The Evolution of Yella Fella

No matter which hat he has been wearing—from a burgeoning young attorney to the famous “Yella Fella” spokesman for Great Southern Wood Preserving Incorporated — Jimmy Rane always has felt lucky to have the support of his father, Tony Rane.

Jimmy Rane never intended to go into the lumber business. In 1969, he started law school at Cumberland and worked at Baker and McDaniel for two and a half years while in school. Upon graduation, he was offered a position with the firm.

In 1970, a traffic accident changed the course of his life. His wife’s parents were killed in the accident, leaving as heirs Rane’s wife and her brother.

“My wife’s father was a farmer in Abbeville, and he had a lot of land, ” Rane says. “The CPA we hired advised us to sell all the property but sell no land, because that would run up the value and make us owe higher taxes.”

Taking the CPA’s advice, the family sold everything except a small wood treatment plant. The payment of the estate taxes was due nine months from the date of death. When they received an offer for the plant and 6.5 acres of land, Rane stepped in and mediated his first case. In order to keep all the land, his family decided to lease the 6.5 acres of land to Jimmy and sell the equipment to him for $10, 000.

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“This was either my first mistake or my first opportunity, ” Rane says.

Rane soon found out he couldn’t sell the small wood treatment plant because it wasn’t operational, so he went to his father, Tony, who reluctantly agreed to cosign on a loan for $76, 000 to make it operational.

“This act was a real tribute to my father, ” Rane says. “He believed in me enough to co-sign, even though he was opposed.”

The year 1971 presented more than a few challenges for Rane and his investment. He quit his job to work full time at the plant during the day. At night, he studied for the bar exam. By August, he was nearly out of money. At 4 each morning, he donned his coveralls to load the treatment cylinder. He sold lumber by the pickup load. Desperate for money, he went to the bank with a wad of keys and asked for $5, 000, promising to pay it back with interest. Nowell Dowling, the banker, told Rane he should have listened to his dad, but he gave Rane the loan.

That same day, Jimmy stopped by Marvin Tillis’ sawmill on his way back to the plant from the bank and bought two bundles of lumber. He treated the wood and headed to Dothan. When the lumber didn’t sell there, he visted Henry King in Ozark. King wrote a check for both bundles. From there, Rane’s luck began to improve.

Shortly after his successful visit to Ozark, Jimmy got word that he passed the bar. From 1971 to 1973, he rented an office with two phone lines, one for the law office and one for Great Southern Wood Preserving. At 4 a.m. he would go to Great Southern Wood for his first shift of work. He would then go home and shower to get ready for work in his law office. When the day was over, he headed back to Great Southern Wood. From 1973 to 1977, Rane added one more position to his already hectic day. He served as a judge for Henry County, as well as maintaining his law practice and Great Southern Wood. In 1976, he opened his second plant, in Mobile.

In the early years, the company struggled. When Rane left in 1984 to attend Harvard Business School, he wrote out $372, 000 in checks with strict instructions to only release checks as the mail came in with more money. At business school, he realized he needed more capital for growth, and he was able to secure a $1 million line of credit. At that point, he says, the company turned completely around.

Great Southern Wood Preserving grew from one plant that produced fence posts to the largest lumber treatment company in the world. In 1986, Rane began to devote his full time attention to Great Southern Wood Preserving Inc. Today, the company maintains 15 stand-alone treating and distribution facilities servicing markets stretching from the Florida keys to Texas to Canada, including all or part of 27 states and the District of Columbia. The company also has five manufacturing plants, distributing YellaWood® brand pressure treated products all over the world.

According to Rane, his main ingredient for success is the smart, dedicated, motivated people who came along with him. The compensation of Great Southern Wood Preserving workers is profit based. This makes his co-workers partners instead of employees.

“The recession has provided an opportunity for frugal companies to take advantage of acquisitions, ” Rane says.

The latest hat for Rane to wear is big and yellow. In 2004, his marketing department came up with “Yella Fella.” Rane, having grown up with movie Westerns, was happy to don the costume.

“Cowboys were heroes, ” Rane says. “They wanted to create a throwback to the good guys.”

One of the greatest successes of the Yella Fella character was when the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum awarded him the Western Heritage “Wrangler” award. Only one other Alabamian has been given the award—Dothan native and actor Johnny Mack Brown. Two films that won this award last year were the remake of True Grit and the Yella Fella commercial.

Rane’s work with Great Southern Wood Preserving is much more cerebral. He doesn’t do as much physical work with the company as he has in the past.

“There has never been a job here that I haven’t done myself, ” he says.

Rane credits his father as being the guiding force in the company and in his life. The lessons he learned from his father are used every day. Even though his father passed away recently, his lessons are alive in the company.

“The principles he taught me and in place at Great Southern Wood are character, integrity and honesty. Never break your word. Be humble.”

Laura Stakelum is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. Nick Stakelum is editor of Dothan Magazine

By Laura Stakelum

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