848. The brothers are the sixth generation. When their father passed away in 1997 and his sons inherited the business, Matt had been running the sawmills and Kevin was heading the retail stores.
The land company did a tiny bit of land business but bore no resemblance to the operation the Hancocks run today. "It was a completely decaffeinated company," Matt Hancock said. "We had to caffeinate it, add some sugar and bring it to life."
Since the reinvention of Hancock Land in 1997, the company has expanded its land base from 8,000 acres to almost 40,000 acres. The firm operates as two companies, Hancock Land and Hancock Lumber, managed by the same board of directors.
It's all part of an emerging trend in the timber industry, one that melds conservation and business in a relationship that benefits both interests. The Hancocks are leading the charge.
"There are a lot of overnight conservationists out there," Matt Hancock said. "The concept of being passionate about it is still relatively unique."
Matt Hancock '90 has moved his family's lumber and land companies into the forefront of conservation in Maine.
Illustration by Fred Field
And passionate he is. In June 2001 Hancock Lumber was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, one of the most rigorous certifying bodies in the world, and became one of only two FSC "green-certified" companies in Maine. Being green-certified means taking an approach to the land different from the approach more conventional, old-style timber companies take. Rather than harvesting all of the trees and then selling the land for development, he explains, the new thinking is long term. "We like to go in and, to the best of our ability, manage poor form and poor quality trees on that site," Hancock said. "Even though they are poor form or poor quality, we are still taking fiber to the market and maintaining a cash flow mechanism. In fifteen to seventeen years, we'll be able to go back in and do the same thing, instead of waiting more than 80 years for regrowth."
Tumbledown Mountain, just north of Mt. Blue State Park, is one of Maine's favorite day hikes, with three peaks and a "jewel-like alpine lake," according to the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer. To make the Tumbledown project work, Hancock Land put up the money to buy land that was for sale. The company then sold Tumbledown Pond and the well-known hiking trail as a conservation easement and sold another parcel to the state. As a private family enterprise, Hancock Land doesn't have the luxury of carrying long-term debt. The company worked with three state agencies and several conservation groups to ensure that conservation dollars would be available. "Tumbledown is a classic multi-party endeavor, one of the things that makes these deals so interesting," Hancock said. "I technically owned the land the trail is on for a few days, and I have to say it was pretty neat to go up there at that time."
Expanding the firm's land base will add to the vitality of the industry and reduce its reliance on other landowners. The Casco and Sebago region, where the Hancocks operate, has been affected by Portland's suburban sprawl, which has led to forest fragmentation and liquidation harvesting. "You've got a lot of second homes, and houses are getting bigger," Hancock said, "and that's fine and dandy for the retail business. But not managing that in a more appropriate way is leading to a shrinking [of the] land base that's needed to feed the forest products industry."
Hancock predicts that being green-certified will be a necessity to compete in the future. Buyers, such as Home Depot and conglomerate Time Warner, which relies on timber companies for pulp and paper, have been pressured by consumers to ensure that products are "green." More and more, those major players will want to buy from green-certified companies, Hancock believes.
He recognizes that the first priority is for the company to succeed over the long term. "I don't do this just because I feel a sense of responsibility that someone needs to be out in the marketplace doing this. I feel more passion and enthusiasm about being part of a six-generation legacy. When I look at the pictures of my dad and my grandfather and my great-grandfather and so on, I feel a sense of pride. I have three daughters and my brother has two, so it looks like it's going to be a seventh generation of women, which is awesome.
"It's fun stuff," he said. "My colleagues [including Peter McKinley '87] here are fantastic. When you have a culture that's permeated with doing great stuff, it's amazing the talent you can attract to carry this charge with you. We are growing as quickly as good deals present themselves. We're not going back to eight thousand acres."