Fisher Companies, Inc.
Fisher Companies, Inc.
600 University Street, Suite 1525
Seattle, Washington 98101
Fax: (206) 682-7733
Sales: $250 million (1995 est.)
SICs: 6719 Holding Companies Not Elsewhere Classified; 2041 Flour & Other Grain Mill Products; 4833 Television Broadcasting Stations; 6531 Real Estate Agents & Managers
The owner of an unusual combination of businesses, Fisher Companies Inc. operates as the holding company for three distinct businesses—Fisher Mills Inc., Fisher Broadcasting Co., and Fisher Properties Inc.—involved in flour milling, radio and television broadcasting, and real estate, respectively. Majority owned by members of the Fisher family, Fisher Companies originated as a flour milling company in 1911, then went on to diversify into a host of other business, including radio broadcasting in the mid-1920s, television broadcasting in the early 1950s, and real estate in the early 1970s. For a half century the Fisher family businesses were stewarded by O.D. Fisher, who founded the Fisher family’s catalytic business concern, Fisher Flouring Mills, then developed the Fisher family fortune for the ensuing five decades. By the mid-1990s, Fisher Companies, through its subsidiaries, owned flour mills and flour distribution centers, television and radio stations, and various real estate properties.
When Oliver David (O.D.) Fisher arrived in Seattle in 1906, the 31-year old Missouri native had found his new home, deciding immediately that the entrepreneurial prospects in the region provided him with the opportunity to fulfill his ambitious business plans for the future. The decision to stay and build a business in Seattle came to O.D Fisher through an epiphany of sorts, prompted by a visit to the harbor abutting burgeoning downtown Seattle, where Fisher stood one day in 1906 and surveyed the bustling activity surrounding him. From his vantage point, Fisher could imagine more than he could see. Surrounding him was evidence of a thriving community abundant in natural resources and what promised to be an important commercial shipping waypoint. But Fisher, as was his custom, took in what he saw and thought on a grander scale, extrapolating the scene before him in terms of much larger issues concerning world trade and commerce. O.D. Fisher’s epiphany would arrive shortly, and when it did, the single most defining moment in the history of Fisher Companies would occur as well, marking the genesis of a family business that would evolve into a family empire, employing generations of O.D. Fisher’s descendants and thousands of others for decades to come.
According to business chroniclers of the era, as O.D. Fisher stood before Seattle’s harbor he thought of the underdeveloped markets in the Far East, considered the rapidly growing population and trade along the Pacific Coast, and factored in the construction of the Panama Canal, then reportedly declared to his father, his brothers, and presumably anyone else in earshot, “The markets of the entire world are before you.” Fisher’s proclamation was a sweeping, somewhat vague and detached statement to make, but considering what became of his fateful utterance, the words and the actions to follow fit together perfectly. Fisher had decided to organize a flour milling and marketing company that, once established, would become one of the largest of its kind in the country. From flour milling and marketing, the Fisher family business would diversify into lumber, radio, television, real estate, and candy manufacture, among other businesses, assembling an eclectic array of interests that at first blush appeared as sweeping and as detached as the words of the. man who had been instrumental in starting it all.
In the years bridging his birth and his arrival in Seattle in 1906, O.D. Fisher had established himself as an industrious worker with considerable experience in a broad assortment of businesses that would hold him in good stead once he organized his company in Seattle. Born in 1875 in Orleans, Missouri, Fisher began working at age ten, spending his hours away from school by helping to keep records at his father’s bank. By age 13, Fisher was farming corn and herding cattle. By age 16 he was working as a transit and compass man on a logging-railroad construction project. Then he worked as a bookkeeper and lumber camp store manager, before being put in charge of all merchandising and purchasing for a lumber company in Birch Tree, Missouri at age 19. Seven years later, in 1902, Fisher organized a livestock and mining firm, then the following year, along with his father and brothers, he acquired a flour mill in Belgrade, Montana, where he served as secretary and manager of the company until he came to Seattle in 1906.
