methow grist 2011-2014 archive

A Smile for Everyone
Harold Heath's successful optimism

Tina and Harold Heath began life in the Methow in a small cabin without running water or electricity. Photo: Solveig Torvik

Harold H. Heath, founder of the Seattle manufacturing firm Heath Tecna, has been a household name in the Methow Valley since the 1960s. Yet few really know his rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags-and-back story.

This is a self-made man who doesn’t stand on ceremony. He has a big smile for everyone, and they all call him Harold. A self-described optimist, he’ll be 89 in December. And he does have a story to tell.

He was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1922 and grew up in Sioux City. When it was time for college, there wasn’t any money. Besides, he says, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college. Instead, he seemed destined to make things – and money.

Because his first employer thought he was too young, he had to argue his way into an early morning job, at age 8, as a newsboy selling papers on the street before school. After high school, he took a job in a warehouse, but he worked himself out of that job by working too fast, he says, laughing. Then he heard about a vocational training program. “I became a pretty good welder.”

At the time, the Lockheed aircraft corporation was looking for trainable mechanics. The catch was that applicants had to pass an IQ test. So for three weeks, a vocational instructor drilled the prospective Lockheed employees on how to take an IQ test, using a sample test. And when the test day came, “Lo and behold, it was the same one we’d been studying for three weeks. I purposely missed one question,” he chuckles.

His new job took him to Los Angeles, where he hung out in a neighborhood frequented by movie stars, Marlene Dietrich among them. He ran into her two times, he says. “She was a nice, ordinary person.”

But Harold didn’t care for his new job and asked to enter a four-year, lower-paid machinist apprenticeship program. At first he was told no, because he was too smart and he’d be bored. But he persisted and was accepted. Eventually he was granted a transfer to Seattle, where his parents had moved by then; his father had taken a job with Boeing, which had geared up for World War II production.

The Heaths had a neighbor who just happened to be on the local draft board. She kindly volunteered Harold for the draft. He became a corporal in the U.S. Army, in charge of training soldiers in a machine shop. “I got real tired of trying to teach those dunderheads what they were supposed to do,” he says.” So I volunteered for overseas duty.”

At one of his first postings, in Ipswich, England, he repaired parachutes. He noticed that the paratroopers left behind a lot of unclaimed stuff that in the right hands might become suitable items for sale as souvenirs. “Cigarette lighters from hand grenades were best,” he explains. “I made about $3,000.”

Meanwhile everyone else seemed to be making sergeant while he remained a corporal. “Sir, my feelings are kind of hurt,” he says he told his boss when he asked why he wasn’t rated for promotion.

“You’ll never get rated by me,” came the answer. “You make more money than I do.”

Harold raises beef on part of the 846 acres of the Big Valley Ranch that he sold to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The next chapter of his wartime experience reads like a Hollywood script. Stationed just outside the city, he was in the middle of the pandemonium on the streets of Paris the day World War II ended. By chance, he met a young woman that day: they eventually became romantically involved. But Harold had left a girl behind in New York, Charlotte, whom he had promised to marry, and he says he knew he had to break off his Paris relationship. He did so as they were walking along the newly liberated streets of the City of Light. Harold recounts that the young woman abruptly turned and wordlessly walked way from him. He ran after her, asking her what she was doing.

“I found you on the street and I’m leaving you on the street,” she told him.

After the war, Harold married Charlotte, who loved living in New York, and they moved west to raise a family in a 600-square foot house. “She cried all the way to Seattle,” he says, and the marriage did not last. They had three sons, Bradley, deceased, and Carleton and Jeffrey. A second marriage to Dorothy, which also ended in divorce, produced two more sons, Bretton and Stuart and an adopted daughter, Judy Ann. He and Tina were married in 1966. They have two adopted daughters, Wendy and Holly.

When he was 25, Harold started his first manufacturing company, a four-person machine shop in Renton. He hoped to become a vendor for Boeing, and befriended a man who helped steer some initial orders his way. “I remember when four of us had to split $30 for groceries,” he’s quoted as saying on a Heath Tecna website. “And then we got our first Boeing contract – a $73 order for brackets.”

“I didn’t get big orders,” he says now. “But I’d have them back the next morning.”

His tiny company’s first big success was manufacturing the Stripenizer, a machine used by Dairy Queen to put colored stripes into its soft ice cream cones. By 1964 he had 400 employees in a multi-million dollar operation and owned four companies, which eventually were absorbed under the Heath Tecna umbrella. He produced parts for missiles, minesweepers, paper mills, fish hatcheries, aquariums and building construction, as well as aircraft components such as wing struts, sky bridges and stewardess’ kitchens.

