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Executive Profile

Barringer points to a stuffed animal on a bookcase in his office. “See that brown rat. That’s what we call ourselves, because we’re survivors. We had to shut down a lot of operations in the ’80s — we sold assets to make profits. More than a third of our industry failed. Every Monday morning, we’d get together and figure out a way to make payroll that week. And we always did.”

Growth Rings
Paul Barringer survived economic storms to create
a company as tough as the hardwood lumber he sells

By Kevin Brafford

e routinely logs 12-hour work-days, hopping from one to another of Coastal Lumber’s dozens of operations up and down the East Coast in company airplanes that he often pilots himself.

He plays tennis three to four times a week and works out at least that much if not more. He loves to bike. He builds furniture. He hunts. And on fall Saturdays he can be found at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, watching his beloved alma mater, the University of Virginia, play football.

Yet Paul Barringer insists that he’s reduced — ever so slightly — his schedule, or at least his responsibilities, in the past few years. AftHeer all, who can do at age 72 what they could do at 67 or 68? “I just don’t believe in retirement,” he tells a visitor, who hurriedly scribbles the words in his notebook, assuming that others will follow. But none do, not on this topic.

Merrill Barringer is accustomed to her husband of 45 years getting tightlipped when it comes to his workload. “I don’t want him to stop, but I just want him to slow down a little bit and get rid of the stress in his life,” she says. “He thrives on it, but he wears himself out. But that commitment is what’s made him successful, and it’s all he’s ever known.”

Indeed, that work ethic was evident in Barringer even before he and two associates purchased Coastal in 1959 from Barringer’s father and uncle for what he calls “literally a dollar down.” With Barringer at the helm, the three grew the company, which is based in Weldon, just south of Roanoke Rapids, into what it is today — one of the ten largest privately owned companies in North Carolina. The company also is one of the largest independent wood products companies in the United States.

“My dad has always deflected attention away from himself,” says son Victor Barringer II, who joined Coastal in 1986 and is currently its vice chairman. “But his fingerprints are on everything that Coastal Lumber has accomplished in the last 40 years.”

Paul Brandon Barringer II was born Aug. 22, 1930, the last of three children of Victor and Gertrude Hampton Barringer. Paul’s father was a forester for Sumter Hardwood Co. in Sumter, S.C., a small town some 40 miles east of Columbia.

A few years later Victor Barringer formed a partnership with three men: Frank Traver, an operations manager from Sumter Hardwood; Victor’s brother, Paul Barringer I, a New York City attorney; and one of Paul Barringer I’s clients, noted financier Harry Guggenheim. The latter put up half of the capital to thank Victor Barringer for having accumulated the land for Guggenheim’s fabled hunting haunt, the Cain Hoy Plantation.

The resulting business transaction was Coastal Lumber, based in neighboring Lake City. It primarily cut timber from an estate condemned by the Corps of Engineers for nearby Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie.

 “My father really persevered,” Barringer says. “The worst Depression in our history supposedly was ending, but times were still tough. Being some 7 years old, I vividly remember those days as the mother of all economic recessions.”

“The mill eventually shut down for a year and a half, but somehow he got through it. Some of the memories are really good. I remember riding with him around the state looking at timber and going to the mill. I look back and I know it was a great experience for me, though I’m not sure that was my attitude at the time.”

Both his parents were from Charlottesville and had designs on returning to Virginia as soon as the opportunity presented itself. That came in 1950, one year after Paul’s father started the mill in Weldon. He sold the Lake City mill and moved the family to Richmond, content to make the daily commute just over the North Carolina state line.

“Weldon at the time was a big rail center,” Barringer says. “Seaboard ran East-West and Atlantic Coastal ran North-South. My dad really came to North Carolina for all of the wrong reasons — you don’t locate mills because of railroads.”

A couple of years passed. Paul, accustomed to his new surroundings and friends, had just become a teenager. Life couldn’t have been better. Then one day his dad summoned him for a chat, yet only one person did any talking. “He said, ‘I’m going to send you off to the Episcopal School (a private boys school in Alexandria, just south of Washington, D.C.),’ ” Barringer says. “That was it. There was no discussion, and it wasn’t a choice.

“Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t need the discipline, but I needed it for my education. I wasn’t a good student, and being at that school taught me how to read and how to study.”

Barringer came to excel at the Episcopal School, both in the classroom and out. He was a standout on the school’s track team; his long, lean build coupled with his athletic skills produced a state championship in the pole vault his senior year.

Admittedly full of himself, Barringer and some buddies took off for Charlottesville one weekend that spring. There he laid eyes on Merrill Underwood, two years his junior, at a dance. The Barringer and Underwood families had known each other for generations, but this was the first time the two teens had met.

“I thought I was the greatest thing in the world,” remembers Paul, “but I got the distinct impression she didn’t think I was so good.”

No true, remembers Merrill. “He cut in on me and that caught my eye,” she says. “Right then and there, I thought, ‘I’m going to marry this man.’ ”

It did happen, of course, but not until nine years later. Circumstances, most of them beyond their control, kept them apart for occasional stretches, but each time they managed to reconnect. “We drifted apart for a couple of years — all of the normal things you go through in a relationship,” she says. “But it all worked out in the end, and we eventually got married in a small chapel on the university’s grounds.”

In the meantime, Barringer followed centuries of rich family tradition and enrolled at Virginia, from which he graduated in 1952. “I had my eyes on medical school, but the Korean War changed my plans,” says Barringer. “I went into the Air Force as a pilot. While I was in training (mainly in Bambridge, Ga.), the war ended. They gave me a choice of signing up for five years as a pilot or getting out.”

