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With an Ivy League graduate degree in psychiatric social work

Nov 21 , 2015

“He wanted to be a commercial pilot, but there was a glut of pilots after the war,” said his daughter, Mary Sutherland Crouse. “But the world was bigger for him than an office in the Veterans Administration.”

Mary is now the CEO of the international trade company, David H. Sutherland & Co., Inc., that resulted from her father’s global perspective. But prior to David Sutherland making the world his workplace, things had to get smaller before they could get bigger.

How small? Try a phone booth.

With the sharp eyes and agile mind befitting a flyer of 13 B-29 missions over Tokyo, Sutherland took note of a pile of surplus coking coal briquettes outside the Portland Gas & Coke Building off Highway 30.

He knew the briquettes were just the sort of material war-ravaged, rebuilding nations like Japan needed, so he started working his connections to see if he could find buyers for them in Asia.

That’s where the phone booth came in. On his lunch hour, Sutherland would drive to the Multnomah Hotel and use the phone in the lobby to try to make deals.

He succeeded, and thus was born the company that today occupies 20,000 square feet in Beaverton, employs 28 people and is a global supplier of composite and specialty products for aerospace and other high-performance industries.

Crouse was 35 when her father died three decades ago, part of the company’s board but not involved in day-to-day operations. Her mother, Beth, had been trying to transition herself out of the business. David Sutherland declined quickly following a diagnosis of lung cancer, and before he died he had some pointed, though unfollowed, advice for his family.

“He told us to sell the company,” Crouse said, recalling how her dad had said, ‘You don’t know the business, you won’t be able to do anything with it, just sell it.’ My mother and I didn’t really know the business, but we held it together long enough, until my brother could take over.”

Jim Sutherland was just 21 at the time of his dad’s passing, and he took over the company four years later. Jim ran the business until dying suddenly in 2009, and Mary stepped back into the CEO role, where part of her work now involves preparing her son, Andrew, 37, to lead Sutherland.

“Our company faced two monumental tragedies with no planning, so the message I want for any family company is to get a plan in place and ask the hard questions,” said Mary, who in 2011 also lost her mother, a former flight attendant who’d fittingly met her future husband on a plane.

Andrew holds a business degree from Pacific Lutheran University and is in his second stint with his family’s business, having returned in February 2010 after working overseas in supply chain management for another company. He is Sutherland’s vice-president of Quality Management Systems.

“He had a comfortable job, with a young family, and took a big risk to come back,” said Mary, noting that in 2009 times were so tight she had to sign on as a personal guarantor for a $1 million line of credit. “I just couldn’t be more proud of him. We’ve been here 64 years, and we want to have a legacy for 164 years, and more, if possible.“

To that end, Sutherland has a program through which family members can intern with the company after their junior year in college, and also a requirement that they work somewhere else for at least two years after college.

“It’s engaging and energizing to have a new generation, fresh eyes, new ways of doing things,” said Mary, who describes the Generational Development honor as a “tribute to my dad and mom.”

Andrew calls it “very humbling.”

“We entered strictly to learn how to get better as a company and how to get better as a family,” he said.