“A Nail Runs Through It”
Finnish Precision in the Flathead Valley: The Story of Montana’s Finmark Construction
By Jim Williams
Long ago and far away Victor Oja learned from his family and mentors in Finland how to build right the first time. One precise measurement now can save hours of recalibrating later. The same Finnish ethos holds true with designing a home in the mountains of the modern American West. Victor and his descendants here have proven the cleanest line in design is where homebuilding begins to create a true sense of place. Mountain valleys and ski resort towns in the West are the ideal canvas for building craftsmen like the Ojas to paint their story on the landscape.
Meet Derek Oja, Victor’s great-grandson and owner of the Finmark Construction family. My wife and I were looking for a home builder who we could afford and who had an eye for high-end mountain modern style that would live up to our beautiful lot located in Whitefish, Montana.
Our home in the “Fish” needed to be built in the sleepy beach neighborhood near the lake and not far from the charming downtown Main Street. I was introduced to Derek by a trusted colleague at work and one of Montana’s most respected grizzly bear biologists, Tim Manley. Derek and his team at Finmark artfully designed and built Manley’s home in the pastoral stretches of the lower Flathead Valley amongst a stand of stately older Douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees. Of course, Tim had grizzly bears pad across his new home site but that is par for the course in western Montana.
Derek Oja originally hails from northern Michigan. As a child, he dreamed of exploring Montana’s wild spaces home to wild things: Elk, deer, moose, bear, mountain lion, trout, and more. Exactly two days after graduating from high school, he ventured out West on his own in an old pickup.
Originally, Derek was interested in all things electrical, but soon design and carpentry captivated him. He started working as a framer, a wild job that perches builders up high on trusses and beams as they construct the bones of a house. Derek’s passion for craftsman homebuilding and appreciating every linear detail started from that lofty perch and grew from there.
Besides his attention to detail, Oja has a creative side. When I first met with him, I noticed a stack of mousepads on his desk that were artfully decorated with the personal songlines of his life in sketches. He clearly can’t stifle his creative mind, whether he’s participating in a virtual Zoom meeting like we all do now in the COVID era or he’s talking with suppliers and subcontractors on the phone. The designs on those mousepads are works of art. As I quickly learned, artful design and precision are what Finmark is all about.
In the spring of 2010, the oil and gas towns of North Dakota were booming. Many local farmers wanted new custom homes or shiny new barns. Here in the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana, we were coming off an economic slump, and new home construction was mostly on hold. Derek saw an opportunity to learn and grow as a builder, and he fulfilled his dream to become an independent custom builder. Finmark Construction was born.
The Oja’s family legacy of precision and design was brought from the Lapland of Finland to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and now the prairies of North Dakota in 2011.
Soon Derek struck out on his own to run his own family business. Ned Oja, one of Derek’s 13 siblings, signed on with Finmark in the Dakotas. Ned was interested in engineering and possessed an accountant’s mind for detail and balancing the books. Derek’s talented brothers Lars and Levi followed. The Oja’s were then off and running.
Western North Dakota was still a wild place with spiking demand and few contractors. While Derek had to learn on the fly, artful design and a strong work ethic came naturally. These skills made him invaluable in the boom, and his business thrived as a result.
Except there was a problem.
Derek and Ned longed for the mountains and rivers of their childhood dreams. The allure of the Flathead Valley stuck in their minds. As soon as they could, in 2014, Derek moved back home to Kalispell. Finnish design and precision were brought back to northwest Montana.
I am a wildlife biologist and worked in this profession for almost 30 years. My career has taken me to many wild places on two continents to work with many wild things. I love to travel but I also love to come back home to the Flathead Valley. It’s my home, too. The Flathead is a special place where wildlands meet large rivers that feed from Glacier National Park into the West’s largest and cleanest lake. Our valley and surroundings are also filled with wildlife and virtually unlimited outdoor recreation.
When my wife and I purchased a small city lot shaded by stately Douglas Firs in Whitefish, we were confronted with an immediate problem. Home prices were soaring. Most quality builders, including many contractor friends that were very good, were now out of reach for us, booked up years out or did not match our quick building timeline. Little did we know that urban Americans fleeing from an upcoming pandemic, large western wildfires and urban riots were going to come to western Montana with their wealth in droves in a couple of months and make affordability issues even worse. Frankly, we were terrified as we had already sold our home of 20-plus years in Kalispell and were in a rental without a builder who we could afford on our budget.
