Great business ideas often come from strange places, but no one expects to find one at the bottom of a river. Yet that’s what happened to George Goodwin. When he went fishing in shallow Florida riverbeds during the early 1970s, Goodwin often caught more logs than bass.
“I used to snag my lures on them,” he remembers. Most fishermen would have cursed their luck; Goodwin, now 59, reeled in a multi-million-dollar business instead.
What Goodwin found are known as deadhead logs. In the 1800s loggers felled centuries-old cypress and pine throughout the South for use in construction. They would float the logs downstream to the nearest mill, but often the heaviest logs–those filled with the most resin–sank to the muddy riverbed. At a time when the South was blanketed by tens of millions of acres of untouched forest, it wasn’t much of a loss. But today overharvesting has reduced that old-growth forest to just 5,000 to 10,000 acres, most of it protected, and the logs once lost to the rivers have newfound value.
As Goodwin got interested in logs, he discovered that, although the outside decomposes after being underwater for nearly a century, resin keeps the inside perfectly preserved. Prized for flooring and paneling, this interior wood is known as “heart pine” and “heart cypress.”
Goodwin spent $105,500–his entire savings–to purchase 20 acres of land in Micanopy, Fla., ten miles south of Gainesville, and move an old sawmill to the property, where he and his wife, Carol, the company’s 59-year-old vice president, live and work. They pay divers $2 to $3 per board foot of wood in the logs recovered from Florida riverbeds. Then they clean up the logs and mill them into flooring that sells for $5 to $20 a foot. Carol estimates that the demand for antique wood has risen tenfold in the past decade, thanks to the housing boom and changing tastes. That has sent the company’s annual revenue on a steady climb, from $5,000 in 1977 to $3 million in 2004.