Owen Robinson enjoys one of his post-retirement ventures: photography
Charlie Bulla Owen Robinson enjoys one of his post-retirement ventures: photography

Owen Robinson remembers March 17, 2015, as the day he finally retired from his family’s fourth-generation lumber business. Founded in 1886, when much of Montana was still part of the Dakota territory and towns were springing up every 100 miles or so to serve the sprawling railways, what was Grogan Robinson Lumber Co. had witnessed the Great Depression, two world wars, the addition of a John Deere equipment dealership, and a name change to Lumber Yard Supply by the time Robinson joined in 1976.

For four decades Robinson helped steer the Great Falls, Mont.-based company into a successful three-unit wholesaler to pro dealers in Montana and Eastern Washington, and now he was turning in the final papers to wrap up the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) as part of the company’s sale to Wausau Supply Co.

“I remember it because it was St. Patrick’s Day, and suddenly I was no longer a part of it in any capacity at all,” recalls Robinson. Although he had been preparing for the transition since first resigning as CEO back in 2011, Robinson says day one of retirement caught him like a deer in the headlights. “I was used to working hard and being under pressure all my life and enjoying the day-by-day challenges of it,” he says. “Suddenly, there wasn’t anything to be involved in, and the wheels kind of fell off for me. I wasn’t prepared for it.”

Salvation came from Jeremy Myers, whom Robinson had mentored into a successful young businessman and entrepreneur after first coaching him in junior high basketball. “Jeremy asked me out to lunch and said he was buying, so I knew something was up,” says Robinson wryly. “At lunch he tells me ‘I’m going to buy the best auto body shop in Great Falls and one of the best three in the state,’ and of course he only needed one thing: a financing partner.”

Although wary at first, Robinson ran the numbers and found Flawless Auto Body to be a solid investment. He helped Myers pool capital to leverage with lenders, the two bought the business, and Robinson immediately went back to work.

“I had been out there and really kind of lost and wasn’t prepared to be retired,” he admits. “So I worked at Flawless every day for six months, not just so I could stay busy, but so I could get to learn and understand an entirely new business.”

And understand the business he did. Even as he transitioned into a mostly silent partner (Myers will become full owner by the end of the year), Robinson invested his time and energy into restoring a 1962 and a 1975 Corvette, a 1957 and a 1965 Thunderbird, and—for his wife Gayle—a 1968 Mustang. “It’s a very exciting thing to do and I’ve gone from knowing basically nothing about cars to having a great eye for it,” says Robinson. “I’ve really progressed a long way and have enjoyed gaining that knowledge from Flawless.”

Working in an auto body shop, Robinson not only learned a new business, he was able to restore a number of classic cars.
Charlie Bulla Working in an auto body shop, Robinson not only learned a new business, he was able to restore a number of classic cars.

Robinson says the daily involvement and planning necessary to make Flawless a success was just what he needed to finally jump-start his retirement. “It never occurred to me that you need to start planning out what you are going to do when you retire before you retire,” says Robinson, who lists pre-planning as one of his top hacks for life after lumber (“Robinson’s Rules,” p. 40). “Of course you know what you want to do, but you’re surprisingly sometimes just not prepared to go out and do it.”

As a proud owner of golden retriever and black lab rescue dogs, Robinson has been investing his time into the Animal Foundation of Great Falls, too, serving as a board president and helping the organization raise $850,000 last December to close the deal on a brand-new, $6.5 million adoption facility. “It wasn’t the best month to be raising money,” Robinson says, “but we had a series of lunches, and at each one I gave a presentation and also made my own $10,000 donation, and with the help of a big donor we were able to open the doors in May.”

Not much looks to be slowing down for Robinson from here. This autumn will likely see him taking one of those Corvettes or T-Birds on a University of Montana Grizzlies football game road trip. He’ll be attending each game and will get to embrace another passion—photography—when he shoots from the sidelines at all of the Grizzly away games.

After that, Robinson’s looking into a trip to take photos of wild horses and is contemplating a dive into time-lapse night photography as well, as well as spending some time with friends at his cabin on Flathead Lake. With a little planning, he might just fit it all in.

“There are so many interesting things to do in life, and you need to start planning out what you are going to do,” Robinson says. “It’s good to be at a place where there are so many things that [you] want to do that you’ve prepared for, that all you have to do is start prioritizing.”

One somehow gets the feeling that Robinson has already got a plan for that, too.