When Fisher left Belgrade and headed for Seattle, he was preparing once again to change occupations and industries. His brother Will P. Fisher had made the trek to the Puget Sound area before him, establishing a flour brokerage business named The Fisher Trading Co. But O.D. Fisher was more interested in the vast timber stands surrounding Puget Sound, so he followed his brother west to acquire timber lands for himself and business associates of his father. With the help of these wealthy investors, Fisher acquired options on large areas of standing timber in the region, forming, along with his financial backers, Grandin-Coast Lumber Co. But Fisher’s vision of a flour mill along the shores of Puget Sound steered the never-idle businessman back into the flour industry and led to his organization of Fisher Flouring Mills Company.
Fisher Flouring Mills was formed in 1910, the same year construction of the company’s mill was begun. By the spring of 1911, the mill was completed, a $400,000 facility equipped to grind 10,000 bushels of wheat per day for a production capacity of 2,000 barrels of flour every 24 hours. The first wheat was ground on April 11 of that year, with the sale of flour to the public beginning in June. Once up and running, the flour mill operated 24 hours a day, six days a week, grinding wheat into flour for retail sale. Six years after the mill began operating it was expanded, with a new unit added to the existing two at a cost of $600,000. The addition increased the mill’s capacity from 2,000 barrels of flour per day to 5,000 barrels of flour per day, ranking the mill as the largest in the West, and moved Fisher Flouring Mills more heavily into poultry food production, which the company had previously produced in only negligible amounts.
Serving as general manager and active head of the company, Fisher had created a flourishing and dominant company in the Seattle business community by the time of the plant expansion in 1917, with family members—his brothers and father in particular—helping to operate one of the region’s largest family-owned and -operated enterprises. In establishing the company’s vertically integrated operations, Fisher had succeeded in winning a campaign to defeat an exclusive rail-service franchise on Harbor Island, where the mill was located, enabling him to establish company-owned railroad tracks to transport flour on land, while company-owned ships ferried flour on water. Fisher had also acquired a number of warehouses in Seattle and roughly 30 grain elevators in Montana, giving the company a solid foundation upon which to build in the decades ahead.
When the patriarch of the Fisher family, Oliver Williams (O.W.) Fisher died in 1922, O.D. Fisher became president of the family’s numerous interests, including Fisher Flouring Mills, Grandin-Coast Lumber, Louisiana Long Leaf Lumber, National Livestock and Mining Co., the Fisher-White-Henry Co., and Gallatin Valley Milling Company. From atop this already prodigious business empire, O.D. Fisher guided the family’s interests into still other business arenas, making a pivotal, pioneering foray into a fledgling industry four years after his father’s death that would represent one of the three pillars supporting the Fisher fortune in the 1990s. In 1926, Fisher was approached by man named Burt Fisher (not a member of the Fisher family) who was looking for financial help in founding a radio station. Already a radio aficionado known to stay up late listening to distant radio stations on a rudimentary receiver. Fisher was greatly interested on a personal level and on a business level, since the addition of a radio station would provide an invaluable advertising tool for the Fisher businesses. Accordingly, Fisher, in 1926, co-founded a radio station known as “the Fisher Blend Station” and by its call letters KOMO, establishing one of the first broadcasting companies in the Pacific Northwest region.
Roughly 30 years later, in 1953, a television station was added to the Fisher family’s business, KOMO-TV, by which time the Fisher flour milling operations ranked as the fifth-largest in the nation and the biggest in size and capacity west of the Mississippi River, producing more kinds of flour than any other mill in the world. Years of expansion had increased the Fisher mill’s 24-hour daily capacity to 15,000 hundredweights of flour, equivalent to 300,000 five-pound bags of flour. With this prodigious total, Fisher Flouring Mills served markets in Alaska, Hawaii, Central and South America, and the Far East, in addition to domestic markets.
O.D. Fisher, by now in his late 70s, still stood at the helm of the company, holding sway as chairman of the Fisher family enterprises and serving on the board of directors of 27 companies based in the Pacific Northwest and as far east as Louisiana. In 1958 another television station was added to the Fisher fold, KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon, strengthening the Fisher family’s involvement in broadcasting and representing one of the last major acquisitions completed under O.D. Fisher’s half century of leadership. By the beginning of the 1960s, O.D. Fisher had begun to cut back his heavy involvement in the affairs of non-Fisher companies and in the operation of the sprawling roster of companies he had assembled under the Fisher corporate umbrella. Instead of serving on the board of directors of 27 companies, Fisher, now in his mid-80s, pared back his extracurricular business activities to serve on a mere 19 boards of directors, continuing to demonstrate the prolific energy that had characterized his working career since he was ten years old. Meanwhile, leadership of the Fisher family enterprises was assumed by third- and fourth-generation family members, who named O.D. Fisher honorary chairman in 1965. Two years later, at age 91, O.D. Fisher died after a short illness, his death marking the end of an era in the history of the Fisher family’s rise to dynastic prominence in the Pacific Northwest business community.
