I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Woods, an entrepreneur, trendsetter, and long time steward of the environment. Richard is the CEO of Albany Woodworks and Waste to Energy Systems, both located in Louisiana. He has dedicated his career to developing companies that embody the values of sustainability, family and preservation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?.
Being a Colorado native, I have always had a focus in my life on independence and adventure. After years of traveling through my twenties, I finally found the perfect spot to settle in Louisiana. I was drawn by the culture, food, history and family feel. I started my first company, a leather goods shop in Hammond, Louisiana. We would fix saddles, bags, belts and also make an array of leather products. It helped me get my start and actually led me to meet my wife Judith. WIth my profits from my shop, I was able to begin buying the land that my house and companies reside on today. As I began to build my family’s home, I looked for ways to build a sustainable home, from as many recycled materials as possible. I followed a vision of reclaiming the antique lumber of days past, a journey that would forever change the lives of my family and me. Following the history of where the original lumber forests traveled, I discovered that many turn-of-the-century commercial buildings were built from quality antique lumber (the same buildings that were being torn down all around me). It was among the remnants of these abandoned buildings where I salvaged my first antique heart pine and cypress that would become not only our family’s home, but the birthplace of Albany Woodworks.
What is your definition of success?
Success if so often associated with a monetary concept or an accumulation of valuables. It’s never had that connection for me. Instead, I think success is overcoming your fears, which allows you to try different and new things. This gives you the freedom and opportunity to advance and grow as a person and a business owner, which in turn can lead to the more common concept of success.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we first started our company Albany Woodworks back in the mid 70’s, we didn’t have any money or tools. I like to say we had a crowbar and a dream. We managed to acquire a huge resource of reclaimed wood that could be sold on consignment. We approached banks trying to convince them to fund our project. I brought my banker to the demolition project where I was sourcing my wood. I sat him down on a huge pile of beautiful, virgin growth cypress timbers from the building being torn down, gave him my handwritten business plan, and said “What do you think?!” Within 3 minutes, he told me I was crazy and got up and left. That did not stop me. Within a month, I had secured a customer. His purchase funded the whole project, allowing Albany Woodworks to be created. The funny thing is that the banker that thought I was crazy and his wife ended up purchasing a very large order of our product for their very own house.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Let me count the ways. Start up and entrepreneurship is full of daily failures that make you stronger day in and day out. When I started, we did not have many resources on this type of business idea because reclaimed lumber was such a new concept. We quickly realized that we were some of the first to spearhead it. As a result, we had a huge learning curve starting the business because we knew nothing about woodworking, the equipment involved and the mechanics of producing the product we envisioned. Every time we had a failure, it became a road sign directing us to future successes. The only unforgivable failure in my book is giving up completely and no longer trying. Everything else has some value or life lesson to be learned.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First and foremost, our business model of being a “golden rule” company. We treat our customers, employees, suppliers and environment with the respect that we wish to receive in return. As a result, we have developed great, long standing relationships with those involved in our business. Also, our high quality products and family oriented customer service are the best of the best. We offer very specific descriptions of our products so our customers nationwide can feel confident in what we are providing. We also invest our knowledge and experience in each project at no charge to ensure the customer knows their project is as important to us as it is to them.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
For years it has always bothered me that I could never find a good use for the sawdust waste from the sawmill. I sold shavings to all the local horse farms but it still did not feel like it was using the waste to its full potential. So, I started researching and came across the concept of biomass gasification, technology dating back to World War II that would turn organic matter like my sawdust into energy and heat! The idea sparked the entrepreneur in me. I began building and testing a system from scrap equipment to ensure that I fully understood the concept. After building three generations of successfully functioning machines, I decided that it was my opportunity and duty to bring this amazing technology to the world to help preserve it for future generations. So at 62 years old, instead of preparing to retire, I started a green energy business called Waste to Energy Systems. I don’t expect the technology and business to be THE answer to the energy issue but if no one contributes AN answer, then the issue is no closer to being resolved.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
