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Executive Profile

Second Wind
He was a hard-charging bank president before retiring,
but now Bodie Bodenheimer really has hit his stride

By Kevin Brafford

The hands are big and strong, the eyes soft and comforting. His walk is measured, and that’s not because Bodie Bodenheimer’s 72 years old. Rather, you get the feeling that every step he’s taken during his more than five decades in the working world has been calculated.

On this morning he wants to tell you the inside story on wood floors, his primary interest these days as chairman and CEO of Zickgraf Enterprises Inc. in Franklin, a still sometimes-sleepy little town deep in the southwestern reaches of the state. You learn that the greatest enemy of wood floors is moisture, and you learn that the floor is fundamental in any room design.

You learn these things long before you get to the really good stuff — that he’s a former school teacher and coach, a retired bank president and a retired brigadier general in the North Carolina Army National Guard who bought and turned around a fledging company — in his 60s, no less. And you also learn pretty quickly that when he says “we” he really means “I.”

You suspect that he has many stories to tell, and he doesn’t disappoint. Nor does he fail to entertain. A couple of hours later, you walk away both satisfied and a little sad, knowing that he’s done more to brighten up this one day for you than you can possibly ever do for him. 

Bodenheimer was old school long before being old school was cool. He was born in Lumberton but raised in Granite Falls, one of two sons to Ada and Furman P. Bodenheimer Sr. Furman, the original “Bodie” (pronounced “bo-dee”) in the family was general manager for Shuford Mills and Ada perhaps had the more difficult job — she stayed home and took care of Bodie and Chris.

“Growing up in Granite Falls was one of the great blessings of my life,” Bodenheimer says. “We never really wanted for anything, and it was a great place to be as a kid.”

He played every sport imaginable and made his mark in the classroom as well. “I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who ended up having a great deal to do with my attitude about life,” he says. “Edith Cagle is her name, and we’ve been close friends ever since I started junior high school.”

That Bodenheimer regards her now as having been a friend even while she was his teacher speaks volumes as to her impact. “She demanded so much,” he says, “not only academically but in the way that you lived your life. She wanted you to live it with honor.

“We had 47 people in our high school graduating class, and a lot of them went on to become doctors, lawyers and the like — real successful people. Come to think of it, we didn’t have a loser in the bunch.”

High school was followed by a two-year stint in the Navy, the first date in what would become a lasting relationship with the military. Growing up he was “Little Bodie,” but he wasn’t stuck on the name and figured once he got in the Navy he might go by either Furman or F.P. “But I found out that when you went into the military, they’d call you by your last name. Mine was too long, though, so they started calling me Bodie and it’s stuck ever since.”

All the while Bodenheimer kept his eye on Appalachian State University, his favorite teacher’s alma mater. So when his hitch was over, he headed for Boone, where he played football while earning a degree in science and physical education.

Cagle’s influence was one reason that he yearned to be a teacher and a coach. He landed a job at Charlotte Technical High School, the last existing technical school in the state, in 1952, and still considers those couple of years the most satisfying in his life. “Fifty years later, to have people who have turned out so wonderful come up and tell you that you influenced their life, well, there’s nothing better than that.”

While professionally rewarding, the financial end of teaching was a strain. “My dad told me early on that it was a very honorable profession, but that I’d never be able to make a living at it,” he says. “And he was right. When I began I was making $188 a month, and there was a schedule in place that told you exactly what you’d be making 25 years from then. It was discouraging, so I felt like I had to go in another direction.”

He took a job selling mortgage insurance at Prudential. After several months of training in Richmond, Va., he went to work at its Jacksonville office for a short time before returning to Charlotte.

It was there he initially laid eyes on Margaret Kuhn, an airline stewardess for Eastern Airlines. They chatted for the first time at a party near their apartment complex. “He actually had come with someone else,” says Margy, “an older girl who was very attractive. But we ended up talking the whole night. One of the things I remember is that I couldn’t pronounce his name.”

“I guess I spent too much of my time with Margy that night,” Bodenheimer recalls, “because my date decided to go home by herself.”