After Fisher’s death, his family reorganized the diverse collection of interests it owned, adding cohesion and structure to the variegated businesses that had become part of the Fisher empire during the previous six decades. In 1971, Fisher Companies, Inc. was formed to serve as the holding company for Fisher Flouring Mills and the numerous other businesses owned by the Fisher family, which, aside from broadcasting, included a candy-making business, real estate holdings, and computer businesses. After 60 years of development, the businesses owned by the Fisher family had changed complexion, with each forming their own subsidiaries over the years, creating a sprawling labyrinth of business interests that had grown difficult to manage. The formation of a holding company resolved the difficulties in managing the Fisher family’s business interests, lending more parity to the eclectic array of the family’s enterprises and restructuring them into nine separate companies. Three of these companies would form the core of the Fisher family’s business in the 1990s: Fisher Mills, Inc., comprising the family’s flour milling and grain elevator properties; Fisher Blend Stations, Inc., constituting KOMO radio, KOMO-TV, and KATU-TV; and Fisher Properties, Inc., the Fisher family’s burgeoning real estate business.
Fisher Properties represented one of the Fisher family’s newest and most promising business pursuits as it moved forward from the 1970s into the 1980s and 1990s. From the outset, O.D. Fisher had acquired various real estate properties, which formed the core of Fisher Properties in the early 1970s. But by the early 1980s the company was fast-becoming a major competitor in the real estate development market, adopting the role as a developer of office and industrial properties in the Puget Sound region. By 1982, Fisher properties had purchased and developed two large warehouse and office complexes in and near Seattle, as well as ten acres of unimproved land in Lynn-wood, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. On the land purchased in Lynnwood, Fisher Properties completed construction of a multi-storied, 195,000-square-foot office building named Fisher Business Center in 1986. Later that year, Fisher Properties began construction of the four-building Fisher Industrial Park at Kent, Washington, then took on similar office development projects as the 1990s neared.
During the 1990s, Fisher Companies was enjoying enviable stability, its business supported by its primary triumvirate of companies: Fisher Mills, Inc., Fisher Broadcasting, Inc., and Fisher Properties, Inc. The company’s flour milling operations, the nucleus of the Fisher family fortune, were producing more than 450 million pounds of flour each year, with the Seattle plant, the vestige to O.D. Fisher’s half-century of leadership, ranking as one of the largest flour mills in the Western United States. Supported by another large flour mill in Portland, and flour distributions centers in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the company was positioned firmly in the global flour industry. Yet, as there had been for decades, there were two other important contributors to the Fisher family’s business. Fisher Broadcasting and Fisher Properties stood as integral components of Fisher Companies, lending a diversity to the company’s operations that provided its greatest strength. As the company moved resolutely toward the completion of its first century of business, strength through diversity fueled hope that the future would bring success equal to the legacy left by the Fisher family’s most notable figure, O.D. Fisher.
Fisher Broadcasting Inc.; Fisher Mills, Inc.; Fisher Properties Inc.
“Fisher Broadcasting Tests Info Highway,” Puget Sound Business Journal, March 3, 1995, p. 20.
“Fisher Mills Now Largest in West,” The Seattle Times, September 16, 1917, p. 23.
“The Fisher Story: Saga of Free Enterprise,” The Seattle Times, November 15, 1953, p. F3.
Fryer, Alexander, “Flour, Broadcasting, Real Estate: Fisher’s Three Legs to Stand on,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 18, 1993, p. 33.
Mantz, Warren J., “New Holding Company for Fisher Mills,” The Seattle Times, July 26, 1971, p. B14.
“O.D. Fisher,” Puget Sound Business Journal, April 2, 1993, p. 3A.
Wolcott, John, “Fisher: From a ‘Mealy’ Start to Media, Real Estate Glamour,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 24, 1991, p. 10.
—Jeffrey L. Covell