A publicly traded company with deep pockets and extensive ties to the Puget Sound area is making a splash in the Charleston region by acquiring gobs of land.

At a glance

Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc.

Founded: 1989

Headquarters: Seattle

Stock: Shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol PCL.

Holdings: 6.8 million acres of U.S. timberlands. It also owns wood-products manufacturing plants in the Pacific Northwest.

Latest deal: Bought 501,000 acres in five states from MeadWestvaco for $869 million. The Dec. 6 deal increased its South Carolina holdings to 290,000 acres. At the same time, it invested $152 million in two real estate ventures with MeadWestvaco that own 109,000 acres in the Charleston region. Plum Creek also will supply paper-making fiber to the KapStone mill in North Charleston.

Other S.C. connection: Morgan Timber owner John F. Morgan Sr., chairman of Plum Creek's board of directors, lives on Hilton Head Island.

Employees: More than 1,200, including 26 former MeadWestvaco forestry staffers who changed employers this month. "We hired as many as wanted to join Plum Creek," CEO Rick Holley said.

Website: plumcreek.com

It's not Boeing Co., the Seattle-founded jet maker that's been on a Lowcountry real estate-buying spree of late.

The acquirer in this case is the lesser-known Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., which is more closely associated with freight trains than airplanes.

The company has quietly been buying mostly rural tracts throughout South Carolina for at least the last decade. But it was a blockbuster transaction on Dec. 6 that thrust Plum Creek into the local limelight.

In one of the biggest single land deals in state history, the Seattle-based real estate investor snapped up 501,000 acres of forestlands from packaging giant MeadWestvaco for $869 million, or about $1,735 an acre.

The sale included 175,000 acres in the Palmetto State, which, based on the average per-acre price, works out to about $304 million. The rest of the parcels are in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia.

The sale reinforced the company's standing as one of the biggest private U.S. property owners.

As its name suggests, Plum Creek invests in and manages large swaths of land where it raises and replants trees to be cut and sold, in most cases, for lumber and pulp for paper products.

"We're not developers," stressed CEO Rick Holley. "It's not what we do."

Howdy, partner

For that reason, the deal with MeadWestvaco stands out as an exception. As of this month, Plum Creek became a financial partner in the seller's Summerville-based MWV Community Development and Land Management business, providing $152 million to help fund current and future projects.

That part of the transaction included stakes in two newly formed joint ventures that control 109,000 acres of real estate in the Charleston region.

"The more we looked at it, it got more attractive," Holley said in a recent interview. "Charleston is one of the fastest-growing middle markets in the country today."

About $140 million of the investment will go into a partnership focused on long-term projects, namely the 72,000-acre East Edisto development that's been winding through the planning process for several years. It also includes the Watson Hill tract on Highway 61 near Summerville and a couple of rural industrial parks in Colleton County.

Plum Creek owns 50 percent of that joint venture, which MWV Community Development staffers will continue to run without interruption or change.

"In the venture, Plum Creek will manage these ... lands for continued timber production until the land is sold," Holley told Wall Street analysts when the deal was announced in October. "In some cases, we expect the venture to pursue an outright sale strategy for these development-quality lands."

The companies have crossed paths before. For example, they helped establish the nonprofit Sustainable Forestry Initiative more than a decade ago.

They came to the table again this year, after Richmond, Va.-based MeadWestvaco Corp. announced it was seeking buyers to help "unlock the value" of its vast and decades-old timber holdings.

"We felt they would be good stewards of the land," said Ken Seeger, president of MWV Community Development, who was referring to the acreage Plum Creek purchased outright. "We wanted to feel like if we weren't going to own it, we wanted it to be in good hands."

Plum Creek, pipsqueak

Plum Creek's roots go back about 80 years, according to its website.

The name originated from a stream in Minnesota, where D.C. Dunham opened his D.C. Dunham Lumber Co. in the 1930s. He moved the business to Montana in 1945, renaming it after Plum Creek. His heirs later sold it to a predecessor of Burlington Northern Railroad, which, in turn, spun off the timber operation as Burlington Resources in 1987.

The Plum Creek that Holley now oversees was established as a publicly traded partnership in 1989. That year, it bought 1.4 million acres of forestland in the Pacific Northwest from Burlington and secured a listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

A key turning point came a decade later, when Plum Creek converted to a real estate investment trust from a partnership. The new structure was far more favorable, tax-wise, for the large institutional investors the company needed to fuel its growth.

Plum Creek hit the big time when it acquired The Timber Co., a spinoff of wood-products giant Georgia-Pacific. The 2001 deal more than doubled its land holdings.

"It went from being a pipsqueak that no one paid attention to, to being a component of the S&P 500 that people can't ignore," a financial analyst told The Seattle Times in 2008.

The latest Plum Creek acquisition includes a 5 percent stake in some of MWV Community Development's ongoing projects on 22,000 acres around the region, including the mixed-use Nexton community near Summerville. While the new partner from the Northwest can share in those profits, it said it won't be putting any more money into the deal. Nor will Plum Creek be involved in any day-to-day decisions. Seeger and his staff will continue to call the shots.

As Holley has noted, Plum Creek isn't a real estate developer. It's happy to leave the "vertical" construction business to others, he said.

"Our bread and butter is land and timber," said Holley, who joined Plum Creek in 1995 as chief financial officer. "Development only comes out when we have land ... that's in the way of development."

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572