The two dated — if you could call it that — for three years before getting married in September 1960. “We didn’t go on many of your typical dates back then,” she says. “I was used to having people take me out to nightclubs and restaurants. We mostly walked around and went to movies.”

“We did a lot of simple, resourceful things,” says Bodenheimer. “I always enjoyed taking walks and pretty soon she did, too. Put it this way: We spent a lot more money on ice cream than on steaks.”

During the courtship Bodenheimer took a position at First Citizens Bank & Trust, working in Raleigh for three years before moving to Greensboro in 1961 after he was named a regional senior vice president. He and Margy stayed there for 17 years, raising three children — daughters Dawn and Tracy and son F.P. III — and establishing themselves in the community.

“Our kind of banking at that time was one-on-one,” Bodenheimer says. “We taught that if you had a good customer, you needed to know their business, and you learned a lot of that on Saturday mornings.

“It was a different work environment, one where you had to work many extra hours. I’m a firm believer that not many people can do much with their lives working just eight hours a day. You might make a living, but it’s difficult to get ahead. Margy gave me that freedom when not a lot of women would.”

Bodenheimer also maintained his military connections, serving on weekends and choice weeks throughout the year in the National Guard. At age 46, he was selected to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where he earned a graduate degree and learned even more valuable lessons as one of his class’s oldest students. “We were required to read 2,500 pages every five weeks,” he says. “I didn’t think that was too much, but it turned out to be about three hours of reading a night — I was having to read some things over and over. Then they required us to condense that 2,500 pages down to two type-written pages of summary, double-spaced. And that was hard. I guess to summarize, I first learned that I couldn’t read, then I learned that I couldn’t write.

“So I made it a point to get better at both, and I think I have. I also promised myself that I’d never get to the point where I couldn’t read fast and retain what I’d read.”

His involvement in the National Guard remained constant and Bodenheimer’s expertise and skills led to his being appointed a brigadier general. His family had long gotten used to a helicopter landing near the house on Saturday mornings at the crack of dawn to whisk him away to Fort Bragg for the weekend. Now there was added time and distance to his travels, including regular trips overseas. “As a kid it was pretty neat to see the helicopter land on Sunday and know your dad was the one on board,” says F.P., now 35. “He’d come out in his uniform and his helicopter helmet and all the kids in the neighborhood would run down there.”

The commitment to our country came at a price, however. “There were times when he had to be gone that we all wished he wasn’t,” says Margy. “Those are difficult, because you can never get that time back. But he went to every ballgame and school function that he could, and looking back, I’m amazed at all of the things he didn’t miss.”

The family moved to Cary in 1979 when Bodenheimer was named the bank’s senior vice president. A couple of bank promotions later, he was named president in 1986, a position he held until retiring three years later.

After retiring from First Citizens, he and Margy moved back to Greensboro and to the same neighborhood near Sedgefield Country Club where they had lived before. But he was about as comfortable in retirement as a fish is out of water. “I tried to learn how to play good golf,” he says, “and Margy and I traveled to some of the places that we had talked for a long time about going to see. And we visited some people that we hadn’t seen in years.

“All this only took about six months, and that was about the time that I realized I had more fun working than I did having fun fun. So I started looking for something to do. I didn’t just want to have a hobby — I wanted something to pull on me, to make me do the things necessary to be successful.”

A West Coast friend introduced him to Grant Zickgraf, who owned Zickgraf Enterprises Inc., a group of companies in and around Franklin that specialized in unfinished hardwood flooring. Zickgraf was looking for someone to sell his company and Bodenheimer thought, why not?

“So I came up here and put together a book on the company and tried to sell it. That was 1989, the year that bankers stopped lending money to people to buy companies. I took it to 16 different companies or individuals anyway and didn’t get a single offer.”

Zickgraf then tried to sell Bodenheimer on buying the company, and he was persistent. “He’d call me regularly, telling me what a great company this was and how I needed to own it.” One thing led to another and Bodenheimer eventually made an offer — albeit one considerably less than Zickgraf’s asking price. “I knew something was wrong,” he says, “because I didn’t even get away from the fax machine before he accepted it.”

