Jimmy Rane, president and chief executive officer of Great Southern Wood Preserving, Inc., said he knew "zero" about the wood business when he started his company in 1970. "I didn’t know the difference in a 2x4 and a 2x6," he said at Samford University’s Cumberland School School of Law Oct. 11. But he learned from his mistakes "and kept at it."
Rane delivered the inaugural presentation of the Dean’s Lecture Series in Business Law, a new series that will bring prominent alumni to campus to interact with students and share from their life experiences.
The 1971 Cumberland graduate traced the story of how his business, "a small operation in southeast Alabama, became the biggest at what it does--and also how a budding lawyer took a different and unexpected path into business," he said in remarks prepared for the event.
Building Products Digest has recognized Great Southern Wood as the largest producer of pressure treated wood in the U. S.
Starting as a small wood treating plant in 1970, Rane’s company now serves customers in 28 states, the District of Columbia, Latin America, the Caribbean and China. It has company plant operations in 11 states and sales of $1 billion.
"And I assure you, although I did not continue my original plan to become a lawyer, my legal education has been very valuable in my experiences leading a growing business while facing a never-ending array of legal details," Rane told his Cumberland audience.
He cited such courses as torts, contracts, civil procedure, real property, business organizations and secured transactions as having great value applying to business life.
"I am grateful for my time at Cumberland, and the very valuable legal education I took into the business world," he said.
Rane took over a struggling wood preservation operation—land and equipment—from his late father-in-law in his hometown of Abbeville, Alabama, in ’70. His plan was to sell the operation and practice law in Birmingham. But when his plant manager quit, Rane was left with no choice.
"I had to go back to Abbeville where I opened a little law office," Rane recalled. "I’d get up every morning at 4:30, go out to the plant and start treating posts with my one remaining employee. Then at 8:30 I’d come back, take a shower, and go to that law office."
He had two telephones, Rane said, one he answered "Jimmy Rane law office" and the other "Great Southern Wood."
"The first year we lost over $90,000," he said. "By August of 1971, I’m hanging on by a thread, basically bankrupt." But Rane was able to get a $5,000 loan from the Bank of Abbeville, and used it to buy wood he treated and then resold.
"That’s literally how we began to dig our way out of a hole and build Great Southern Wood into the company it is today," he said.
By 1976, the company had grown from sales of $22,000 to almost $1.4 million, and Rane opened a plant in Mobile, Alabama, where Great Southern was doing a significant amount of business. When the Mobile plant finally got going, it was "straining to keep up with the demand."
In 1984 the company bought land for a plant in Conyers, Georgia. Opening in 1985, it "was a huge success." In 1991, Great Southern opened a plant in Florida, and sales were up to $41.5 million. After opening a new facility in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1998, the company began a period of rapid expansion. Since 2000, the company has added facilities in Columbus, Texas; Jesup, Georgia; Buckner, Missouri; Glenwood, Arkansas; Brookhaven, Mississippi; Mansura, Louisiana; Rocky Mount, Virginia; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Fombell, Pennsylvania.
At one point, Rane was invited to enroll in a Smaller Company Management Program at Harvard Business School. One of the first marketing cases he studied was Perdue Chickens, in which the company owner came up with a plan to advertise his product directly to the customers, in that case, "mothers," instead of store managers. Rane saw some similarities between Perdue’s company and his.
"We’re selling lumber to good ole Southern boys" who like college football, said Rane. He talked Auburn University coach Pat Dye into endorsing his product. "So we get on Pat’s show and it starts to work," making it easier to approach other coaches and schools.
Over a period of 15 years, Great Southern went from $10 million to $326 million in sales. By 2004, the figure was $500 million.
Cumberland Dean Corky Strickland presented Rane with a memento of his visit to his alma mater, the framed original letter recommending Rane to the law school as a prospective student. It was signed by then-Governor Albert Brewer.