We have our green energy business that uses our sawmill sawdust waste. Any additional that we are unable to use, we try to sell locally to horse farmers and other agricultural industry. We have made a commitment to hiring local workforce, which cuts down on emissions from long commutes and supports the local economy. Most of our equipment is recycled. We have always shopped used equipment before buying brand new for environmental reasons. The majority of wood we use is recycled, but on top of that as we develop our products, we try to maintain green standards. While developing our engineered product, we decided to partner with a company that could use sustainable plywood as a backing and low VOC adhesives. For example, we added engineered flooring products in the past few years. On a personal side, we have a sustainable organic garden on our property. We compost on site for our garden and grow 90% of our own vegetables.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Treat them like the valuable assets that they are. Without good, loyal employees, a business cannot survive. We try to treat our employee like family, extending care and support outside of work. I also work side by side with them on a daily basis. I believe this keeps morale up because they know I do not ask anything of them that I would not do myself. It also keeps me in touch with the difficulties of their job and how to improve processes if necessary.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had so many helpful, knowledgeable gurus along my journey. I call them my “grandpas”. They have provided me life and business experience, often going above and beyond to help me through tough personal and business situations. For example, there is a local mechanical engineer that decided a long time ago that we would his extra “project”. He helped us greatly in the early years developing our skills in production and mechanical equipment. Still to this day, he is our go to whenever we need advice or equipment fixed. I also had a business partner that took me under his wing in the business sense and taught me how to effectively negotiate business deals and become very efficient with our finances. His connections to the local community helped us gain financial backing to expand as we grew. One of those connections was a young electrician and millwright. Over the years, he and I developed a great friendship and he helped us create the entire electrical and plant layout during expansions. We definitely would not be where we are today without these amazing and insightful people.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our lifestyle embodies our sustainable beliefs and I hope it teaches by example. When we have visitors (personal or business) that come out to see our operations, they leave saying they can see our passion and commitment to environmental sustainability. We believe that when everyone commits to being a small part of the solution, it makes a big change. I hope those people leaving our facility are inspired to take a look at what they can do to become part of the solution.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
1) Don’t expect success immediately: It took five years for my business to really take off and that advice inspired me to keep going through the hard times during those years.
2) You can’t afford to take shortcuts, i.e. not having insurance, workman’s comp, and other important policies. When money is tight, it seems like a quick fix to bypass some of these important facets of business. However, the security of having yourself covered if anything goes wrong pays off in the long run rather than facing something that could shut you down if you weren’t prepared.
3) Get comfortable with failure: At the end of the day, all eyes are on you and whether or not you can make it happen. This means walking into each day expecting the best, the worst and everything in between. Embracing the failures and not to take them personally is key. Failure means you are trying new avenues, and that path finding is critical for personal and economic growth.
4) No matter how hard, make the decision: As a new business owner, it gets overwhelming when hard decisions come your way. The worst thing to do is freeze up and do nothing at all. Even if it turns out to be the wrong decision, you can always make changes to rectify it. Keep the process going of deciding, reflecting and learning for the next decision. Keeping the momentum going is vital for your start up.
5) Understand business accounting: Understanding finances is so important! I did not have a solid understanding before starting my business and I lucked out to have a friend that was an accountant. However, I had to teach myself over time the concepts of accounting and when you are running a business, there is not always a lot of free time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Because it is one of my biggest passions, I would have to say gardening. I think if everyone started growing their own food, it would lead to a big change in perspective that we have lost in the world. It would cause people to regain an appreciation for the delicate but amazing balance the environment provides and needs to thrive. It would reconnect people to the land and to each other. In turn, it would hopefully push them to make decisions that are better for the environment rather than instant gratification. We have moved away from being a hands on society with an reverence for the wonders arounds us to one of computers and technology and I think there needs to be a balance in that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many but I think I would have to stick with the golden rule. It has shaped so many aspects of my life from my business to my marriage to being a parent. It has allowed me to create a life for myself that is successful, fulfilling and sustainable.