Jim Long thought he had found his place in patent litigation. In the early 1980s, Long was practicing that kind of law at Jennings Carter Thompson & Veal, a Birmingham, Ala., firm that he joined after working for U.S. Steel.
But over the past three decades, Long has taken a very different career path, managing a Birmingham-based building supply distributor. That’s made him a member of an exclusive club of pro dealers with law degrees and legal experience.
ProSales tracked down a half dozen lawyer-dealers for this story. Most downplay any advantages their legal backgrounds have given them as businesspeople. But these hyphenates also agree that knowing the law comes in handy when collecting receivables and executing mechanic’s liens, two areas that give a lot of pro dealers fits.
Most lawyer-dealers admit they entered the lumber industry with little or no industry experience and often as not to help their families. In Long’s case, his wife’s father, Reynolds Watters, asked him to handle collections and liens for his business, Cash & Carry Lumber in Birmingham. Long joined this pro dealer full time in 1983 and currently owns the company.
Dick Nunley, the retired president of Better Living Inc. in Charlottes-ville, Va., and a graduate of the University of Virginia law school, was working for a local law firm in the late 1950s when he agreed to step in as general manager of what was then known as Charlottesville Lumber. His father-in-law (who was also an attorney) had had a falling-out with his business partner. At the time, this dealer was into home building and development, “so there were lots of contracts to deal with,” says Nunley.
Bill Bucher had toiled for a year in the Indiana Attorney General’s office and then spent seven years in the law department of RCA Corp.’s consumer electronics division before joining Square Deal Lumber in Glasgow, Ky. That was in 1978, and he did so to prevent his wife’s family from having to sell the business because they had no one to take over.
While Dan Radtke was attending Catholic University of America’s law school in the mid-1970s, he and one of his professors helped Radtke’s father get out from under a mail-fraud indictment (the charges were dropped). That ordeal brought father and son closer, but “it overwhelmed him,” recalls Radtke, to the detriment of the family’s business, Pioneer Lumber in Michigan City, Ind.
Radtke, who had opened a law practice with a friend in Leonardtown, Md., got a call from his father in October 1977 asking him to come into the business. He agreed to do so initially for two years. But after he and his wife had their second child, Radtke decided to stick around. “I was loving being in the lumber business,” he admits. “I was never really convinced I wanted to be a lawyer; I just wanted to know what they knew.”
Radtke and his father formed a 50-50 partnership that lasted up to his father’s death, at 82, in 1998.
Seeing Both Sides
When asked if their legal backgrounds make them more adept at business, lawyer-dealers answer with a qualified yes, saying that other training—in, say, marketing or accounting—might be just as useful.
Nunley says his hitch in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant gave him skills to manage people. He also thinks his son John, who has been Better Living’s president since 1997, is better served by the MBA he earned from Vanderbilt University.
Libby Fritsche has been with Tart Lumber and Hardware in Sterling, Va., for 25 years, first as its in-house legal counsel and since 2010 as owner after she and her husband bought the company from her mother. While Fritsche doesn’t regard her legal training as a competitive edge, she notes, “we’ve come to the point where to run a business, you have to learn so many parts of the law.” The day ProSales interviewed Fritsche, an OSHA inspector was in her store. “There are contracts for everything, and it’s all so ‘legal,’” she says.
Fritsche observes that most dealers don’t understand mechanic’s liens or the ramifications of laws that update or impose new codes and regulations affecting their businesses.
“Once you’re trained as a lawyer, you see both sides of an issue,” adds Dave Reichert, president and owner of Davis-Hawn Lumber in Dallas. He thinks dealers who are attorneys are more prone to have their antennae up for things that could hurt their companies, from a safety inspection to a spill in an aisle.
In August 1999, Reichert acquired a rundown yard that he said was barely breathing. Nevertheless, the company intrigued him enough to do a year’s worth of due diligence on the company and the market. Besides, he was ready for a change after spending 8½ years with one of Dallas’s powerhouse law firms, where long, unpredictable hours took too much time away from his family.
“My clients were having more fun than I was,” says Reichert.
He stepped into the lumber business when market conditions were robust, and they stayed that way until 2007. But these last few years, Reichert says, “have been my graduate school” in terms of learning how to run a business during a severe downturn. Other lawyer-dealers in similar straits shared that sentiment.
Reichert and a few other lawyer-dealers keep their licenses current, and Long continues to serve as Cash & Carry’s credit manager. His biggest legal fight occurred about a decade ago, when Long sued the city of Birmingham over its use of eminent domain to take over one of Cash & Carry’s locations for a new Social Security payment center. After 18 months of litigation, the parties settled in 2004. Cash & Carry then moved to a new 5.5-acre site.
Most lawyer-dealers, though, don’t represent their companies in legal matters, instead employing outsiders. Radtke, who last year sold Pioneer Lumber to his brother Steve, still does land deals with attorney Terry Heistand, with whom he’s had a relationship for 25 years.
None of these lawyer-dealers has the itch to practice law again. That’s certainly true for Bucher of Square Deal Lumber, which has recently been involved in a lawsuit over a mechanic’s lien it filed against a homeowner who balked at paying a contractor who is one of the dealer’s customers.
Bucher says his wife’s cousin, who’s an attorney, and the cousin’s law partner have represented Square Deal in this proceeding, and when the three of them are in court together, “we’re known as the Three Amigos.” But they have been frustrated by the judge in this case who, Bucher says, won’t allow any mention that this is an insurance issue or let in evidence that the homeowner won’t pay for the roof that was repaired.
“I don’t think I could sit through that every day,” he declares.—John Caulfield