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Published May 03, 2010, 03:37 PM

Sebeka native went West, but held Minnesota close

SEBEKA, Minn. — Mel Aho is a true Minnesota farmer by now, but his part-time farming and rock picker inventions are outgrowths of his passions — hunting and family — with an entrepreneurial spirit.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

SEBEKA, Minn. — Mel Aho is a true Minnesota farmer by now, but his part-time farming and rock picker inventions are outgrowths of his passions — hunting and family — with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I’ve done everything a bit out of the box, a little differently,” Mel says. “Society trains us one way, but I’ve found it isn’t always that way.”

Mel is the third generation of Ahos in his area. Mel’s grandfather, Jacob Aho, a Finnish immigrant, homesteaded near Wolf Lake, Minn., in the 1890s.

Grandpa Jacob was known for a strong Christian heritage.

“Just honesty, treating people right so that when other people win, you win, too,” Mel says.

Mel was born in 1957, the 10th of 18 children in the Raphael and Linda Aho family, living on a diversified farm. Linda had plenty of mothering to do, and but also worked for decades in a turkey processing plant in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Early on, Mel held a fascination for deer hunting, as brothers, cousins and friends often hunted together.

“It seemed exciting — the drives, the serious intensity: families laughing, Bad shots. Camaraderie,” he says.

As Mel grew into manhood, he became more restless.

“Milking cows and school just weren’t my gig,” he says.

In the summer after his junior year of high school, Mel went to the East Coast and worked a summer, pouring concrete.

“It was nice to get a check, and it was hard to go back to school,” he says.

After Christmas of his senior year, he announced he was stopping school and moving to Clark County, Wash., in the Vancouver area, where his older brother, Will, owned a concrete construction company. Mel finished high school in Battleground, Wash., in 1975, and by day, poured concrete.

Reality revelation

In 1977, Mel and Will stopped by a real estate office and the fellow made a statement: “He said for every dollar you invest in real estate, it’s like putting $2 in the bank.”

Will’s ex-partner was moving to Canada to farm and had five acres for sale in northern Clark County for $7,500. Aho could put $100 down on the property and pay $100 a month.

“I bought that, and put a couple of payments on it, and split it into two 2½-acre pieces,” he says. “Turns out, you could build a home on each parcel.”

He figured if he developed homes on each of the parcels, the land would be worth about $7,500 for each parcel.

“I’d made $7,500 on paper, and I realized I could have worked a long time at $3.30 an hour to make that kind of money.”

Mel started acquiring land to develop.

At first, it seemed easy. But he’d bought some land at the base of Mount St. Helens. There were some warnings, and on May 18, 1980, the mountain erupted.

“Nobody wanted to be near that area of town,” Mel recalls. “There’d be a puff of smoke and it’d rain ash on your windshield. If it rained, it’d rain mud and gloom. You wondered if anybody’d dare to move to the mountain again.”

It was depressing, as loan interest rates also started to climb.

“People walked around with masks on their face. Every piece of lumber you’d pick up was covered with ash. It was character-building,” he says.

Mel didn’t go bankrupt, but he says he had to retreat back to his concrete and construction skills to survive.

He remembers 1985 as a turnaround year.

The recession abated. That year, he married Sari, a woman from Arizona. They started a family that has since grown to 13 children, now ranging in age from 8 to 23.

Through the years, Mel had come home to Sebeka for significant events — often for deer hunting. In the late 1980s, he and his brothers started acquiring land for the hunting. Some of it involved farmland, so that’s how he acquired some 3,000 acres in the area.

“Hunting was always a unifier,” he says.

Fast, affordable

In the Vancouver area, Mel was winning big by building affordable homes for first-time homebuyers. He could guarantee a home built on a 28-day basis, which made financing easier.

In the early 1990s, he realized some of his first-time homebuyers were selling their homes and looking for a step-up product.

“I started providing a product for that market, too,” he says.

He’d buy the land and put the equity into the house, passing the savings on to the homebuyer.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the high-tech stock market bubble burst. Some of the money from the market migrated into the real estate market, creating market distortions.

“It was just nuts,” he recalls. “The idea of affordable, value-oriented homes — all that went out the window in the early 2000s.”

People bought homes and “flipped” them before construction was complete. His own business had to take on more risk.

“You had to live with it,” he recalls.

His Aho Construction began to shift its attention to smaller markets in central and eastern Washington where the house flippers weren’t showing up. At the peak, he employed about 110 people.

Today, Aho Construction and related companies work throughout Washington and into Oregon. The companies are in as many as a dozen markets, mostly in the affordable homes.

“I suppose we’ve built about 9,000 homes over the years,” he says.

Sioux Falls, S.D., and St. Cloud, Minn., are two markets he’s developed in this region.

In 2007, Aho Construction began feeling the recession that’s hit the rest of America.

His crew declined to fewer than 50 a year ago, but they’re starting to see a rebound.

“I’m going to tell you, it’s by the grace of God,” he says. “That’s part of my faith to recognize: Be honest; treat people well. People gravitate to that no matter how strong or how weak you are.”