Still, Bodenheimer almost walked away. At a board meeting in January 1991, the day the deal was to close, he learned “that the company was in some difficulty.” A board member barely kept him from leaving the room. “I finally told them that I’d come for 90 days, without pay, to see if there was anything I could do. All they had to do was pay for meals and a motel room. If I thought I could do anything with the company, then the price I offered would stand. If not, I’d walk away and we could all say we tried.”

In those 90 days, Bodenheimer, with help from a few trusted friends, changed the direction of Zickgraf. A company that did $9 million in sales, almost all in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, today does nearly $50 million  and is an international company with four divisions — and a sales office in Belgium. “This company has a commodity’s attitude for the first 50 years,” Bodenheimer says. “When we went worldwide in 1994, we changed the way we did the domestic product. It used to be that there were no hardwoods in Europe. Now we sell them cherry, maple and others.

Until two years ago, Bodenheimer was spending three months a year in Europe, showcasing his company’s work to prospective clients and trade shows. Today, Zickgraf’s floors line is in the French Embassy in Berlin, the British Airways building at Heathrow Airport in London, and Buckingham Palace.

“Bodie’s a Type-A guy, a highly motivated self-starter,” says John Thomas, a former chancellor at ASU and a longtime friend. “You see evidence of that with what he’s been able to do with that company. He’s powerfully persuasive, and while he’s soft-spoken, if he thinks he’s right about something he’ll stay with it.”

Through all of his years in business, Bodenheimer’s stance on the importance of education hasn’t wavered. When he moved to Franklin, he was amazed at the level of poverty and its subsequent impact on education. “I think education’s the way out — not the only way but certainly the beginning,” he says. “To do that, you have to change the attitudes of the mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers.”

So in January 2000 he opened the Franklin Early Childhood Development Center, a shiny 10,000-square-foot facility that’s home to 48 children from six months old to kindergarten age. Initially, the school was for Zickgraf employees, but now it’s open to anyone in the county. Bodenheimer says it costs $900 per month per child; save for a state-subsidized allotment and some contributions from parents, Zickgraf picks up the balance.

“We feed them the right foods and we teach them to sit down and eat together,” he says. “Our hope is that by the time they get to kindergarten, they will have the fundamentals to go on, and more importantly, their parents will see the benefits of keeping that child in school.”

The teacher-student ratio is 1-to-3, and Bodenheimer says the education process is enhanced by the lone requirement for enrollment: “The mother and father, whether they’re living together or not, must give two hours of volunteer time a month to us,” he says.

Bodenheimer effectively stands watch over the school from a mountaintop guesthouse he built years ago to host visiting clients and associates. He lives downstairs during the week before getting into his Lincoln Town Car each Friday at 4 p.m. for a 235-mile drive to Greensboro. There he’ll find Margy (“There really wasn’t a need for me to move,” she says, “because all he does in Franklin is work.”) awaiting for a long weekend together.

One day, she says, he’ll come home for good. “I don’t know when that day will be, because he truly loves what he’s doing.” Health isn’t an issue — “he’s a 72-year-old man in a 32-year-old body,” says Thomas. Bodenheimer’s daily routine has him up at 5 a.m. and through a mile-and-a-half walk (he walks the same distance each evening) and a 38-minute Nautilus routine by 7 a.m. His meals are generally void of anything that might make his chlosterol rise.

You get the feeling that he’d like his son, currently the vice president of the American Floor Finishing Co., a Zickgraf plant in neighboring Bryson City, Tenn., to succeed him. “Time will tell,” Bodenheimer says. “If he’s good enough to run it, I want him to have the opportunity if he wants it. I have an attitude — and have told this to all of my kids — that’s it’s easier to own a business than run it. Of course, such a decision would be made by the board.”

But that’s then and this is now. “I want to continue to do the things that I can do well,” he says. “The stopping point comes whenever you get in the way of people who could do better. I think I’ll know when that time is.”

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