By Gracie Hart Brooks
After 40 years at Madison Wood, president Steve Lillard is officially retiring.
Lilliard started his career with the company in June 1981 stacking lumber by hand for $5 an hour. At the time, employees didn’t have titles, but Lillard’s would have been manual staging. Two weeks after his first day, Lillard stepped up to operating a fork lift. He was just 22 at the time, having graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in forestry. It was that degree that led him to think he should be at a desk, not stacking wood.
“My first week I nearly walked off the yard,” Lillard said. “Having a degree, I assumed I should start out at a desk in air-conditioned furnished office. Stacking heavy timbers by hand seemed degrading. That Friday afternoon, William Price, CEO Bill Price’s father, sent me to the store to buy six beers. The six managers sat down and we had a beer while discussing the week. For some reason, that made it all seem special. That’s when I realized what it was like to work for a family-owned business.”
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From there, Lillard continued to climb the ladder. He went into sales in January of 1983 before being promoted in 1986 to sales manager, then vice president of sales in 1989, a position currently held by his daughter, Kari Gaviria. In 1995, Lillard became vice president of sales and purchasing and in 2004, became president of the company.
Gaviria said her dad has been working for Madison Wood since before she was born. She grew up on the company softball league sidelines and around the company family. When Lillard had someone retiring in sales and needed to fill the spot, it was Gaviria that ultimately took the job.
“Over lunch, he asked if I knew anyone in the area that may be in interested in the job,” she said. “My advice was to hire a woman. Almost jokingly, he asked if I would ever be interested. I think one of the scariest moments of my career was when I called him that night and told him I’d like to interview for the job. It turned out to be the most important lunch date of my professional career.”
Working under her father, Gaviria said she’s learned that problem-solvers are a dime a dozen, but there are very few solution finders and even fewer ways to implement their solutions successfully.
During his time at the company, Lillard said he’s enjoyed seeing ideas become reality.
“We’ve witnessed significant growth through the years, most of which began with pencil, paper and a dream,” he said. “With a lot of collaboration and elbow grease, we were able to bring those visions to life. I’ve always said that I have ‘sawdust in my blood.’ It has been fun to watch my fellow co-workers develop that same love for this industry.”
Lillard’s favorite thing of all though has been the people—employees, suppliers and customers.
“They all brought something special to the table,” he said. “I’ve had the pleasure to work 40 years for a company with values and morals that are unmatched in the industry. There is something to be said working for a company whose stellar reputation has always been admired instead of questioned.”
Lillard said he’s been given the opportunity to learn on the fly, thanks to CEO Price. “He put his trust in me to run his company and supported me through thick and thin,” Lillard said. “I was the first president that was not related to the original owners. I had big shoes to fill.”
Lillard credits Price with how he handles gray area situations and making decisions. He said Price told him to “go back to your heart for the answer.”
“I’ve held onto that advice dearly through the years and it reminds me why I chose to work for a company that advocates for high morals and values,” Lillard said. As the president, he’s also learned that it’s important to make decisions as a team. “It is a lot easier to get the horse and wagon across the finish line when everyone is pushing from behind. There will be times where you must be the tie-breaker in a decision, but that’s another story.”
And it hasn’t always been easy. When thinking about the hardest years the company has faced, he points to the 2008 recession and of course, the pandemic of 2020. He said he’s proud that the company hasn’t had a layoff since 1959, but last year was particularly difficult.
“With Covid in March, we didn’t know if we would remain open,” Lillard said. “That was especially hard on me because I’ve always felt responsible for the wellbeing of our 100+ employees including their families. In April, when the wood industry was classified as essential, our people responded and performed at a level I have never witnessed. We faced challenge after challenge. With the support of our customers, a lot of communication and planning, they were able to turn 2020 into a record year for the company.”
Lillard said you can’t focus on the bad things.
“There is always going to be someone not happy for some reason,” he said. “Focusing on those can mask the good things that you do every day for those that are happy.”
He encourages future employees to be patient and reminds them that just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, their career won’t be either. Lillard said patience, hard work and dedication are noticed more than can ever be imagined and “never forget how wonderful it is to have a career in your home town.”
Lillard said the next generation of Madison Wood leaders has the dedication, perseverance and never-ending desire to provide the best product and service in the industry. He thanks Price and the board of directors for all of the opportunities he’s been afforded through the company.
“Your company has allowed me to provide for my family in a way I never dreamed possible,” he said. “You chose a leader that you felt would carry on the successes of the five families that started the business in 1959. I can only hope to have lived up to those expectations.”
Price said over Lillard’s 40 years with the company, he’s had an innate ability to pick the right person for the job and then teach them to be the best they can be. Price said the board appreciates Lillard’s years with the company and is sad to see him go, but he knows the next generation of leaders will continue with the game plan to be the best in the industry, “heads above our competition.”
“Enjoy yourself,” he tells Lillard. “You’ve earned it and then some.”
Gaviria said she’s excited for her dad’s retirement, but also nervous as she understands firsthand what big shoes must be filled.
“Our team is strong, united and most of all ambitious,” she said. “We will work together to continue the great legacy that Bill Price, the board of directors and Steve have worked so hard to cultivate.”
Next up for Lillard will be a part-time advisory role in the company for a few years to ensure a smooth transition. He also hopes to spend more time with his four grandsons, work on his golf handicap and get back into hunting and fishing.
“I will certainly be taking my ’72 Cuda out for a spin more often,” he said.