Harry Merlo, the former long-timer chief executive officer of Louisiana-Pacific Corp., died Oct. 24. He was 91.
From 1973 to 1995, when Merlo led Louisiana-Pacific, the publicly-traded company was based in Portland. That was a different era, when the city had more Fortune 500 companies headquartered here and when timber was still king in Oregon.
Louisiana Pacific's origin is a fascinating part of Oregon history. In the early 1970s, federal regulators decided that Georgia-Pacific, a timber company also headquartered in Portland, controlled too much timber and had to be broken up.
At the time, Georgia-Pacific was run by Robert Pamplin, Sr., the father of the man who now owns The Portland Tribune, Community Newspapers and Ross Island Sand & Gravel, among other interests.
From the time Georgia-Pacific spun off Louisiana-Pacific in 1972, Merlo ran the company in a swashbuckling fashion that stood out in Portland's staid corporate culture. He enjoyed the use of a 107-foot company yacht, a private jet and company-owned West Hills estate complete with a chef and helipad. Merlo favored brightly-colored sports jackets, wore a Clark Gable mustache, and spent his leisure hours with a series of beautiful women.
Merlo's time at LP ended abruptly in 1995 after customers began a series of lawsuits against the company over a product that made Merlo wealthy: oriented-strand board, a building material made from wood scraps and glue. Oriented-strand board absorbed moisture, buckling and growing mold.
The lawsuits would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.
Louisiana-Pacific moved its headquarters to Nashville in 2004, following the lead of its former parent company, Georgia-Pacific, which moved to Atlanta in 1982.
After leaving Louisiana Pacific, Merlo focused on a winery, Lago de Merlo, he owned in Sonoma County, Calif., and a 12,000-acre ranch he owned near La Grande.
He also played a major role in Portland's growth as a soccer city. He'd owned the Portland Timbers from 1979 to 1982 and kept former Timbers player Clive Charles in Portland. Charles built the University of Portland's women's soccer program into a national power and the stadium where they play—and regularly lead the nation's Division 1 programs in attendance—is named Merlo field.
Merlo generally kept a low profile in his later years, although in 2013, WW reported his involvement in an unsuccessful effort to convert the city's water bureau into a public utility district.
Merlo's death last week attracted surprisingly little attention, perhaps because he outlived many of the reporters and editors who knew of the place he'd held in this city.
One person who did mark Merlo's passing was the radio talk show host Lars Larson, who was with Merlo the day Merlo died.
"Harry must have told me a hundred times of his disgust at timber deals made by those who merely flew over a forest in a helicopter. Harry knew you only got to know a forest when you walked it, and cut it, and smelled the fir or the redwood with your own nose," Larson wrote in a remembrance of his long-time friend. "He lived and breathed woodpiles to the last day of his life."