stack of lumber

Tom Albright: A Remarkable Entrepreneur

In Recent Posts, Entrepreneurship by Steve Sliwa

When I was President of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University back in the 90s, I met Tom Albright. For about the next 15 years, we remained friends, and he taught me much about what it means to be an entrepreneur. His lessons are just as valuable today.

Background

Thomas Darrell Albright (Tom) was from Daytona Beach, Florida, and I refer to him as the timber baron/entrepreneur. Initially, his career was in law enforcement, becoming a deputy sheriff. But his aspirations were higher, so he went to night school and eventually obtained a law degree. He left Florida to join a corporate law firm in Atlanta, Georgia focusing on bond issues and real estate projects.

A few years into that, his dad, Thomas B. Albright, had a heart attack just after his business partner passed away. The senior Albright was now solely in charge of Volusia Timber, a $1.5m business, with many contracts in the works. Tom took a six-month leave of absence from the law firm to help with the company while his father recovered. He spent his days out in the woods managing people cutting down trees. At the end of the six months, he decided to stay and ultimately bought his father out. Thomas was more than happy because he always wanted one of his four sons to take over the business. And, Tom grew it, from $1.5m to about $12m.

Volusia Timber

This business either cleared land and cut down trees for new construction or harvested timber from the equivalent of tree farms. In this latter case, they thinned and harvested trees that were grown explicitly for timber and then replanted them for later harvest. These trees are renewable resources, especially for this type of timber. Tom regularly worked with trees his father planted. While the rule of thumb was 12-20 years before reharvesting, Tom found 15-18 years optimal for the trees to mature properly. This high-quality wood was used for building products.

Another part of his job was to clear lots where houses or businesses were to be built. This wood was low-quality and could not be used to build things. When clearing land, two options exist: Burn the wood or put it in the landfill. Some towns allowed burning, but others didn’t. Tom saw the writing on the wall. With the smoke and pollution burning created, he knew it was only a matter of time before it was no longer allowed. Tom was good at anticipating the evolution of rules and prepared Volusia for the future by procuring special equipment so that he could haul the wood off to the dump. Hauling these materials required different trucks than for moving logs and timber.

In addition, Tom realized that it was also essential to reduce the company’s costs. In the timber business, insurance is astronomical because of the number of accidents and injuries with chainsaw-toting employees. Some accidents were horrendous and resulted in large insurance claims and lawsuits. Because of his legal background, he decided to see how he could get the lowest insurance costs. The best way to accomplish this was to have the lowest injury rates because insurance companies have a risk rating for clients. His goal was to have a more favorable risk rating than his competition.

When a new employee came aboard, Tom bought the person new equipment – steel-toed boots, goggles, helmets, gloves, and special protection for the legs and body to minimize the chance of injury. He told the employee that the supplies were all theirs at his expense, but if the employee ever showed up to work without the gear, then he would reissue it and charge the employee the full amount. The message was clear. The employee had the proper safety equipment and was expected to wear it on the job. And, he followed through on this. People soon learned that he was serious. Bring your gear. Wear your gear.

Tom and I, both pilots, first connected over airplanes. He simply loved flying. He used his airplane to check on his crews to make sure they were working but also wearing the proper gear. If they didn’t have on the safety attire, then he fined them. If they didn’t have the gear, he issued them new equipment and docked their pay. He worked assiduously to have them wear the safety gear, go through the proper training, and have the lowest possible accident rates.

Within two years, his risk rating was the lowest among his competition. He could bid lower and win more bids because insurance is one of the biggest costs in that business, on top of labor and training costs. He had an escalating pay scale and the best insurance rates, so he could afford to lower his bids. These measures were critical to growing his organization.

As I mentioned earlier, he anticipated the green movement and was ahead of the game because he had already purchased the equipment necessary to haul low-quality wood away to the landfill instead of burning it. Tom, however, took it one step further. He convinced the municipal landfill to provide him with a dedicated area to dump his wood. And sure enough, soon legislation passed that no longer allowed the burning of wood and essentially required recycling the materials.

Seeing the upside, Tom entered into a contract with a local paper company. Their needs did not require high-quality wood, so Tom could use scrap wood from cleared lots. As it turns out, more and more companies dumped their wood onto Tom’s pile. Tom convinced the municipality that they should receive recycling credits for the poundage he took away. He suggested weighing his vehicles as they left and turning that over for recycling credit. His competition dropped the wood off for free, the county received credit, and Tom made quite a bit of money from the paper factories.

That worked for about a year, and then two things happened. First, the housing market took off, resulting in an abundance of scrap wood, Then, the government decided to start charging for dumping and picking up wood. Also, Volusia County was ranked in Florida with the second highest recycling credit, even though it was a small county. That was great news, but it led to increased scrutinization of the operations. Suddenly, the local government wanted in on the action.

Again, Tom was one step ahead because he realized someone would notice his gains. Preemptively, he bought a railroad yard on a major train line about 30 minutes away, somewhat more of a drive than to the local landfill. He set up a signal. If you brought wood to the lot, prepped it, and loaded it into special car bins, then you were paid $x/ton. He created an enticing situation. Instead of paying to drop off your scrap wood, his competition received payment. They had to drive a little farther, prep the wood to meet Tom’s specs, and put it on the train, but it was worth the extra income.

Tom made people sign releases to prevent insurance issues, ensure no one was hurt, and everyone had the appropriate insurance coverage. He received wood that met the paper companies’ specs. And, no one knew that Tom was behind this. They thought it was some paper company offshoot. He thought it was funny because he would go to public events, and people remarked on how he hadn’t won a bid in a very long time. He merely smiled and said, “Yeah, you guys have outmaneuvered me yet again.” He was incognito and very busy with his new project.

As I said, he grew his business from $1.5m to $12m in sales, which was a lot of money in those days. He leveraged his legal skills, evolved his business, anticipated how organizations were going to grow, and found a way to get out in front by making investments.

Guest Lecturer

I taught a class in leadership and entrepreneurship and regularly had guest lecturers come in and speak with my students. Every year when Tom came in, he tried to appear unsophisticated by wearing flannel shirts, handing out wood-textured business cards, and talk about being outdoors and chopping down trees. He was incredibly humble and almost spoke beneath himself. One time, a student asked him how to plan for uncertainty. Tom, replied, “Through diversification of revenue streams… I mean, you just try to be lucky, I guess.” He almost slipped out of his persona for a second, sounding like the sophisticated entrepreneur he was.

At the end of each year, I formally surveyed the students regarding their favorite speaker. Tom was always in the top two, and many times he was number one. The students appreciated his down-to-earth style and the fact that he would maneuver and take a business and multiply it by a factor of 10 simply by using basic principles and staying ahead of the competition. He used his strengths to accomplish things.

Stories

Over the years, I amassed numerous stories that involved Tom. Below are some of the more memorable ones.

First Meeting

The first time we met in person was at the Daytona Beach Airport. I was driving a university car with the license plate ERAU. Those were the initials for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This man walked up and asked, “Are you the president of the university or what?” I nodded, and we struck up a conversation. It didn’t take long before we discovered that we were both pilots, and as it turned out, we had emailed back and forth, exchanging information on airplanes, before I moved to Florida from the West Coast. Over time, we became pretty good friends, and he helped the university out from time to time.

Emergency Landing in Cuba

Tom didn’t use his legal skills only for business. He used it in nearly every situation, especially when it came to flying. He knew the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) backward and forward because he thoroughly studied them. He was an expert and taught me things that I had no idea you could do. He backed me up when necessary with air traffic control, and it was somewhat funny but also created some friction with those in the tower.

Back in the day, it was illegal for U.S. pilots to land in Cuba unless the pilot had an emergency. It happened that Tom was flying over Cuba when he declared an emergency and landed. When he touched down, the back door on his airplane was flapping in the wind. Supposedly it was broken, or it might have looked like he was reaching back and flapping it. Nonetheless, he was in Cuba. For some reason, it took nearly a week to repair the door to the point that he felt comfortable enough to fly home. In the meantime, he stayed in nice hotels, his money went a long way, and he had a great time.

On his flight home after reentering U.S. airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) demanded that he proceed directly to the Key West airport, and they would be waiting for him. Now, Tom realized the FAA would be upset thinking that he might have taken advantage of the rules. He assumed border security would want to do a thorough investigation and make an example of him. But Tom knew the regulations. He replied, “I’m unable to do that due to my fuel level. I can land in Fort Pierce.”

“Negative. You must land at EYW.”

Tom replied, “Under U.S. FAA FAR 91.3 Section A, ‘the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.’ I am the pilot in command, and I have to assess all issues concerning weather, the capability of the airplane, and fuel levels and make decisions appropriate for conducting a safe flight. I will land at FPR, refuel, and wait for you to inspect me there.”

Tom knew that their drive would be about four hours. Fort Pierce had personnel who could inspect his plane, but they wouldn’t be as mad as those speaking with him now nor would they inspect or investigate as thoroughly. He waited for their response, assuming that they were consulting the FARs and discussing their alternatives.

“Okay. We are unable to meet you. Proceed to FPR, and follow the normal procedures.”

Usually, when FAA air traffic control tells you to do something, you do it. For Tom to have the confidence to say no, quote back the FARs, and then proceed on course took a lot of moxie.

Evidently, that trip had a profound impact on him. Once the rules relaxed regarding landing in Cuba, Tom returned several times and even took friends with him. He always enjoyed his trips there.*

Visiting Volusia Timber

Tom was proud of what he had built at Volusia Timber and wanted to show me what it was about. Just as we were about to leave, he asked if I had a gun. I told him that while I supported the right to bear arms and the Second Amendment, I didn’t hunt nor have the time to keep up with the training, so no I didn’t have a gun. He said that was okay, and he would provide one for me. I asked why I needed a weapon. He said because of snakes and crocodiles. I wondered if I could just stand next to him. “I’d feel safer if you had a gun.”

I guess this was his deputy sheriff training coming out. Then, he asked if I ate meat since I didn’t hunt, and I said yes. We bantered back and forth over that for a while with him wanting to get into a little mind game, which was amusing.

Always the Businessman

At Embry-Riddle, Tom talked to me about the upcoming building construction. He said the lot was huge and suggested that Volusia Timber buy the wood from us. Tom would sell it to the paper companies and give us half the proceeds. That sounded like a great deal to me, so I spoke with the head of construction, who was a man I respected. He heard me out but said that the winning bid was very low and that he was sure they had taken selling the timber into account when pricing their bid. I said okay and thought that this was a case where it’s difficult for the leader of an organization to reach down into the minor details of the day-to-day operations.

Nine months later, I ran into Tom, and he told me that he ended up making $30,000 off our timber. I asked what he meant. He said that while I told him that the company’s bid took into account selling the wood, he actually thought the company intended to burn the wood and only included the price of the permit. It turns out Tom was correct.

Tom approached the company and offered to haul away the timber if they didn’t want to burn the wood. The owner readily agreed since he wouldn’t have to pay for the permit. But Tom wasn’t finished. He said that they didn’t want any issues with insurance, so he would pull his truck alongside the lot, and his people could load it. What Tom really wanted was to avoid renting the loading equipment. He sold the wood for $30,000 with very little expenditure since he already had the truck.

Of course, Tom told me this, which was embarrassing, and I, in turn, had to tell the head of construction. I was somewhat sore since we lost out on $15,000, but Tom did help the university out a lot, including making donations. Tom had a great story, but we benefited as well. The lesson the University walked away with was that the President can actually provide meaningful advice on minor details.

Saving the Mustangs

Tom’s two girls wanted to ride horses, so he bought a larger property that had room to accommodate them. He had heard about a mustang rescue operation and decided to explore that option. The organization rescued these horses from the Plains where they roamed freely. They had experienced hard lives, but he felt that they would have stamina and endurance. Of course, he used his legal skills to get the best possible deal for two horses. They were scrawny horses, so he shipped them somewhere to be quarantined where they could be nursed back to health. Since Florida is hot and humid, it was important that they be healthy. Once they arrived, he hired trainers, and within one year, they were both outstanding riding horses for his daughters. And, the horses must have been happy to have a better life. They ended up having great endurance even in Florida, probably because they had a difficult life growing up. This story is one of my favorites.

In the End

I moved away, but we stayed in touch occasionally. I’m sad to report that the world lost a great man prematurely to leukemia on April 19, 2005. He was only 53 years old.

I wanted to write these stories to keep his memory alive because he was an impressive and motivating person. His family was well-taken care of. In particular, I know one of his daughters went on to win several beauty contents, using that money to apply to her schooling. My understanding is that she went on to become an accomplished doctor. Tom’s father and mother outlived their son. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the family.

I sure miss Tom.

* Since Tom’s passing, I feel comfortable sharing this story of his time in Cuba.

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