Between 2008 and 2010, the United States had a loss of over 200,000 businesses and 3 million jobs. This period of the “Great Recession” was particularly challenging for those businesses in the housing sector. For those that survived, many found themselves in a better position with fewer competitors and leaner operations. I had the opportunity this week to interview Floyd M. Sulser, Jr., Chairman of Southern Lumber Company, whose team persevered though the tough times and rebounded to have their best year in history in 2013. Sulser’s father, Floyd Sulser Sr., retired from his first lumber career, and in 1983, he co-founded Southern Lumber with Bill Dearman. They acquired two sawmills and launched a very successful business. Sulser, Jr., a Jackson native, joined the company full time in 1996 when his father decided to retire for good.
Sulser, a Jackson native, had his own career before going into the lumber business. After obtaining his undergraduate and law degrees from Ole Miss, Sulser went on to serve four years in the military with the JAG Corps. In 1974, he moved back to Jackson and began his law career. In 1981, Sulser along with Dick Bennett, Joe Lotterhos, and Marcus Wilson formed the law firm of Bennett, Lotterhos, Sulser, and Wilson, P.A., which continues to this day. Sulser had provided legal services to Southern Lumber and held a seat on the Board, but he still faced a major life decision when his father asked him to consider taking over the company. He explained, “I had grown up around the lumber business, and I felt this was an opportunity I could not pass up.” His father’s partner Bill Dearman retired the same year and his son-in-law, Jerry Lee, joined Sulser in making a career transition that same year.
Making a successful family leadership change is never easy, but Sulser shared that his father was great through the process and allowed him room to lead and develop his own leadership style. Sulser noted, “I worked very hard to really learn the business and to earn the trust and respect of the employees.” He continued, “It was an interesting change coming from the law and abstract ideas to the practical realities of the importance of numbers and metrics in our business.” In addition to succeeding his father, Sulser was essentially learning to work with a new partner in Jerry Lee. The Sulser and Dearman families own the business 50-50, and so Sulser and Lee continued the successful tradition of their predecessors in learning to run a business cooperatively as equals.
Sulser candidly shared that he learned some powerful lessons in survival during the Great Recession years. Their business, like many others tied to housing, took a major hit. He noted, “Our industry had always been cyclical, but the challenges we faced in 2008 and the years following were unlike anything we had ever experienced.” The owners cut and eventually eliminated their salaries; hard decisions were made; and they obtained creative financing to survive. However, out of those hard times came opportunity. As the economy slowly returned, they were a lean and highly efficient organization and began to have record growth and profits. This rebound has now culminated in the acquisition of the company by Canfor, a publicly traded Canadian lumber company, which is scheduled to close in April. I was inspired by Sulser and his team’s story of perseverance and resilience, and I am excited for the owners to have achieved the feat of exiting on a real high note.[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, November 26, 2014.]