‘Duty, Honor, Country’: Abbeville Fiber grand opening showcases best of Alabama, America
ABBEVILLE — “American dreams begin with American jobs.” That was the slogan used to tease Tuesday’s grand opening of Abbeville Fiber Sawmill in Henry County, and the event itself did not disappoint.
The celebratory atmosphere made it seem like Labor Day Weekend had started several days early in the small Wiregrass town, but underneath — and throughout — all of the pageantry stood the unshakable, core tenet of the people of southeast Alabama: hard work.
People from in and around Abbeville began trickling in over an hour before the program was set to begin, and even on a stormy summer morning, the massive, airplane hangar-sized industrial facility quickly swelled with the proud faces of locals eager to revel in a monumental milestone.
They were joined by Governor Kay Ivey, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) and Congresswoman Martha Roby (AL-02), among many other elected officials from around the Yellowhammer State.
And of course, even as he tried to give credit to a slew of others at every turn, at the center of it all, indelibly reigned Great Southern Wood Preserving, Inc. and YellaWood’s Jimmy Rane.
Rane, walking into the holding room being used for press interviews on the day as songs such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” blasted throughout the facility, spoke to the media before the program began.
Delivering a short opening statement, Rane quickly made it clear he was fighting his emotions on what was a deeply personal day for him. As he did so, the “Yella Fella” also underlined just how very much his community means to him.
Video from Rane’s initial comments to the press today pic.twitter.com/jQK5joIywx
— Sean Ross (@sean_yhn) August 27, 2019
Rane explained that his father was significantly involved in bringing the Westpoint Stevens textile plant to the facility now occupied by the new sawmill. WestPoint closed shop in 2008 after billionaire investor Carl Icahn bought the company to sell off its assets, Rane outlined.
“My father had a big role in bringing [WestPoint] to Abbeville,” Rane said, holding back tears. “And it meant a lot to him — really, it broke his heart when they shut it down.”
Later, on stage speaking to a massive, standing room only crowd, Rane outlined more of the story, saying some good, homestyle Alabama cooking helped convince the steel company to locate to Abbeville when a labor strike in Maine left them looking for a new location.
At that time, he noted, the facility drew many people in the Wiregrass off of their family farms for the first time in their life to work an outside job soon after World War II. At its prime, 1,300 people were employed at the WestPoint operation.
The new industry provided not just jobs, but the ability for locals to build better lives for themselves and their families — something Rane said is the goal of Abbeville Fiber opening in the facility he described as being built by the hard work and dedication of WestPoint’s former workers over 50 years.
To Rane, this is about the next generation of Henry County leaders stepping up to keep the American dream alive for so many of their neighbors.
“It’s all about stewardship,” Rane stressed. “It’s all about stewardship. We are charged with doing our duty — and it’s a great feeling to know you’ve done your duty. We restored something that was lost: the dream of my father, my mother, as well as a lot of other people who had gone to war and came home thinking they were going to build a better world — and they did. I’m just excited to be a part of that.”
‘You’ve got to have a purpose’
Rane’s focus on duty is no accident.
He is a graduate of Marion Military Institute, whose color guard and band opened Tuesday’s program. Rane said he was shaped by his experiences at Marion, which showed through in not only the grand opening’s focus on patriotism, but has been pervasive in Rane’s historic career successes.
Speaking to the crowd, Rane highlighted what he is really about. Even as Alabama’s richest man, for him, it is all about the people of the Abbeville area and the values they hold near and dear to their hearts.
Rane told some of the new employees, some of whom he had not met personally yet, that he would soon be getting to visit individually with each of them. At Great Southern Wood, Abbeville Fiber now included, the people are a family.
“Jobs create a community where you can have schools, where you can have homes, where you can have churches,” Rane said. “But just building it doesn’t make it work. You’ve got to have a purpose. It’s not money.”
He then referenced a large banner hanging over his head as what that “purpose” is.
“Duty, Honor, Country,” the banner read, signifying the motto of Great Southern Wood Preserving.
Reciting the three words, emphasizing each one, Rane added, “Those are Abbeville values, they’re American values. And they’re our values.”
“That’s why we get up and come to work every day,” he continued. “That’s why we grew from nothing to the largest in the world — it wasn’t money. We were determined to be the best. We were going to be the best. The best equipped. The best trained. And the best fighting spirit. We are not going to be beat. And Abbeville’s not going to be beat.”
That emphasis on the resilience of Abbeville was another talking point throughout Rane’s address and his prior media remarks.
With locations across 28 states, Washington, D.C., much of the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as portions of the European Union, the Mediterranean and China now, Rane could have chosen just about anywhere in the world for this new sawmill — many of which would have been easier lifts logistically, as Ivey noted in her closing remarks.
However, Rane’s comments explained perfectly how and why he made his decision: This was about duty — and home — not money.
Speaking on Abbeville, he shared, “It’s been home all my life. Great people. Great place to grow up and great values, great values.”
Rane also told Yellowhammer News that he did not ask himself, “Why Abbeville?” when choosing the new sawmill location.
Instead, Rane stressed, “Why not Abbeville? Why not?”
