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VOL. 122 | NO. 156 | Monday, August 20, 2007

Lumber Company Owner Reflects on a Lifetime In the Business, Still Going Strong at 72

By Rosalind Guy

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STEADY AS AN OAK TREE: 72-year-old George Buzard of Gates Lumber has been in the business almost all his life. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy
1253 South Bellevue Blvd.
George Buzard
Founded: 1920
Employees: 60
Phone: 942-3201

George Buzard admits he wasn't much of a student when he attended the University of Memphis, where he never got the chance to declare a major.

He left college shortly after starting and went on to do something very few children do these days: He followed in his father's footsteps. Buzard's father was working at North Memphis Lumber Co. when his son joined, unloading box cars.

Buzard said becoming a part of the team at the lumber yard made him realize he's a hard worker who enjoys working.

Even at age 72, he loves going in to work every day at Gates Lumber at 1253 S. Bellevue Blvd., a company he bought in 1985 after working there for 20 years. He often arrives at the business at 7 a.m., before any of his employees, getting operations started and brewing the coffee.

Student of life

Buzard started working at North Memphis Lumber Co. in 1965. The company had bought Gates Lumber a few months before Buzard joined.

At that time, there were two locations: one in North Memphis and the current Bellevue Boulevard location.

When the original owner, Max Pinkerton, died in 1985, Buzard found himself on the receiving end of what he calls "a very good proposition."

Buzard credits numerous lucky breaks with helping him to eventually own the business he started working at in his youth. The breaks began with Pinkerton's heart attack shortly after Buzard started, creating the need for a driver to bring Pinkerton to work and take him home every day.

"So twice a day I had him as a captive audience," Buzard said. "I started selling myself, (saying), 'You're really wasting a lot of talent by having me unload these box cars. I could be more beneficial to you other places.'

"Well, after about two to three weeks of that, I got moved into the retail side of the business in the shipping department. And I was able to advance because I'd work hard. I loved it. I worked every day, it didn't bother me; so any time something needed to be done, I'd volunteer to do it."

Changing times

Over the years, Buzard said he's watched the business evolve as technology has become more advanced. The business is not one that has been affected by outside influences. Instead, he said, certain procedures of the business have changed.

Years ago when a contractor wanted to add millwork (profiled or finished woodwork), Gates Lumber would have to send doors and other accessories out to job sites and a trim carpenter would have to make doors fit on the site. Today, though, all of that is done inside the factory and doors are shipped to job sites.

That evolution was driven by two factors: the technology and the lack of skilled trim carpenters to do the work by hand.

"The lumber industry is not very profitable," Buzard said. "It's not a money-making situation for people who work in it. A trim carpenter is not going to get rich. So a young man saw his father working hard for a very small wage and he elected not to follow him.

"Twenty years ago it was traditional for young men to follow their fathers into whatever business they were in. That started changing after World War II and during the '50s and '60s, a lot of trades started dying off; skilled craftsmen were getting harder to find so technology stepped in."

'A house is still a house'

Now the lumber company can produce 200 units of doors a day, whereas only about 20 could be produced by hand.

Buzard doesn't predict many changes taking place any time soon.

"A house is still a house and if you drive through Memphis you'll see that, by and large, they look a lot alike - the brand-new houses and the 100-year-old houses - some of them look better than others, some are bigger than others; the product, if you will, of a house hasn't changed dramatically over the years. ... It still takes a roof and walls, and doors and windows and wiring and all that, so where we have evolved is that as technology has evolved, it's gotten easier for us to produce a product with a semi-skilled person by buying a type of machinery.

"Because you can't go out in the marketplace and find skilled people anymore, you have to take people with average skills and train them to do what you want them to do."

The company regularly sends employees for training. Just recently, two Gates employees attended the Weinig Training School in North Carolina.

That's just one factor that contributes to a low turnover rate at the company. Many of the 60 employees have been there for a minimum of 15 years and up to 30 years.

Another factor is the loyalty that employees feel to the company. When part of the factory burned to the ground one night in March 2004, more than half of the employees showed up to make sure the business operations would be able to continue.

For about a year, the manufacturing side of the business had to be carried out at a rented warehouse space. Now, all operations are back under one roof and so are all the employees.

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