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Simkins to step down as Washington Companies CEO after 21 years
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Simkins to step down as Washington Companies CEO after 21 years

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Larry Simkins, who has led the Missoula-based Washington Companies as its president and chief executive officer through more than two decades of dramatic expansion and operational success, will retire, the company announced Tuesday.

Simkins, a native of Helena and a University of Montana alum, has spent 21 years at the helm of the Washington Companies.

“I want to personally thank (Simkins) for his dedication, leadership and friendship over the years. He has been critical to the success of The Washington Companies throughout his tenure as he worked to successfully diversify our businesses, expand our footprint and develop strong leadership teams that will oversee the success of these companies for multiple generations,” owner Dennis Washington said. “I am grateful for his partnership and … wish him well in the future.”

Simkins will be succeeded by Mark Lamarre, currently CEO of Seaspan Shipyards, one of the Washington Companies. Lamarre will also replace Simkins on the Washington Companies board.

Simkins took over the leadership of the company on the eve of 9/11. He has worked for the company since 1988, when he was hired as its first internal auditor. From there, he would move to Envirocon, one of Washington’s Missoula-based companies, as controller, and would later run Westran, a heavy-haul trucking operation, before becoming the Washington Companies' executive vice president, then assuming the top job.

In the earlier years of his time at Washington Companies, Simkins said, he hadn’t gotten to know Washington. It was only the day before his leadership role was announced that he met with Washington at Grant Creek Ranch.

“On September 9, 2001, we sat on the porch at the ranch house and he asked me, ‘Do you think you can do this?’” Simkins recalled Friday.

“I told him I could, and the next day he announced that I would be leading the company.”

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When he started, Simkins said, he had “zero” expectation that he would play such a pivotal role in the company’s development.

Simkins was just 39 years old. Since getting his bachelors degree in accounting and his CPA, he’d worked as a Federal Reserve bank examiner and in his various posts within the Washington Companies. Then, he was put in the position of charting the company’s future.

Since that fateful day, “I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to work side by side for two decades with one of the greatest industrial entrepreneurs of our generation,” Simkins said. “One of the best things about the job has been the opportunity to meet and spend time with so many amazing people, and Dennis is at the top of that list.”

One of the moments that stands out in Simkins’ memory was Washington’s decision to reopen the Montana Resources copper and molybdenum mine in Butte.

The mine was closed when Simkins took over, but he believed the mine could operate profitably, and had a great future. At the time of the closure, Washington owned only 51 percent. ASARCO owned 49 percent.  “It was a tough time,” Simkins said. “We worked with Judy Martz and her administration, and we worked hard with Don Peoples in Butte and with Frank Gardner, who came out of retirement to get it going.”

He remembers going to meet with Washington to advocate for reopening the mine. Washington was aboard his yacht, Attessa III, which was in dry dock being refurbished.

“Dennis said, ‘Hey, come take a tour,’” Simkins remembered. “He was in T-shirt and jeans. We walked around and looked at the boat, and finally sat down in this (unfinished) room with plywood all the way around. I took out a folder and showed him the projections, and he made the commitment. So I got the go-ahead not in a boardroom, but in the bowels of a boat in a shipyard."

Simkins said Washington “was just getting into the container business,” and was expecting China’s economic resurgence, which he knew would drive up the price of copper.

Still, when the mine reopened in 2003, the price was still only 76 cents a pound, and “we had to swallow hard to jump in and do it,” Simkins said. Eventually, Washington got 100 percent ownership, and the rest is history. Since reopening, the mine has prospered, and metals prices have trended steadily up over the past couple of years in particular.

The great expansion of Seaspan, which began as a tug and barge operation in Vancouver and has grown into a vast shipbuilding company, is another highlight of Simkins’ tenure. In 2011, the firm won the contract to build all non-combat ships for the government of Canada. Since then, Seaspan has built three ocean science vessels and is working on two massive joint-support ships, the vessels that can provision aircraft carriers with food and fuel while they are at sea, and a polar icebreaker. The company has $8 billion in orders on the books.

“Mark Lamarre has done a really terrific job” at Seaspan, Simkins says. “The tug and barge business has become a shipyard business that also has a tug and barge” component.

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Simkins said he hasn’t really had much time to think about what he’ll do in his retirement. "I’m going to fish the Bear Trap (on the Madison River) the first week in October," he said. "Maybe I’ll even get to ski on a Wednesday."

Lamarre joined the company in 2018. “We found him in Australia, building ships down there,” Simkins said. “He was commuting back and forth to the United States. Canada was a lot closer than Australia.”

The recent agreement to sell Montana Rail Link to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad is an important completion for Simkins. The Washington Companies reportedly were paid a sum approaching $2 billion to end the lease, turning the freight business over to BNSF.

Montana Rail Link’s lease with Burlington Northern would have run until 2047, but with only 25 years remaining in the 60-year lease, the reality of purchasing rail bed equipment and rolling stock that would last longer than the lease meant the time was right to make the move, Simkins said.

