Pete Lien & Sons, which started in 1944 near Rapid City, S.D., with Chuck Lien, his father, Pete, and brother, Bruce, has grown from a company that had $16,000 in gross sales in year one to one whose 2013 gross sales hovered around $110 million.
Today, the company employs nearly 400 people at 30 different sites across South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And Chuck Lien, now 89 and still chairman of the board, is celebrating 70 years as an employee.
“I work every day and I’m interrupted a little bit with dialysis, but they still put up with me,” says Chuck, who continues to advise his son, Pete, the company president.
From humble beginnings
After serving in World War II, Chuck Lien and his brother joined their father in the quarry. Chuck says the three of them didn’t get a paycheck the first five years they were in business, taking just enough so the three could survive and the business could get off its feet. The business eventually did, and key to its success over many years was Chuck’s belief in reinvestment.
Chuck’s company is positioned to thrive for years to come because he reinvested in it, but also because he invested his family in the business. Chuck and his wife Barb have nine children, and they requested all of them to work outside the company for five years before making a commitment to work in the family business – if they so chose.
Five of Chuck’s and Barb’s children are working in the business today, either as members of the board of directors or in a management capacity. In addition, two son-in-laws are active in Pete Lien & Sons.
“We are a family-owned business and we think long term,” says Chuck, who also served in the Korean War. “We’re in our third and fourth generations now, and they’re already planning for the fifth and sixth generations. They’re doing a better job of running the company than I ever did.”
One reason the company has excelled over the years is because it expanded in the areas in which it thrived and recognized when other areas just weren’t working.
“We stayed within our realm of expertise,” Chuck says. “We have stepped out several times. We tried construction and other avenues, but we weren’t as successful when we stepped out of that ring. We learned to concentrate on what we do best and get as many reserves as we can.”
According to Chuck, who’s also lovingly known as “Rock Chuck,” the company’s ability to seize reserves in the areas it serves was one key to achieving the growth and success it’s had.
“We were good enough friends with many businesses around us that when they passed out of the picture, we were there to pick up that business and add to ours,” Chuck says.
Preparation for the future
Another key to Pete Lien & Sons’ success was a pilot company Chuck and Barb started called the Nine Liens. Chuck and Barb started the Nine Liens so their children could learn about free enterprise in a way that provided them training yet did not put Pete Lien & Sons at risk.
“The Nine Liens encouraged us to start our own businesses,” says Pete Lien, Chuck’s son and current president of Pete Lien & Sons. “It created better owners.
“I’ve been very blessed to be in a great situation,” Pete continues. “Not only do I experience him as a great father, but he’s a great friend, a great mentor and a business partner. It’s been really enriching to have exposure to him and his selflessness, humbleness and great sense of humor.”
Sam Brannan, Chuck’s daughter and the vice president of corporate development at Pete Lien & Sons, has had the pleasure of working with her father as well.
“I have to step back as a daughter and look at him as an employee,” Sam says. “I’m getting older, and I’m starting to see that the best leaders I’ve ever been exposed to are people like Chuck who have a military background and a team sports background. That’s how he manages. He has a clear vision, but he also involves the entire team.”
According to Pete, Chuck’s willingness to continuously solicit input from employees earned him the loyalty and support of his team.
“We’re very proud of our turnover being very low,” Pete says. “All employees are very proud to say that they work for Chuck Lien.”
Further demonstrating Chuck’s foresight is how he encouraged employees to participate in their respective communities. Chuck led by example, serving on chamber of commerce boards and in the industry’s state and national efforts. He served as chairman of a national association that later became NSSGA, and he remains a staunch advocate for less industry regulation.
Did you know?
Pete Lien & Sons earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Earth Care Award in 1970. According to the Lien family, Pete Lien & Sons is the only mining company ever to receive such an award for its reclamation efforts before mandatory laws were passed in 1972. Robert Redford presented the award to the company.