By Beth Gorczyca Ryan - email
John Crites always viewed West Virginia as the land of opportunity. But it took him moving out of the state and back to fully realize it.
Crites, the founder of Allegheny Wood Products Inc., said only his wife and a few family members believed in his ability to successfully start a lumber business in West Virginia. Now, nearly 40 years later, his business has grown to be one of the largest hardwood manufacturers in the nation, with six sawmills in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, five dry kilns and more than 500 employees.
"West Virginia had two great assets that really helped us be successful, the first being the people and the second being the great timber resources," Crites said.
Sawdust in His Blood
Crites always dreamed of starting his own wood products business. A native of Buckhannon in Upshur County, Crites spent many of his boyhood days playing outside, hunting, fishing and learning firsthand about business from his parents, who he described as both being very entrepreneurial.
"My father started his own business," Crites said. "I also spent time with my grandparents. They taught me about hard work and had a profound effect on my work ethic. I guess you could say the entrepreneurial spirit was in my blood."
Crites said all of his grandparents were involved in the wood products industry during the early 1900s. One grandfather was a professional logger, and his other grandfather owned a planing mill in Harrison County.
"I have sawdust in my blood," Crites said.
Crites attended West Virginia University and earned a bachelor's of science degree in forestry. While at WVU, he met his wife, Patricia, who grew up in Boone County and earned a bachelor's degree in medical technology from WVU. Following graduation, Crites moved to Montana where he earned a master's degree from the University of Montana. He returned to West Virginia to work for a wood products company in Buckhannon and later moved to North Carolina to teach at a technical college.
Crites said he wanted to eventually return to the Mountain State and open his own business. After a few years in North Carolina, the Crites family did just that.
Following that dream wasn't easy. It took Crites two years to get a business loan after being denied for a loan five times. In 1973, Crites sold his home in North Carolina and borrowed as much money as he could from family members and friends to secure the down payment needed to finally receive a Small Business Administration loan from Pendleton County Bank.
It was a huge risk for Crites and his family, but he had faith his business idea would work.
"I love competition," he said. "My wife and I were never hesitant about it. The only thing holding us back was the loan."
With the loan approved, Crites and his family packed up their belongings in a new pickup truck and rented U-Haul and headed up Interstate 81 toward home.
"As I was traveling up on I-81, I heard a news story on the radio saying ‘the last person leaving West Virginia ... turn the lights out.'" he recalled. "It was a lot of hard work and risk, but it's been the land of opportunity for us."
The first mill Crites opened was in Riverton, a small town on the banks of the North Fork of the South Branch in Pendleton County. That mill is still in operation, and Crites said he is very thankful to Pendleton County. Not only did a local bank give him the first loan he needed, but 50 residents of North Fork signed promissory notes vouching for his business.
"We had a dedication on our 25th anniversary and honored the people who signed that note," Crites said.
Facing the Challenges
As with any business, challenges did arise. Crites said when he started his company, sawmills in West Virginia sent green lumber they produced to North Carolina and other states to be dry-kilned. Any harvested trees had to be sawn into lumber and delivered to furniture manufacturing plants within 24 hours. As a result, most of Crites' customers were within a 400-mile radius.
In the early 1980s, some of Crites' best customers reduced the amount of green lumber they were buying. One customer told Crites he wasn't buying lumber for 60 days.
"He told me that even if I gave lumber to him for free, he wouldn't unload it," Crites recalled.
That customer wasn't alone. But rather than accept that his market had dried up, Crites used the bad news to morph his business and keep it from being so vulnerable — he bought a dry kiln.
"By drying our lumber, we didn't just have a 400-mile radius of customers, we had the whole world."
As a result of that challenge, the company started buying and building dry kilns. Now Allegheny Wood Products owns three green sawmills, three sawmills with dry kilns on site and two dry kiln concentration yards. The company has a total annual sawmill production capacity of 172 million board feet, which allows for an annual dry lumber production of 84 million board feet.
"Now we ship very little wood to North Carolina. It all goes to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and throughout North America," he said. "So when the industry changed again we were well prepared. Many of our competitors went out of business because they were too dependent on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and other states."
Crites also started Allegheny Dimension in Petersburg, which produces value-added furniture, cabinet parts and components for the furniture, flooring, cabinet and construction markets.
"John Crites represents the future of forestry in West Virginia," said Gregory Cook, West Virginia's deputy state forester. "His efforts to develop a strong forest products industry in the state have acted as a benchmark for other companies in the industry. "
Looking to the Future
As the company approaches its 40th anniversary next year, challenges still remain. Crites said the decline in the U.S. housing market during the past four years and general worldwide economic downturn have been difficult on the company.
"We survived because of our strong exporting efforts and diversified marketing strategies," he said.
Copious amounts of government regulation and the litigious environment of the state and nation also make business a challenge. Crites' daughter, Kelly Wingard, is Allegheny Wood Products' general counsel, and her father said her plate "is constantly full."
Today, most of the daily business at Allegheny is handled by Crites' son, John Crites II, who is the company's president. But the elder Crites is still involved in much of the brainstorming that goes on as the company grows and expands into different ventures.
In 2011, Allegheny started an offshoot business, Appalachian Wood Pellets Inc. The Kingwood-based business converts sawdust from some of Allegheny's sawmills to make energy pellets. "This has allowed us to add value to a marginally profitable product," Crites said.
Allegheny also recently purchased a lumber facility in Cowen that was in financial trouble. The purchase helped the business and saved more than 40 jobs in Webster County.
Looking back on his career, Crites said his proudest accomplishment is his family, which includes his wife, three grown children — Kelly, John II and Valerie, who has a doctorate in pharmacology from the Medical College of Virginia — and eight grandchildren.
Crites firmly believes in giving back to the communities where his mills and dry kilns are located and where his employees live. He and his company are active supporters of local fire departments, schools and community theaters. He also serves on the board of directors and executive committee of Summit Community Bank and is the chairman of the WVU Forestry Endowment Fund. The fund offers scholarships to incoming freshman interested in pursuing careers in the wood products industry.
As Crites tries to ease into retirement from the family business and let his son take more control, he says his lasting wish for all of his children is that they have the same opportunities he had.
"I hope our nation continues to foster the entrepreneurial spirit that rewards those willing to work hard and take risks," he said. "If things make sense, you have to have the courage to move forward. It has to be well thought out — not shooting from the hip. After careful consideration, you have to be brave and take a chance."