Enter grizzly bear biologist Tim Manley again.
“You need to call Derek and Finmark,” Tim said.
I finally did. Incredibly, one week later we had our dream of a forever home near Whitefish Lake begin to take shape. Our new family connection to the home construction style and traditions brought to America from Finland were born.
This is our building story.
“Welcome to Finmark,” a smiling receptionist said as my wife and I entered the wood-and-tile-styled headquarters south of Kalispell. There were sample materials scattered on the floor and on the walls. This place was a hive of activity. Minutes later, we were in Derek’s office talking designs, scope of work and bids. My heart rate went from extremely high to relaxed in less than half an hour when I realized that we were working with a trusted local contractor, who of all things, was extremely transparent about what we would pay and what they would make. Building a home is a big deal, often the greatest investment a family ever makes. We actually agreed to a scope of work and fixed bid based on Derek’s advice within a couple of days. Unbelievable.
Fast forward a year into the coronavirus pandemic and the crush of humanity that came to western Montana and other ski resort valleys for safety and solitude, and new homes. Material prices soared. Compounded by COVID supply chain issues and a demand not seen before, the price of wood tripled in short order. So did everything else. Contractors were overwhelmed by new home building demand. License plates showed up in Whitefish from everywhere. Texas, Washington, and California led the charge, but families showed up in the Flathead from every state in the union and beyond. We did not see this coming. Had it not been for Finmark’s early advice to sign a fixed bid on a scope of work, we would simply not have a new home. Period. Trusted advice from a local builder like that is invaluable. For our signed bid, we were guaranteed to get a new home for a fixed price. We were off to a good start and breathed a sigh of relief.
Finmark uses a convenient and easy-to-use software called Buildertrend. It is a one-stop information shopping website about your personal build. It is populated with all the documents and materials and labor agreements you need for your build. If you go over, you owe more, and conversely, if you come underbid on a work item material or design choice then you owe less. It is transparency of process at its best.
“It’s up to you and your personal choices and changes to your contract,” Derek said. “We will build exactly what you want and we are honest about material cost and our labor.”
Our greatest fear entering into a build was the mystery of material cost and labor that is inherent in any new home build, so needless to say we were quite relieved to find out we were involved in the cost approval process with Finmark and Glacier Bank every step of the build. Glacier Bank was no stranger to construction loans and they monitored all project progress and every building payment made to Finmark. Buildertrend made it easy. To use the Buildertrend website, we were handed a brand-new large-screen Apple Ipad for the project during our first project meeting. When we told Derek that we would take good care of it, he replied, “It’s yours to keep and part of our building package.” Talk about good first impressions!
Finmark is here to stay and growing. Why? Derek shared Finmark’s three operating principles with me at the onset of our build.
First, foster a creative work environment for all employees. Pride and satisfaction of work are essential for any successful business. Derek now has over 20 employees, all committed to Finnish precision and design in building.
Second, artfully design and produce high-end mountain homes from quality materials. Client satisfaction is key to sustainability and word-of-mouth marketing. “Size and cost do not define a high-end home, quality and design does,” Derek shared.
Lastly, maintain an opportunity for family career development. Finmark is truly a family company for multiple generations of these Flathead Valley Finnish descendants.
Just like Patagonia, Clif Bar, Sportsman and Ski Haus, and other high-quality companies thriving in today's marketplace, work-life balance at Finmark is paramount to maintaining a vital and creative workforce. According to the Oja’s, there is a time to work and a time to refresh. They often gather as a large extended family and take advantage of northwest Montana’s world-class outdoor recreation opportunities. They keep an eye on each other, and they all jump in and lend a hand if somebody appears to have a heavy workload.
“Employees are driven by autonomy on the job, more than compensation,” Derek says.
This is how they retain employees. And, of course, staff retention is only second to client satisfaction. That is how you remain profitable and stay in business in a crowded field of contractors.
For our build in Whitefish, my wife, Melora, enjoyed creatively designing our plans. She spent countless evenings with pencil and graph paper in hand, balancing our needs and desires with square footage and potential cost. When the time came to make the plans official and worthy of city approval, we partnered with Lyndon Steinmetz, an architect and home designer in Kalispell. We already had the plans drawn up before we approached Finmark and found out later that Derek could also design the home at Finmark as well. It’s one of Derek’s specialties. Together, Lyndon and Melora created the blueprints and then Derek and the Finmark team turned our paper plans and ideas into an amazing forever home that will last a lifetime and more.
