Ken Wilson was only 7 when he climbed on top of a lumber truck and handed planks down to his father. At 9, he was using a band saw out behind their home, working to fill an order for a big customer. They seemed like tough life lessons at the time — Ken even jokes about how dramatic he was when his father made him saw planks in the cold.
“I went on out to the lumber shed to do it, and I was feeling so sorry for myself that I thought, ‘If I were to freeze to death, my dad would really be sorry that he made me work,’” Ken said.
Of course he wasn’t at risk of frostbite or anything. This is Alabama, where winters barely require a coat. Those life lessons — the hard work, the customer service, the overall ethics of the company were hard at first, but now Ken, along with his brothers Rick and Steve, know that those were the foundations of good business practices.
By the time Ken was an adult, he knew he wanted to go into the family business, Wilson Lumber, to continue their family tradition of hard work and honesty. Rick and Steve followed afterwards, and the three took over the business from their father, Clyde. Today, they’ve handed down the company to their three sons, Mark, Robb and Russ, but the values instilled in them by their father and grandfather are still alive and well in the lumberyard.
Who Was Clyde Wilson?
To hear Ken, Rick and Steve tell it, Clyde comes across like a character straight out of a John Steinbeck novel, a literal up-from-the-bootstraps, depression-era farmer who moved his family from rural Alabama to the big city of Huntsville. At least at that time it was considered a big city.
Born in 1914, Clyde Wilson grew up in Winston County where his sons say the depression hit, but they were so poor already they didn’t even notice. Clyde even called black-eyed peas lifesavers because that’s all he had to eat for many meals growing up.
Even at a young age, Clyde was out in the fields working from dawn to dusk. He was a logger and a farmer until the middle of the twentieth century, when a failed cotton crop forced him to move north a little bit. Times were different then, and men were expected to labor outside for a full day before coming home for dinner. It’s that mindset that Clyde carried over into his own family.
Clyde’s brother-in-law was already Huntsville, so he moved the family up to Huntsville and jumped right into what he knew best. He already knew a lot about the industry since he had been in logging, so it wasn’t a stretch.
He started the lumber company a few years later, starting off the legacy of hard-working Wilson men who would own and operate the business.
Teaching by Example
Clyde Wilson had seven children in all, but the boys were the ones tasked with working manual labor jobs in the company. Nepotism wasn’t an option — they all started at the bottom of the totem pole just like every other new employee. By the time the boys were in their early teens, they were operating forklifts and helping customers.
If you ask any of the Wilson family members to talk about the life lessons passed down from Clyde, they will undoubtedly bring up two things: doing things right and treating customers with utmost respect. Still, the patriarch didn’t sit them down and preach these things. Instead, they learned them through his example.
In the early days of Wilson Lumber, the family lived next door to the lumberyard. When Clyde saw a customer stop by after-hours, he got up from the dinner table and went to help them.
“(He taught us to) do it right,” Rick said. “Be fair. Pay your taxes — don’t pay a penny more, don’t pay a penny less, but pay them. Don’t try to get around them. Treat customers right. Don’t try to cheat a customer. Treat them the way you want to be treated.”
Steve remembers one time when his father stopped at a gas station to get snacks and accidentally drove off without paying. He remembered when they were a few miles down the road and immediately turned back to make things even. At that time, Steve was frustrated because they were going camping, but now he looks back on the memory fondly because it shows the integrity of his father.
“I remembered that … through my life, and if I make a mistake, I need to go and take care of it as soon as possible,” Steve said.
It wasn’t all about the work. Clyde started a culture of giving back to the community. Rick remembers his father sitting down around Christmas time each year and writing checks for $25 to every church that did business with them in the previous year. That tradition carried over as well. These days Wilson Lumber is heavily involved with the Down syndrome community and Habitat for Humanity.
The Third Generation
Ken, Rick and Steve only recently passed the business down to their sons Robb, Russ and Mark. They wanted to pass on the lessons they learned from their father, but just like Clyde, they knew the way to reach and influence young men wasn’t to teach and preach at them.
In fact, Ken says he didn’t teach his son anything in the traditional sense, again leading by example and hoping his son picked up on the life lessons.
Steve was careful not to pressure his son, Mark, into working for Wilson Lumber. He just wanted him to be a good employee somewhere. Eventually, Mark found his own way back to Huntsville and started working alongside his cousins.
Over the past 60 years, almost everything about the way Wilson Lumber operates has changed, from the technology used to the Wilson men in charge.
“That was one thing that my dad would tell us,” Ken said. “If you’re not growing, you’re digressing. One thing he said was that the one thing that doesn’t change is that everything changes. I guess that’s kind of the secret to the whole business.”
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the Wilson Lumber devotion to good, clean business practices and giving the customer the best experience they can muster.