“Harold made 12 millionaires” during his career, says Tina. One of them was a neighborhood landscaper who’d given Harold an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. job when he was struggling to get started in Seattle.  When that landscaper’s own business faltered in later years, Harold hired him, and the former landscaper retired as a millionaire.

By 1968, Harold had a personal fortune that allowed him to donate $1.5 million to build the Harold H. Heath Tower at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. By 1970, he employed 2,500 people in 16 divisions and had revenues of $70 million a year.

Then the bottom fell out. As Harold tells it, President Nixon nixed many of the programs for which his company held contracts, and in two months he lost 25 percent of his business.

“I’d pledged my stock, my house,” he says, to guarantee business loans. “I lost my job. I lost my company. And my house burned down,” he says matter-of-factly. He had owned 80 percent of the stock in Heath Tecna, and his personal net worth had been $30 million. But in six months it dropped to minus $2 million.

To rebuild his assets, he took a job with an old friend, the man who’d helped him get a foot in the door at Boeing years earlier. This friend now owned a truck panel manufacturing company. When the man started that business, Harold had invested in it.

Harold was in charge of sales at the firm’s manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. The first year he was there, the company had $7 million in sales. The second year sales rose to $11 million, the third year to $17 million and the fourth year to $22 million.  When the company was sold, Harold was able to sell valuable stock. In 1981, Harold and Tina moved from Ohio to the Methow.

Harold had first discovered the valley on a trip to the Okanogan in 1963. On the advice of an acquaintance who knew he was looking for land in Eastern Washington that had trees, Harold got his first glimpse of the valley from the Loup Loup Highway.

“Boy, it just grabbed me,” he says.

He asked a local Realtor to find him a little cabin on five acres by a stream with a tree. Soon she reported back that she’d found the ideal spot on the back road to Carlton. Only one little problem: it was 500 acres, not five. He bought it anyway for $20,000, and over time added more land to what the Heaths named the Golden Doe Ranch. They also bought, and named, the Big Buck Ranch north of Twisp River Road and south of Moccasin Lake, and they purchased the Shuck Ranch northwest of the Winthrop airport and smokejumper base. In 1967 they also acquired the McCauley Ranch, where they built their first valley home above Highway 20 between Winthrop and Mazama.

In the early days, Harold and Tina liked to ski at nearby McClure Mountain when they roughed it in their Golden Doe cabin, which lacked electricity and running water. Memorably, they were there during the big freeze in the winter of 1967. But as Heath Tecna’s problems mounted, “I knew I was running into financial trouble,” Harold says. So he took to hiding envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills among old roof tiles at the little cabin.

In time, Harold owned 6,700 acres of ranch property in the valley. He went into the cattle, hay and sheep business, running 2,000 sheep with the help of a Basque sheepherder whose picture was snapped moving sheep on old Highway 20 by the late Seattle Times photographer Josef Scaylea; that evocative photo of a time long past now adorns the Heath’s fireplace mantle.

After he bought the McCauley Ranch, Harold had gone door to door upvalley asking dairy farmers if they wanted to sell land that adjoined his new holdings. They did, and over time he put together the 2,000-acre Big Valley Ranch, which ran from the Methow River to the hillsides above Highway 20. He gave the sellers a choice of cash or a contract with interest. The sellers wanted the interest, he says. And that turned out to be a good thing for him, and for those who value the Big Valley Ranch as the Methow’s signature undeveloped, open space property.

When the banks came after his Methow Valley holdings after the Heath Tecna debacle, they wanted no part of trying to sort out the private land contracts he carried on the Big Valley Ranch, Harold explains. So he was allowed to keep that land.

In 1991, he sold 846 acres and two-and-a-half miles of Big Valley Ranch riverfront for $5.6 million to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, which leases it out for agricultural purposes; Harold still raises beef on part of it. He retained 172 acres on which the Heath’s new home overlooks the Big Valley Ranch. With the exception of 40 acres where their original home sits, the rest of the ranch – the portion that lies uphill on the north side of the highway - has been sold to private buyers.

Both Heaths have a keen interest in education. Tina, who served in Nepal in the Foreign Service, has been a member of the local school board and has high praise for the academic offerings now available to the valley’s students. Harold is on the board of the Methow Valley Education Foundation, which grants $1,500 scholarships each year, for up to four years, to local college students who keep their grades up. So far, more than $500,000 has been awarded to valley high school graduates since 1984.

He himself has never regretted not having a college education, Harold says. But he adds: “I think it’s very important for most people.”

“I stumbled into the right thing,” he says of his life’s work. “I made the right decisions. I just say it’s my guardian angels.”

And life in the Methow?

“People say, ‘Are you taking a vacation this year?’ I say, ‘Yes, I am. I’m having it. I’m here.’’