Path to prosperity: extract, then add value: a unique contest in Southeast Alaska rewards innovation.

Author:Solberg, Dustin
Position:ENTREPRENEURS - Occupation overview

When Steve Helgeson sees a big Sitka spruce, he sees guitars. Lots of them. Or more precisely, he sees perfect soundboards--the blonde, straight-grained panels from which most of the world's guitars are built.

Helgeson is a boat builder who loves to play guitar. Some years ago, he began experimenting and built his first guitar. What he discovered is that making the curved lines of a guitar isn't all that different from building boats, so he built a few more.

"The idea of heating wood to soften it and bend it around a frame is the same thing you would do with a boat," he says.

The coastal town of Wrangell, Alaska, where Helgeson has built and repaired fishing boats for years, is a small grid of streets and houses carved from a lush rainforest where trees grow big. Sawmills have had a big part the town's history.

"It wasn't lost on me, living in Wrangell, that we're here right in the heart of the Tongass forest where some of the finest soundboard material in the world grows," he says.

In the timber business, a tree destined to become soundboards for cellos, pianos, or guitars earns a distinct title: musicwood.

As the years ensued, Helgeson went about running his wood shop and raising a family, but he continued to watch as musicwood logs were cut in the forest and shipped off to distant factories in Japan and the Lower 48. And it led him to wonder.

The $110,000 Guitar

Kevin Skeek grew up in the village of Hoonah, a day's ferry ride north of Wrangell. When he was in his twenties and working as an intern at Sealaska Corporation, the major private forestland owner in Southeast Alaska, he joined his superiors on what for him was a rather plum assignment to meet guitar company execs at an event in southern California.

"I was playing guitar by then. I had an absolute passion for guitar," he says. "When I was there, I was holding a guitar that was worth $110,000."

It was the most beautiful instrument Skeek had ever seen--and its spruce soundboard had come from a Sealaska forest. It was built by the famed C.F. Martin and Co. of Pennsylvania.

"And they were explaining to us how they had used our Sitka spruce for their tops. And that just blew me away. It was then that I realized I wanted to get into the guitar building business.

"Right then and there I said, 'Why aren't we doing this?"'

A Contest for Entrepreneurs

Business ideas are not uncommon, but the good ones are. And both Helgeson and Skeek knew that turning an idea into something more, with a storefront, a URL, and a cash flow, is an uphill climb.

"The idea of a guitar building business was really a dream," Helgeson says. "But you know how dreams are. If you're a busy person like most people are, you have a place somewhere behind your everyday responsibilities and obligations where you stick dreams and it's kind of where they stay."

Skeek's "aha" moment at the California guitar expo hadn't gone anywhere either. Despite his zeal, his idea...

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