By Steve Cranford
Photo by Steve Cranford
One of the proudest moments in Zac Guy’s life came when he paid the tuition bill himself for his freshman year at N.C. State University. He could cover the check with proceeds from a business he had chanced upon in high school: Selling barn wood for cabinets, flooring and other uses. At State, where he double-majored in chemical and paper-science engineering, he continued to oversee the business, making the 263-mile drive from Raleigh to his home in Waynesville on weekends. He had four or five employees, and Saturday was payday. He’d discuss their assignments, attend church on Sunday morning, then head back to school.
By graduation in 2001, Guy’s business grossed more than $125,000 a year. For many young entrepreneurs, that may have been a clear signal, but Guy opted instead to treat the wood business as a side hustle. He worked in engineering at a pharmaceutical plant in Ohio, a state he describes as “a barn-rich environment” that allowed him to source more wood.
He then moved to a job at a medical-supply company 75 miles from Waynesville, working the third shift so he could run the wood business during the day. Guy’s wife, Haley, would sleep in their pickup while he worked, and they would visit clients two or three days a week after his night shift ended. “I’d pull a Superman in a McDonald’s bathroom and come out in a suit and tie,” he says. “I’d sell wood and then go to sleep in the truck while my wife drove us home.”
The two-job lifestyle continued when Guy took an engineering position at an Epsom salt plant in Waynesville before he decided the Superman routine was getting old. After giving six months’ notice, training his replacement and consulting at the plant for a year, he turned to wood as his full-time effort in 2004, when annual revenue totaled about $750,000.
This year, Appalachian Antique Hardwoods LLC is on track for $7.5 million in sales, about triple the 2016 results, says Guy, who turns 40 in January and co-owns the business with his wife. “I borrowed some, but not a lot,” he says, initially using his engineering salary to pay most expenses.
What he discovered in high school was that premium builders love the striking appearance of old boards and beams. His first sale, for $1,300, came from a load of American chestnut, a once-common species wiped out by a blight in the early 20th century. Barn-makers preferred the lumber because of its rot resistance, while woodworkers prize its distinctive worm holes and warm colors.
Guy stumbled into the business when he wanted old wood to build a display case for a rifle that belonged to a distant relative. He had no carpentry experience, but his high-school baseball coach offered his dilapidated tractor shed, which Guy tore down. A cabinet builder noticed the wood sitting in Guy’s pickup truck as he was filling up at a gas station. After turning down several offers, a deal was struck, and an entrepreneur was born.
Appalachian has grown to 32 employees, most in Waynesville where wood is planed and cut to final dimensions. Instead of soliciting farmers and plant owners for wood, Guy trained a network of people to find buildings, fences and other structures with old hardwood boards and timbers. His 250 vendors now work in the U.S., Canada and Europe, enabling the company to offer a range of wood species in large quantities.
The company’s largest order, representing about half of Appalachian’s typical annual supply, is for the Cloisters on the Platte, a Catholic spiritual retreat center under construction near Omaha, Neb. The complex needs 1 million square feet of wood.
“A supplier like Zac is a rare commodity,” says Kurt Swanson, superintendent at Omaha-based Lueder Construction Co., which is overseeing the Cloisters project. “Very few companies could meet our demand for antique timbers.”
Demand is accelerating as the aged-wood look catches on in commercial buildings. Appalachian has supplied Starbucks, Cabela’s, Holiday Inn Express and suites in stadiums for the California Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Florida resident Mike McManus, who owns a second home in Waynesville, admired the woodwork in a local restaurant. That led him to Guy, who installed a kitchen ceiling made with mushroom boards sourced from commercial growers. The boards, made from hemlock, cedar and cypress, are highly textured, the result of mushrooms consuming wood to fuel their growth. McManus then commissioned a barn-wood pavilion to replace a swimming pool at his mountain home. “We get constant comments on how beautiful it is,” he says. “Zac designed it with my wife, and he had suggestions that made it better than I had expected.”
The company’s growth plans include doubling the Waynesville plant to roughly 150,000 square feet to help house lumber received from a smaller processing facility in Virginia. The Virginia site is on a farm where he is raising 1,000 black Hereford cattle, a business his family has been in since 1886. The wood arrives via a trucking firm Guy started after studying the cost of paying a third party to make deliveries. He estimates annual savings of $500,000 by handling his own transportation.
“I’ve always enjoyed working,” he says. “It’s a labor of love, and I think it’s God’s plan for me.”