Lumbering To Success

Someone said, "Try and try again." Tom Sullivan did and ended a string of soured businesses by selling old lumber, proving that you can make a successful business out of almost anything.

It's almost too much to imagine. SATs taken with Bics. Pinnochio made of plastic. Beavers and woodchucks going hungry at night. Wood shop class wouldn't exist. Surely Woody the Woodpecker's animated film career would never have begun, not to mention all the food that would have remained in our teeth in a toothpick-less society. And Tom Sullivan, 41, would be without a business.

Which would be a shame, considering how long and hard he worked to get it.

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A world without Lumber Liquidators. Now, that's not so hard to imagine. Lumber Liquidators is an estimated $25 million company with its headquarters in a suburban part of Boston. It's a wood-selling enterprise that was started in 1992 by a man who was still reeling from a heavy $400,000 loss in another venture, and was zero for four at least in trying to start successful and enduring businesses.

If anybody was going to turn wood into a gold mine, Sullivan didn't seem like the guy to do it.

Before he started Lumber Liquidators, Sullivan had run a construction enterprise off and on for a number of years. Sullivan wasn't necessarily a business flop, but he wasn't exactly in the running to be a rich owner of a Fortune 500 company.

All his pre-construction-company ventures have also achieved less-than-stellar results. From 1977 to 1992, he lost $400,000 with a company of his that refurbished homes. During the same period, Sullivan spent one year trying to syndicate a travel series on television and radio stations. "It was mostly an excuse to travel around the world," admits Sullivan, who did manage to get 10 TV stations to carry the program, but their participation would have been maybe enough to let a film crew travel crosstown in a bus and still turn a profit. So he ditched that idea.

Sullivan had always been trying to make a buck. His father owned his own home-building business, and Sullivan says he'd wanted his own company "just as long as I can remember." When he was 4 years old, he talked his younger sister into trading her new bicycle for his old one, and as a young boy, when Evel Knievel was a household name, Sullivan would build wooden ramps in his family's driveway and sail into the air from one to the other on his bicycle-in front of a paying audience of neighborhood kids.

And now, it would have appeared to any casual observer, Lumber Liquidators was destined to be one in a growing list of Sullivan's failed or stalled businesses. His newest idea? Sullivan had noticed that lumber mills often had large piles of unwanted, distressed, mismatched wood lying about. Maybe he could sell it to the public.


Geoff Williams is a prolific writer who frequently contributes to Entrepreneur, but he got a C- in his high school wood shop class.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lumbering To Success.

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