A True Southern Gentleman: Remembering Al James
A True Southern Gentleman: Remembering Al James
of 87 on February 26, 2015.
When Al James shuttered his business in March 2013, his thoughts were not about the company he started 53 years earlier, they were about his employees. In the midst of the tragic ending to his life’s work, a local newspaper covering the event reported, “…the main thing on his mind was helping Timber Truss Housing Systems’ 50 employees find other jobs.” Al’s focus on his “family” of employees is one of the things that defined him, both as a man and as an employer. His friends, customers and competitors describe Al James as “innovative,” “generous” and a “true southern gentleman.” (Photo courtesy of the Salem Times-Register, Salem, VA.)
Building a Legacy
James’ father was a homebuilder, but after serving in the U.S. Air Force, Al went to the University of Virginia and graduated with a degree in accounting. According to friend and Truss Housing Systems’ longtime VP of Operations, Paul Emanuelson, early after graduation, James found himself wondering what kind of product everyone would want and need. While on vacation in Florida in the late 1950s, he discovered his answer: roof trusses. “He saw some of the earliest trusses being installed and soon opened what was probably the first truss operation in the state of Virginia out of his carport,” said Emanuelson.
In 1960, James started Timber Truss Housing Systems in Roanoke, VA. His company focused on providing the complete packaged home. His company generated original house plans and then made all of the components necessary to build them, from floor and roof trusses and wall panels to windows, doors and trim. These “TrussMark Homes” became very popular, and Al added a showroom to his facility to give prospective buyers the opportunity to modify a home to make it their own.
At its height, Timber Truss Housing Systems had two manufacturing facilities, a 132,000 sq. ft. facility in Salem, VA, and another 70,000 sq. ft. facility in Orange, VA, along with sales offices in Lynchburg, Christiansburg and Smith Mountain Lake, VA. Before the downturn, 270 employees were on the company’s payroll. It was a considerable “family” for Al to provide for, but by all accounts, he did it with great joy.
“I first met Al James at a Gang-Nail seminar in Miami, FL, in 1967. At that time, Al was already leading the industry with innovative thinking, pricing methodology and production techniques,” said Bob Ward, a longtime friend and owner and founder of Southern Components in Shreveport, LA. His son, Scott Ward, remembers walking through Al’s plant as a young man. “Al’s plant was the first I had ever visited outside of our own. I was mesmerized. It was truly an awesome facility. He owned the concept of true teamwork and taught me how important it was to be engaged in all aspects of the operation,” said Scott Ward.
According to Emanuelson, James was never content with the status quo. “Every piece of machinery we had in the plant was modified in some way to make things either more efficient or safer for the employees,” he said. One good example was an Intelligent Building Systems (Truswal) wall panel line he was interested in installing in the plant. “Tommy Wood invited Al up to take a look at the equipment. It was already an advanced machine because it adjusted to the height of the wall, but Al wanted to take it further,” said Emanuelson. Instead of buying the machine, James invested time and financial resources into helping Wood create a cutting-edge prototype.
“The funny thing about that line is that we didn’t end up with the prototype because it was flipped from how our production line ran,” remembered Emanuelson. “Tommy sold the first machine to someone else, and we ended up with the second one.”
The production line was the area where James’ desire to innovate was most evident. “Material handling was a big deal. It was all about minimizing the number of people who touched the product and making it as safe as possible,” said Emanuelson. All the lumber was brought in on small trains. The sawyer could order the lumber they needed ahead of the job, and it would arrive just in time for it to be cut. After the plates were embedded on the gantry tables, automated rollers ensured the finished trusses left the building and T-Lok stackers bundled the jobs with minimal handling by employees. “The plant was set up so that lumber and plates came in on one end of the building, and finished product exited the other end.”
“For people who were fortunate enough to have visited his operation in Virginia, they would have seen one of the premier truss plants in the nation,” said Bob Ward.
Al James was known for being generous in many different ways. He was generous with his time. He served on the board of a local bank and served in his local church, Northminster Presbyterian. He also spent a lot of time with his “family” of employees. “It was typical to see Al walking around the plant, interacting with the employees,” said Emanuelson. “It wasn’t until we grew really big (270 employees) and had a lot of turnover with temporary employees that Al didn’t know every person’s name and their story.” That approach made an impression on a young Scott Ward: “His soft-spoken, mild-mannered personality was somehow regal when he strolled through his plant. His employees seemed to really love him and admire him for his ability to connect with them.”
He was generous with his facility was well. The Timber Truss Housing Systems facility in Salem, VA, was built on an old Air Force training facility. Behind the production facility was an old airplane landing strip. Years ago, a remote-controlled airplane club started using the strip to land their model planes. “Al not only let them use the property, but he took the occasional wayward plane in stride when it got away from the operator and flew into our facility,” said Emanuelson.
He was also generous with his financial resources, both with his employees and with his customers. “Most of his employees knew he had a really big heart,” said Emanuelson. “If they really needed help, they knew they could go to Al and talk to him about it.” The same was true for his customers. At Al’s funeral, a number of his past customers showed up to pay their respects. “Many of them attributed Al’s willingness to work with them on paying their invoices to helping them survive the downturn,” said Emanuelson. “One of Al’s favorite things was to throw an annual Christmas Party for all the employees. He also always gave Christmas bonuses, which I know was a rare thing in our industry.”
True Southern Gentleman
James was also known for being very open with other component manufacturers about the solutions he used to address common problems in the industry. He was involved in the early years of the Truss Plate Institute (TPI) and the Wood Truss Council of America (now SBCA), and was even willing to share ideas with his competitors. “Al was always gracious and generous to share ideas, and perfectly fit the description of a true southern gentlemen. He maintained those values throughout his life, and I will always remember him fondly as a true industry icon,” said Bob Ward.
“Al’s approach to problem solving in the plant was to bring the affected employees into a brainstorming session and try to collectively work out a way through,” said Emanuelson. “He also confronted issues with honesty.” Emaneulson remembered a time when there was a rumor circulating amongst the employees that James was considering selling the company. It coincided with Al giving a tour to a group of people, something he did somewhat regularly.
After the group left, a few employees asked him whether the rumor was true. James pointed at the facility and asked, “What do you see?” The employees gave various answers, but not the one Al was looking for. Finally, a bit exasperated, he replied, “People. My responsibility is for all of those people; they are my family.” He then asked, “What would I do if I sold this company?” He listed off the typical answers: travel, buy stuff, live the easy life. In the end, he told them none of those options appealed to him more than running his plant.
Al’s care for his employees inspired great loyalty. When he closed the plant in 2013, there were a handful of employees who had been with him for 42 years, and several others who had worked for the company more than 30 years. “Al was a great guy to work for and one of the most honest. All his employees thought so,” Emanuelson said.
Timber Truss Housing Systems was a victim of bad luck (the completion of the facility in Orange, VA, was delayed by two years, due to the discovery of potential artifacts, and opened in 2006 instead of 2004) and the sudden and prolonged downturn of the housing industry.
On the last day the business was open, the local paper reported James to have said, “We have a great staff of people here. They are losing their jobs. We truly regret we have to go out of business. It hurts a lot.” It’s a testament to Al and his character that his focus was on the impact the company’s closing had on others instead of himself.
“Al was one of my most faithful and honest mentors over the 20 years I knew him. He was a fine man, a wonderful friend and a true industry leader. I will really miss my friend Al James,” said Scott Ward. Emanuelson echoed Scott’s thoughts saying, “To a lot of us, he was a very good mentor and a valuable friend.”
“All of those who had the benefit of his friendship will certainly attest that this industry is better because of him. He will be missed,” said Bob Ward.