The Voice of Business, Industry & the Professions Since 1942
North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce


Executive Profile


Tom Beard built a 
solid lumber business
on old values and an
eye for new markets

By Suzanne Wood

At first glance, all visible signs suggest that you’ve entered a traditional lumber business, including the stacks of boards piled high on the grounds outside, the roar of a conveniently located highway and the portrait of the company’s founder hung prominently in the office.

But then it becomes apparent that E. Neilson Beard, which was founded in 1932, has grown well beyond its local markets, largely due to the vision of the founder’s son, Tom Beard, who today is CEO of Beard Hardwoods in Greensboro. First, there’s the office itself. Although located in a drab industrial park where prefab warehouses are the norm, the headquarters of Beard Hardwoods is an attractive, authentic log cabin. But perhaps the most telling detail graces the wall of the company’s second-floor conference room: A large map of Italy.

Nearly 30 years ago, Beard Hardwoods became one of the first North Carolina-based companies to get into the exporting business. Tom Beard had seen that his U.S. customers in the furniture and millwork industries, once dominant, were starting to feel the effects of foreign competition. Foreign companies, including those in Italy and Japan, were increasingly looking to the United States as their own natural resources grew too depleted to meet demand. “Without exporting, we wouldn’t have enough business,” Beard says he realized. He credits the 16 months he spent in France as an Army intelligence officer with expanding his world view and helping him build a company that plans decades rather than months ahead.

Today, 30 percent of the company’s business is in foreign markets, facilitated by a second lumber yard five miles from headquarters that’s solely devoted to preparing product for the export market. While profits are flat (sales in 2002 totaled $18 million), Beard Hardwoods is still growing even as the state’s furniture industry continues shedding jobs. It’s an irony not lost on Tom Beard.

“My father came to North Carolina after being in the lumber business in other cities for 12 years because Mr. (Tom) Broyhill and Mr. (Bill) Bassett needed a lumber supplier nearby,” he says. “My father was of the old school. But over the years we’ve had to diversify our customer base because the furniture industry has been hurting.” One of those customers that Neilson Beard would probably have had a hard time imagining is Michael’s, the craft-store chain, which sells wooden picture frames in all sizes. A couple of those frames are propped up against the wall in the Beard conference room as well.

Tom Beard turned 71 this month, but you wouldn’t know it. He was born the same year his father, a Mississippi native, and his mother, Alma, who was from Alabama, settled in Greensboro. As he grew up, attending first Christ School in Arden and later Davidson College and Bowling Green Business University (now part of Western Kentucky University), it became evident he’d join the family business. He did so in 1957 after a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, which included 16 months as travel section chief at base headquarters in La Rochelle, France.

As it turns out, Beard was the only one of Neilson and Alma’s sons who stayed with the company. Three older brothers left to pursue other careers. “The old man was difficult to work for,” Beard recalls, chuckling. “He had a temper, and wanted to do things his way. But I was fascinated with lumber, the beauty and warmth of hardwoods.”

Beard, whom friends describe as easygoing and diplomatic, was more suited to working with his father. The partnership lasted only 11 years. When the senior Beard retired in 1968, Tom Beard and two partners bought out his interest in the company. But before he retired, Tom Beard persuaded his father to expand their operations by installing drying kilns in the lumber yards. Today the company has six kilns that can dry 360,000 board feet of lumber. Having a kiln operation allows the company more control over the quality of lumber it sells and provides it with another income stream — drying lumber for other wholesalers.

Behind virtually all his plans, from the kiln operations to the export facility to the recent hiring of an international business expert, lies Tom Beard’s desire to preserve a family legacy. He has two good reasons: His son, John, who assumed the presidency of the company in 1998, and John’s 4-year-old son, John Jr. (Beard’s older son, Richard, worked in the business for a time, and now is an economic developer in Madison.)

John, 37, the youngest of Tom and Nancy Beard’s three children, worked summers in the company’s lumber yards. After attending his father’s alma mater in Arden and college at N.C. State and UNC-Greensboro, John graduated from a 14-week technical school in Memphis run by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. There he learned how to grade lumber, a skill as important in the industry as the ability to sell or handle a balance sheet, notes Tom Beard. “You can’t just bring the son into a company and expect the other employees to respect him,” says Beard, himself a graduate of technical training. “He has to earn it.”

John says his first assignments with the company — working at its field offices in Kentucky and Indiana — went a long way toward helping him establish credibility with the staff. “It’s worked out real well, especially starting out so far from home,” he says. “I was able to make a name for myself, and then in 1996, when I came here because one of dad’s partners was in poor health, it was a blessing to be back.”

Although John has assumed the day-to-day responsibilities of running the 40-employee business, Tom comes to the office every day and attends major client and board meetings. To no surprise, father and son consult on all big decisions.

“He’s a great dad and a great boss, too,” John says. “As a boss, he can be firm, but he knows how to hire good self-starters. His management style is to let people do their jobs. He’s open to giving advice, but he’s also open to taking advice. I know he’s helped me. We’re blessed to have his 46 years of leadership and experience every day.”

John says his father’s personal, gregarious nature is one of the keys to his success in a business that depends on relationships and trust. “He doesn’t know a stranger,” John says. “When he travels, he likes to stay at those mid-priced chains like Comfort Inn that have breakfast in the lobby where people congregate. He’ll go right up to someone and start a conversation.”

Will his own son — one of Tom and Nancy’s five grandchildren — someday become the fourth generation of Beards in the lumber business? That’s a question that troubles John Beard. “I would love for John Jr. to join the company, but the industry’s got a lot of work to do (for that to be possible.) Hopefully, there will be a place for my son in 20 years.”

That work includes looking for other customers as domestic furniture production continues to erode; supporting efforts to cut the trade deficit by equalizing tariffs; monitoring environmental regulations affecting forest owners and sawmills; and pushing for a stronger state economy, including the state ports. (Tom Beard currently serves on the executive committee of the N.C. Ports Advisory Council, of which he was a co-founder).

Tom Beard says he loves North Carolina and wants to see it prosper. “We’d rather ship through (the Port of) Wilmington all the time, but sometimes we have to use Norfolk,” he says, referring to export laws and differences between freighter service. “We also rather sell to U.S. customers exclusively, but we’d be out of business if we did that.”

The company’s entrée into foreign markets was serendipitous. Although Beard had been mulling overseas opportunities, it wasn’t until a chance meeting between an associate of his and some Japanese businessmen in Washington, D.C., that exporting became a serious option. It turns out the men were looking for a source of hardwood lumber. The associate introduced them to Beard, and the company the men represented soon became Beard’s first foreign customer. Today, the company ships its furniture and millwork-grade lumber to manufacturers and agents in Japan, China, Italy, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, all countries with dwindling natural resources.

Beard credits the hard science behind U.S. forestry practices with ensuring the long-term health of hardwood forests, contrary to the rhetoric of the most ardent environmentalists. “We’re growing timber back 30 percent faster than we’re using it,” he says, his voice becoming more animated than usual. “Those people who chain themselves to trees don’t understand the science of forestry. They don’t realize that 90 percent of our oxygen comes from the oceans, not trees.”

A former president of the N.C. Forestry Association and chairman of its communications committee, Beard is proud of the work the association did in partnership with N.C. State to produce fact sheets for consumers and the lumber industry to counter radical environmentalist propaganda.

While self-policing and government regulations help the forests maintain their growth, rules affecting sawmills have forced hundreds of those companies to go out of business over the years. The cost of compliance is often too high, Beard notes. And without reliable sources of timber in states that produce the kind of wood Beard specializes in — states like West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana — it becomes more challenging to meet customer demand. Add to that the fact that the children of sawmill owners often leave the business and you’ve got a big problem. One way Beard has helped is by lending money to sawmill operators. He mentions one sawmill owner who started out as a coal miner, worked his way through the ranks of the sawmill business and, with Beard’s help, today owns a thriving sawmill and 56,000 acres of timber in Beckwith, W.Va.

“We’re in a people business,” says Beard. “The people in the lumber and furniture industries are so warm and nice — they’re the salt of the earth and they work hard. I love selling and I have close relationships with people in these industries, these family companies that made the furniture industry what it is today. For me, the greatest reward of being in business is the love of the industry.”

And it’s an industry that clearly respects Tom Beard. “No matter where I go on business, people ask, ‘How’s Tom,’” says his son.

“He’s known as a visionary,” says longtime friend Al Lineberry Jr. of Hanes Lineberry, a funeral business in Greensboro. “I knew his father, and he definitely learned his good values and business integrity from his parents.”

Bill Pleasants, president of Presbyterian Homes in Greensboro, where Beard was a board member for nine years, isn’t surprised that Beard is so well-regarded in the industry. “He was very faithful to his commitments here,” he says. “I don’t think he ever missed a meeting. He was always looking ahead in terms of the market we’re in (assisted living communities) and often showed foresight and insight.”

And even though he’s only known Beard for three years, Paul Krieger isn’t surprised that he remains a leader in his industry. “He’s been the epitome of what a board member and loyal alumnus should be,” says Krieger, headmaster of Christ School in Arden, from which Tom and John Beard graduated, Tom having served on the school’s board of trustees for nine years. “He’s been generous with his time and resources, and with his affection for the school and his inclination to serve others, he is truly a role model for our students,” Krieger says.

These days, Beard has limited his community activities to a few organizations closer to home — and family. He enjoys spending time with Nancy, his wife of 45 years — they met when Beard crashed a wedding where Nancy was a bridesmaid — and their children and five grandchildren. When he can, which is usually once a week, he plays golf. His game hasn’t been affected by back surgery a few years ago, which left him with two titanium springs. “I joked to my doctor that with these titanium springs in my back and my titanium driver, I can go an extra five yards.”

Beard’s other consuming interest is his church, First Presbyterian. He’s an elder and, for the past 20 years, a tenor in the choir. The musical quality of Sunday services recently went a couple of notches higher with the addition of a new, custom-made, $2 million organ. “It has 6,700 pipes,” he says reverently. Not including his own, of course.

Return to magazine index

Visit us at 225 Hillsborough Street, Suite 460, Raleigh, N.C.
Write to us at P.O. Box 2508, Raleigh, N.C. 27602
Call us at 919.836.1400 or fax us at 919.836.1425

Copyright © 1998, All Rights Reserved
Last Modified: October 06, 2003
Web Design By The
Let Us Help You With Your Web Site Needs!