Why Not Abbeville?
Alabama’s richest individual has been rebuilding the small town where he was born. “Hopeless and helpless” not long ago, Abbeville is now headquarters to a thriving, home-grown, coast-to-coast business.
ABOVE Folks in Abbeville say Jimmy Rane is still the regular guy he was growing up — just more successful than most.
Photo by Todd Douglas
Jimmy Rane exemplifies Abbeville, Alabama. Often seen downtown, he visits friends, frequents local diners and blends in with the populous with one exception. According to Forbes magazine, Rane is the wealthiest person in Alabama.
Media reports vary on just how wealthy. 24/7 Wall Street says his net worth is $700 million. Forbes says $610 million. And Abbeville says, “Hello Jimmy” to a neighbor, friend and benefactor.
Beyond Henry County most know him by his alter-persona. Just as Bruce Wayne is Batman, Jimmy Rane is Yella Fella, Great Southern Wood Preserving Co.’s yellow-clad cowboy. As an old Western movie matinee caricature he rights wrongs, bestows justice and promotes YellaWood treated lumber and other wood products. Rane founded the company and owns the cowboy. Both have done well.
“James Riley (company chief marketing officer) walked in with a cartoon character drawing idea,” the CEO recalls, reminiscing his 2004 introduction to the western hero clad in mustard-colored hues. “My response was ‘Are you crazy?’”
Crazy like a fox. Great Southern Wood Preserving has exceeded $1 billion in revenues. Success is in part due to a savvy ad campaign sponsoring weekly college football shows throughout the South. But the accomplishment is also attributed to the western saga promoting treated lumber, played out in TV commercials. Yella Fella became yellow gold.
The cowboy character played a pivotal role in Jimmy Rane’s path, but June 14, 1970, changed his course.
His mother and father-in-law were killed in an automobile accident. In the senior year of law school, Jimmy took charge of mediating a family dispute, settling the in-laws’ estate, including a small wood treating operation. After unsuccessfully trying to sell the property, Rane bought it, running the little enterprise while practicing law in Abbeville.
Forty-eight years later the former fence post treating facility now has plants throughout the U.S., with more than 1,000 employees serving customers worldwide. Great Southern Wood Preserving is the largest business of its kind on earth.
“I have been blessed,” the treated lumber magnate says, interviewed from his office that resembles a mountainside chalet, constructed from — you guessed it — YellaWood. “But the press always says ‘Jimmy Rane has done this and Jimmy Rane has done that,’ giving me the credit. But it is a big mistake to attribute the success of this company solely to me. I am on a team with a lot of great and talented players, and I am very fortunate to be on this great team.”
Abbeville is fortunate, too. Rane spent millions rebuilding, restoring and rebranding his hometown from a decaying unemployment zone to a charming Southern Mayberry. Abbeville is in his blood, dating back 200-plus years.
Every reporter interviewing him asks why his global company remains here. “I will tell you the same answer I tell the rest of them,” replies the company owner, CEO and Yella Fella Cowboy. “Why not Abbeville?”
It is his history and legacy. “I choose to live here because this is where I want to be,” he adds. Acknowledging that at age 72, with so much achieved, “I could live anywhere but I love my family, neighbors and this town. The ashes of my ancestors are buried here. They spent generations to make this a better place. Now it’s my turn.”
Abbeville almost went under during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its major employer, West Point-Pepperell, shut down in 2008, eliminating 1,500 jobs in a town of 2,900 people. Other businesses fell in close procession.
Rane recalls, “Driving through here in the late ’90s meant locking your doors and windows. It was a town of burned-out buildings and vacant properties, hopeless and helpless. My mom and dad dearly loved Abbeville, and seeing its demise broke their hearts and mine. We had to do something.” And so he did.
“He doesn’t just throw money at a problem,” says Jimmy Money, a friend of Rane’s since high school, now a cook at Jimmy’s Barbecue and Pizza, which he once owned. “Almost every building you see on this road is Jimmy’s,” he adds, pointing down Franklin Street.
“He has done a lot for this town and is the same today as he was when we were all growing up here. He never forgot where he came from.”
Great Southern Wood Preserving expanded, not from its corporate office but in downtown Abbeville’s vacant buildings. Guiding the company, Rane purchased one building, restored it, and then another and then another.
Today there is the retro-1960s feel and look to Franklin Street. But on closer inspection storefronts proclaiming “Buster Brown Shoes” or “Standard Oil Company” are really Great Southern offices and visitor centers. Which begs the question, where did he get this stuff? “I’ve always been a hoarder,” he laughs. “It bothers me to see things thrown away.”
Other town projects include his restaurant, Huggin’ Molly’s, complete with authentic soda fountain and an upstairs chock-full of artifacts.
And there’s the Archie Movie Theater, a work in progress. “It was owned by Bessie Walker back around 1948,” Rane recalls. “Her son Archie was killed in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.” But Archie did not immediately succumb to his fatal injury. Rane adds, “Mortally injured on the beaches of Normandy, Archie was transported to the first available battle zone medical station and was treated by, of all people, Dr. Thomas Floyd from Abbeville, Alabama.”
Rane purchased The Archie Theater. The outside is restored, with plans to redo the interior and make it fully functional again, in memory of the town hero who died for his country.
Future Rane projects include opening a major sawmill, in the old West Point-Pepperell spot, a project worth up to $50 million to provide about 100 new jobs.
His other charitable passion is the Jimmy Rane Foundation, awarding full college scholarships to qualifying students. Since the 2000 startup, more than 350 such scholarships have been awarded.
“I could not have attended Auburn University if not for the program,” says Montgomery resident and Class of 2006 graduate Matthew Murphy. “I was one of those students caught in the middle — too much money to qualify for most scholarships and not enough to pay for college without help.” Today Murphy is a financial advisor with UBS Financial Services in Montgomery.
But Abbeville’s benefactor brushes off accolades. “My father always said, ‘Don’t measure me by anything except how you and your brother turned out,” says Rane. “Don’t judge me by what Forbes magazine says, honors won, or business goals achieved. Judge me by how my children turned out.”
Regarding his “Wealthiest Person in Alabama” title, he shrugs, “Personally, I don’t believe anybody owns anything. Go to any cemetery and tell me, what do those people own? Nothing.
“We have a limited time given to us by the Lord. We are stewards of time, money and material. I believe wealth is defined by how you live during the dash mark between your birth and death date. The more the Lord gives you to manage, the more you have to give.”
In the early days of business, a friend and fellow businessman told then young Jimmy, “If you just put one brick in the wall every day, before long you have a pretty good wall.”
“That always stuck with me,” Rane says, “It’s taken 20 years, but I think the town looks a lot better now than it did in the 1990s,” and he closes, “We have some pretty good walls.”
Emmett Burnett and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Douglas in Florida.