One striking fact about LePage's resume is that, for a quarter-century after graduating from college, he worked almost exclusively in the traditional industrial economy of the interior: lumber, woodturning, and paper mills, food processing, and electricity generation. Apart perhaps from a summer job in Portland, he has never lived within 20 miles of the sea, and he has never had direct involvement in tourism sector. Today, these experiences are reflected in his economic policies, which presume Maine's future lies in shoring up the balance sheets of smokestack industries by lifting environmental and labor regulations and the costs associated with them.
LePage left Scott Paper in 1983 and has claimed that he had been "redlined" for having turned down three promotions that would have taken him out of Maine. He and Ann moved to Fort Fairfield for a year, where he was director of financial administration for the Interstate Food Processing Corporation, a potato and vegetable processor with a unionized workforce. In 1984, he was hired as chief financial officer of Forster Manufacturing, the Wilton-based woodturning firm that was once the world leader in the manufacture of toothpicks. "He was very personable, a great sense of humor, no bullshit," says Spencer Thompson, who was Forster's marketing manager at the time. "He wasn't a bean counter. He saw the whole operation — the whole company, and had an intuitive sense of what would work in business." Forster had a unionized workforce, but Thompson says LePage was "human-resource oriented" and "not anti-labor."
In 1986, LePage decided to strike out on his own as a business consultant, while teaching classes on accounting and business ethics at Kennebec Valley Vocational Institute. His consultancy, LePage & Kasevich, specialized in rescuing distressed companies, usually after a bankruptcy court had appointed LePage to run them. After a life in finance, these were his first stints actually managing companies, and he wasn't always able to save them.
In 1990, a court appointed him to run Wilner Wood Products, the largest employer in Norway, Maine, which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having accrued $5 million in debt. In December 1991, LePage told reporters at the time that workers' compensation expenses were "the one thing that might prevent" a turnaround, and that they cost the company $300,000 annually. After studying claim records, he determined that over two-thirds of accidents involved the eyes, and many of the others from repetitive motion injuries. He mandated protective glasses and compulsory morning stretches, and reported a large reduction in the number of accidents, though this may also have been due to the shrinking of the workforce. Workers' comp, he said, was "absolutely out of control" and "100 percent in favor of the employees, without accountability." LePage presided over further layoffs over the months that followed, shrinking the employment from 147 to 50, and then, without warning, seven months later, Wilner suddenly closed its doors. The Lewiston Sun-Journal reported that investors LePage had approached had been scared off by the fear of potential environmental liabilities stemming from drums of toxic material the state Department of Environmental Protection had once found on the site. State labor and environmental rules had hindered his turnaround effort.