One of the most exciting days in any build is excavation day. On that day, you watch the earth transform from organic material to a new space that will harbor the foundation of your build and also a foundation for the rest of your life as a homeowner. Concrete is poured and support beams are laid. For me, watching the smooth cement garage floor take shape was exciting and a harbinger of new workspace to come.
Then come the framers. Framing is exciting as you can finally see space definition as the timbers are raised and the studs arranged to code. What makes Finmark special is that you get photos of building progress on a daily basis. In the evenings, Melora and I would log onto the Buildertrend website with anticipation to read the onsite manager’s daily updates and see the photos. This permits the homeowner to watch every step of the process, regardless of where you live during your build.
Not long after the frame went up, the roof trusses arrive. Within a day or two, the home is ready for a new protective roof. Once the roof is on, things really begin to roll along. Insulation, windows, drywall, mud, taping and doors all happen once you get a roof. For our build that began in late summer, we were pushing the onset of snowy winter weather so the Finmark team made sure we were “dried in” by the time the powder days arrived. Melora and I were like nervous parents watching snowflakes until the home was sealed.
Once a home is sealed in from the elements, all creative juices focus on design elements. What do you want to put in the home? Floors, tile color and type, plumbing and electrical fixtures, paint and stain colors trim, cabinets, appliances and just about anything that can make a home unique. For those choices, there is Heather Waatti, Derek’s sister and interior design lead and overall home aesthetics advisor. Heather leads a team at Finmark that will walk homeowners through every selection and the cost differences that reflect your choices. Fortunately for us, Melora and Heather had a similar taste in high-end mountain modern homes and clean lines. There was not a workday that went by when Melora was not in contact with Heather. She even answered our questions on weekends and was quite accessible and knowledgeable.
What struck us was how flexible and supportive Heather was as we made selections and had opinions after installation. She was always willing to explore alternative strategies and options as issues arose. This is an important component for any new home build. You really never know what your accessory selection will look like until it is installed or built. In some cases, changes need to be made to keep homeowners happy, and Finmark was there with us every step of the way. We were valued and felt comfortable sharing our feelings and ideas when a change was necessary.
No build is perfect as planned. So what was challenging about our build? Clearly, all of us are constrained financially depending upon our own life circumstances. Cost and transparency were both pretty straightforward with Finmark. You are either at bid on a scope of work or under/over. We were able to adjust cost on the fly. This is called a “change order.”
Tyler McCann was our onsite go-to construction manager. Tyler was both willing and able to reach mutually acceptable solutions to a problem. I called or texted Tyler often. He always answered the phone to hear me out, even after hours. Tyler was the Finmark lead to move the subcontractors along and make sure that work meets Finnish standards of style and precision. Accessibility and access to your building team are two valuable and comforting attributes of a trusted building company. Tyler and Finmark sure delivered.
Just like grizzly bear biologist Tim Manley’s Finmark home that Derek built in the lower Flathead Valley has wandering local grizzly bears, surprisingly my beach neighborhood in Whitefish is home to an array of wildlife as well. I have studied and managed mountain lions and people for most of my career. I know that the big cats only exist where deer are plentiful. As fate would have it, there are countless white-tailed deer wandering around Whitefish. I also know full well that where the deer hoofs clatter about, the stealthy mountain lions are not far behind. Sure enough, wildlife biologists have recently tranquilized a big cat from under a deck about a block away from our Finmark build near city beach. It’s mild wild in town for sure but wild nature abounds nonetheless. Our new home truly is mountain modern, with emphasis on mountain, both in style and place.
Finnish precision building and style is alive and well in northwest Montana. Derek Oja and his creative extended family of building experts are growing slowly and sustainably. Derek told me that he is here to stay. Mountains towns are part of his heart and soul. That and hockey, hunting and family, of course. For those of you looking for a trustworthy local builder, creative mountain modern designing capabilities, friendly and approachable staff and a transparent financial management program look no further than Montana’s Finmark Construction. Contrary to standard urban lore, building a new home for us became a satisfying and exciting experience. Your sense of pride grows as the home is created in front of your eyes. As a new homeowner, there is no finer sight than your framing studs being raised on your new foundation, on your personal land or lot, and there is no more comforting sound to your ears than a nail running through it.