“It’s a great place, and it deserves as much support and development as any community in this state,” he concluded. “As long as I’m living, I intend to see that it’s here.”
The details — ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’
Abbeville Fiber, in the old WestPoint Pepperell building, is located off U.S. Highway 431 and Alabama Highway 27. The project is the largest in Henry County’s history, with a total investment of $40 million being made in the sawmill.
This state-of-the-art sawmill, featuring the latest technology in the industry, will have the capacity to produce 200,000 feet a day of finished wood and will purchase an estimated $14 million to $15 million of yellow pine timber annually from suppliers within a 50-mile radius of the plant, with local timber owners set to benefit as a result. Additionally, the facility will employ over 15 truckers from the surrounding area.
Charles Money Logging delivered the first load of logs on July 8 and sawing began that week. The first finished lumber began shipping this month.
The sawmill has already hired over 65 Alabamians and 15 truckers, with approximately 50 more general employees to come.
It should be noted that this is a two-phase project.
During Phase I, the facility will work its way up to an annual production rate of 50 million board feet per year. In this phase, the sawmill will consume 40-45 truckloads of logs per day.
Then, in the next 12-15 months or so, Abbeville Fiber will ramp up production to 100 million feet, marking Phase II. At that point, the facility will employ 115 people total, plus supporting the 15 local truckers. During this phase, the sawmill will consume 80-90 truckloads of logs per day.
“With the opening of the sawmill, we will be continuing to invest in our most valuable resource — the people in our hometown and throughout the entire Wiregrass,” Rane stated.
While on stage, he pointed to a large poster board displaying the city’s gross sales dollars over the last 15 years, with the closure of WestPoint corresponding to a major drop that lasted through the Great Recession.
Since the lowest point in 2010, these gross sales dollars have increased 95%. In fact, just since construction started on Abbeville Fiber last year, the gross dollar amount is up 26%.
Things should only continue to pick up, as long as the people of the area adhere to their values and work hard, Rane commented.
If they do so, the possibilities are endless.
“Economic development works. It brings prosperity,” Rane outlined. “A rising tide lifts all boats. All boats.”
“If we do our duty, that graph will continue to go up,” he added, referencing the gross sales dollars.
Elected officials react
The dignitaries on hand were consistently glowing in their remarks when speaking about the impact Abbeville Fiber will have throughout the Wiregrass, as well as about Rane’s legacy of giving back.
Ivey released a statement, saying, “What I have seen here today represents the best of Alabama — good people who are proud of their work and doing it to the best of their ability. There is an atmosphere of enthusiasm here, a belief that the future holds great promise. The workers here are a part of building something special for the local community and our state.”
“Companies like Great Southern Wood and now, Abbeville Fiber, are shining examples of good, old-fashioned ingenuity and integrity which ultimately combine for success. As Governor, I am delighted to have them in our state,” she added.
Ivey also spoke to the media ahead of the program, before closing the event out with brief remarks.
“This is a great day for Henry County and all around [the Wiregrass],” she said.
“First and foremost, can you tell that my friend Jimmy loves his hometown?!” the governor later quipped. “Jimmy and Great Southern Wood are all about determination, good people and knowing that being on the cutting edge requires more than just a saw. And I’m proud of Great Southern Wood, as it embodies many of the values that’s made Alabama so dear and so special.”
“Alabama is a place where we build each other up and we celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship, which has served our country so well,” Ivey continued. “We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and then we turn and we extend a hand [to pull up] those around us. Abbeville Fiber is proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and working well.”
Ainsworth also spoke to members of the media before the program.
“Obviously today’s a big day, not only for this region but for the state of Alabama,” the lieutenant governor stressed, speaking to the importance of the state’s timber industry and then on the positive impact the jobs will have in the area.
He explained that he got to tour the facility and visit with some of the new employees, sharing what he observed.
“The enthusiasm, the excitement — it’s just tremendous,” Ainsworth commented. “We’re so thankful just for Great Southern Wood, the Rane family and what they’re doing in providing jobs in this region and in Alabama. Certainly appreciate their leadership … this is huge.”
Byrne, in remarks of his own, lauded Rane.
“The big news of today is one of our own, Jimmy Rane, has decided to make a huge investment,” the coastal Alabama congressman outlined. “It’s important to him and his family … It’s another sign that Jimmy continues to give back, and I don’t think any of us totally appreciates what Jimmy Rane does for this part of Alabama and Alabama as a whole.”
Byrne summarized the impact of Abbeville Fiber as being both a “community builder and a “family builder.”
Yellowhammer News also caught up with Roby following the program. Abbeville is in her district.
“Obviously being here today, it’s an exciting atmosphere,” she reflected. “For me, personally, to hear the story and the history of this facility … to hear the passion from Mr. Rane about wanting to be a part of reinvesting back in this community and the number of jobs that it will provide, I was just excited to be a part of it and celebrate with everybody here today. As Governor Ivey always says, ‘Alabama is open for business.’ And today is a real testament to that.”
You can view a live tweet thread from the grand opening here.
Additionally, you can watch a short video clip compilation from the event here.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn