Tom Stephens: Amnesiac or Poor Brand Manager?

By Brant Ran

Forest News Watch posted an interesting interview with Boise Cascade CEO Tom Stephens Friday.  When asked what effect “the agreement reached with Rainforest Action Network” had on day-to-day operations of Boise Cascade, Stephens responds in part that “I’m not aware of any agreement between the two parties, either before I came or after.”

Stephens is either experiencing memory loss or mincing words too carefully. At issue is “Boise and the Environment“, a 2003 document variously referred to in public relations materials from the company as a “statement”, “policy” or “commitment.”

While not a formal agreement like a contract, the statement certainly made a big impression. Boise’s press release describing “Boise’s commitment to work with environmental groups to successfully eliminate the purchase of wood products from endangered areas” earned feature coverage in the Wall Street Journal. That sounds a lot like an agreement to me–and a very public one that should register as such with Mr. Stephens and his Brand Managers.

Why? Because since Stephens took the reins at in 2004, Boise has diminished its reputation by taking two steps back from the step forward it made in 2003. The first step back was to pick a fight with RAN and others by quietly re-writing its “Boise and the Environment” commitments in 2005 just as its loggers were moving into Old Growth areas of the Deschutes National Forest. Step two followed another website re-write when  Boise ran into trouble early this year for selling paper sourced from disputed Indigenous lands to OfficeMax (links to pdf).

Boise’s current comments are summarized in its “Wood Procurement Policy” that contains no reference to its former 2003 statement. Prior commitments to work with conservation organizations on Endangered Areas, establish a robust chain-of-custody program, encourage reforestation by its suppliers, support wilderness area designations and report annually on its efforts are all missing.

Could Stephens reworking of Boise’s policies merely be a realistic response to Boise’s reorganization from logger to manufacturer? Maybe. Boise has, after all, made some good moves with Stephens at the helm.  But even if you think our beef is just the angry recriminations of an ENGO scorned, consider that Stephens could benefit from his own lesson in managing conflict and controversy. Had Stephens been more transparent with RAN and others about Boise’s policies and motives over the years, we could have anticipated these controversies and advised Boise on avoiding them without pulling its brand and those of its customers into the harsh light of a market campaign.

Next time maybe. Till then, I suggest Stephens contemplates his own advice: “communication is the key to resolving conflicts.”

I’ll add one more: agreements matter.