“The lease was written in such a way that we would eventually have this discussion,” he said.

“So I met with Greg Abel (Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO) and Katie Farmer (CEO of BNSF), and the outcome was terrific. All of our employees are being retained, and Montana Rail Link will continue as a subdivision of BNSF.

“Montana Rail Link has a special culture within the rail industry, and to be able to keep that and find that perfect home for them was really important.”

Another highlight for Simkins has been working with the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. Founded in 1988, the foundation was sized at about $20 million when Simkins began his tenure as CEO. Now, Simkins said, the foundation has roughly $1 billion in assets.

Areas of focus for the foundation are education, community service, arts & culture, and health & human services.

According to the foundation’s website, it “supports a broad spectrum of worthy organizations benefiting at-risk youth, economically and socially disadvantaged individuals and families, and those with special needs.”

In Missoula, the foundation helped finance the construction of Washington Grizzly Stadium in addition to providing many scholarships. The foundation has supported Montana Special Olympics for many years, and has been a major contributor to Missoula, Butte and Billings YMCAs and Missoula and Billings Boys and Girls Clubs.

In Butte, the foundation has provided the funding to revitalize Stodden Park, site of the city’s Ridge Waters swimming pool complex, Highland View Golf Course, a deluxe playground, tennis courts, ball fields, the Spirit of Columbia Gardens Carousel and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The foundation also helps to fund four-year full-ride scholarships to Montana Tech for Butte students who come from families that have not previously been able to take advantage of higher education.

Simkins said the dramatic increase in funding for the foundation was made possible by applying “excess cash flow” from the Washington Companies.

“I have watched Mrs. Washington’s endeavors with the foundation. She’s so passionate about what she’s doing and it’s been phenomenal to watch her generosity and her effectiveness.”

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Larry Simkins, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Companies for over two decades, is retiring. Simkins was hired in 1988 as the company's first internal auditor and took over leadership on the eve of 9/11.

The growth of the Washington Companies itself has also been dramatic. Valued at around $1 billion when Simkins took over, the company is now worth somewhere around 10 times that.

One accomplishment in Simkins’ time as CEO may not be so obvious from the outside, but it’s something he’s particularly proud of.

“All of our companies do really dangerous work,” he said. “We’re in mining, railroads, shipyards, heavy machinery.

“We already had a culture of safety, but it has been a focus of mine since day one, and it’s been ramped up to a whole new level. Any incident had to be reported to me, and a lot of times I’d call and follow up personally. Every week near-misses and accidents are reported. We then compile monthly reports, and every board meeting starts with a safety report.

“And over 21 years, I’m proud to say our incident rates have been reduced to half of what they were. Every industry we’re in, we lead that industry.

"You go to bed at night thinking about those families. It’s constantly on your mind," he said.

While Simkins will leave his posts on the Washington Companies Board and on the boards of the other companies, he will keep his board seat on the publicly traded Atlas Corp. (NYSE: ATCO). Washington owns a 23 percent stake in the company that has grown from a small container-ship leasing company, starting in 2005 with just five ships, to 200 ships today with 60 being built. It is now the largest container-ship lessor with more than two million container units. It has also diversified into providing other services, including mobile power, for companies globally.

During Simkins’ time at the helm, another Washington company, Aviation Partners Inc., has grown and thrived. It builds blended winglets for commercial jet aircraft. First tested on Dennis Washington’s personal Gulfstream, the technology has been installed on more than 70 percent of the Gulfstream II fleet and is flying on more than 8,000 business and commercial aircraft, including many Boeing aircraft.

Dennis Washington said, “I am pleased to welcome Mark Lamarre, a proven leader with an impeccable track record, as the new President and CEO of Washington Companies.”

The company also announced several other leadership changes:

- John McCarthy will assume the CEO role at Seaspan Shipyards, replacing Lamarre.

- Jerry Lemon, now Washington Companies’ Chief Financial Officer, will become president of Washington Investments.

- Jeff Schwarz, currently president of Modern Machinery, will oversee the construction entities, Modern Machinery and Envirocon.

- Matt Rose, retired president of BNSF and currently a Washington Companies board member, will become president of the foundation.

All in all, Simkins is deeply gratified to be leaving the company in great condition to meet the future.

Dennis Washington’s sons Kevin and Kyle “have been on the Washington Companies board for about a decade,” Simkins said. "Both have their own interests, but they are involved in the family business at the board level. The company is set up to succeed for multiple generations."

Simkins said he hasn’t really had much time to think about what he’ll do in his retirement.

"I’m going to fish the Bear Trap (on the Madison River) the first week in October," he said. "Maybe I’ll even get to ski on a Wednesday.

"I might even get to ski on a Wednesday with Bob Rowe," he said with a laugh. Rowe recently announced he will retire as CEO of NorthWestern Energy.

When he started, Simkins said, he had “zero” expectation that he would play such a pivotal role in the company’s development.

"You just keep your head down, and work, and things just happen along the way."

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