Barringer got out. The thought of medical school had grown stale during the two years of service. Instead, his curiosity was piqued by Coastal, which his father and uncle, now the sole owners, were looking to unload. “He still wanted me to go to med school, but he also knew it was my life now and my decision,” Barringer says. “So I spent the first year trying to sell it for him while I was helping build a mill in Williamston.”

He found no takers until 1959, when he and two of Coastal’s top managers, R.G. Bell and Steve Conger Sr., decided to acquire it for themselves. “We bought a company with $12,000 equity plus a lot of debt to the sellers and for the new things we needed — like our first forklift,” Barringer says. “The debt we had and the recession of 1965 just about took us under, but somehow we got through those early years.”

The economy ebbed and flowed in those days, seemingly about every four years, Barringer remembers. “It was always the same cycle — oversupply, deflation, contraction, undersupply, inflation and recession,” he says. “We had a simple philosophy: We tried to make more money in the good years than we lost in the bad years. A lot of the companies who weren’t as disciplined didn’t make it through the recession of 1975.”

When times were good, Coastal bought as much land as possible. Its first expansion in the early ’60s was a lumber concentration yard in West Virginia, which soon led to the formation of Pioneer Lumber Co. “We had a 50-50 silent partnership with a man named Pete Dudley,” Barringer says. “If we hadn’t had his capital behind us, I don’t know how we would have made it.”

The savvy decisions helped Coastal weather the first half of the tumultuous ’80s. “To many of us, it was like a depression,” he says. “Interest rates went up to 14 1/2 percent, and the nation’s unemployment rate was over 10 percent. It was awful.”

Barringer points to a small stuffed animal sitting on a bookcase in his office. “See that brown rat,” he says. “That’s what we call ourselves, because we’re survivors. We had to shut down a lot of operations in the ’80s — we sold assets to make profits. More than a third of our industry failed. Every Monday morning, we’d get together and figure out a way to make payroll that week. And we always did.”

At its peak, Coastal maintained 36 manufacturing and sales facili-ties nationwide and in the United Kingdom. The number today still tops 30, representing more than 2,000 employees. Sales exceed $350 million annually.

R.G. Bell died in 1990 and Conger passed away seven years later. That leaves Barringer as the surviving founder of the company, but he admits there’s one aspect of his job that he could do without. “Our big problem is succession,” he says. “The people who are supposed to know such things say it’s the most important plan of any business.”

It helps that his son is steadfastly on board. Paul and Merrill raised Victor to think for himself, but it was a tough day in the Barringer home when the son told the father that Thomas Jefferson’s university wouldn’t be his university. “I never even considered UVa,” says Victor, now 41. “I went to the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill), even though I would have been a fifth generation on both sides at UVa. He had a hard time with this, but now he sees that I made the right decision.”

“Chapel Hill College,” Paul says with a smirk. “Can you believe it? The horrors.”

That wasn’t the only jolt the old man would receive. When Victor graduated from UNC, he eschewed a job offer from Coastal for one with Buchanan Hardwoods in Selma, Ala., a competitor. “I wasn’t sure if the lumber business is what I wanted to do, and I thought it’d be better for me to find that out with someone else than with Coastal,” he says.

Victor was summoning the courage to break the news to his father, but he never got the chance. “The person who hired me called him — that’s how he found out,” Victor says. “Ten minutes later, my phone rings and it’s my dad. He told me to ‘do what you want to do,’ but he wasn’t happy about it. It was the best decision I ever made, because while living in Alabama I met my wife.”

He was happy in 1986 when Victor came to Coastal. Today, the son oversees Coastal Lumber International, a subsidiary to the parent company that was established in 1971 and is one of the U.S.’s largest exporters of forest products. “I’ve learned a lot from father about this business, mainly that you have to love what you do, or you will never accomplish very much. Even today, he loves the hardwood lumber business — he still has that passion.”

Paul sees the same in his son. “I’m so proud of everything that he’s accomplished,” he says. “He’s taken Coastal to new heights. All of our international operations and success we’re having there is a credit to him.”

A typical day for Barringer begins at 6 a.m., and if it’s a good day, at one some point he’ll be flying one of the company’s three planes, shuffling from one operation to another. He might spend a day in Bluffton, S.C., then a couple of days in West Virginia, then Weldon before moving on.

At each small airstrip, an “airport car” sits so Barringer doesn’t have to be ferried to and from. Although Paul and Merrill maintain the same house in Weldon they’ve occupied for more than 30 years, much of their springs and winters are spent in Hilton Head, S.C., and their summers and falls in Wintergreen, Va., especially on college football Saturdays.

“Flexibility is very important to Paul,” his wife says, “and flexibility means an airplane. He’s often beat out his competition because he’s gotten there first — and flying a plane there is how he’s done it.”

Barringer enjoys flying, just as he enjoys a quick couple of sets of doubles on the tennis court. “I took up tennis 25 years ago right after I quit golf,” he says. “Golf just drove me crazy — all of the waiting. It’d take five hours to play 18 holes, and that’s just too long for me.

“Standing around like that … some people can do it, but I can’t. If you’re out there that long, something else probably isn’t getting done.”

And that’s not Paul Barringer. After all, when’s the last time you saw a brown rat sitting still?

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Last Modified: December 20, 2002
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