Penberthy Lumber history
Paul Penberthy Sr.
Early in 1931, during the bleakest days of the Depression, Paul Penberthy told Jack Dionne, that he was planning to open a hardwood distribution yard in Los Angeles. Even Dionne, a man who usually exuded enthusiasm, had to respond skeptically. “It’s the worst time to start a business,” he warned. But the young hardwood lumberman contradicted that advice. “I think it’s the best time,” he replied, “because I know what people want.”
For the next fifty years Paul Penberthy made it his business to know what people wanted in the way of hardwood lumber. He was, first of all, a brilliant salesman who impressed his customers with his conscientious approach to business, and with his determination to always put the customer first. Beyond that he was a knowledgeable lumber buyer. During his career he literally traveled the globe from the hardwood forests of North America to the humid jungles of the three continents to acquire just the kinds of hardwoods that his customers needed. Also he was a skilled administrator who organized one of the largest, most successful hardwood companies in the country. His personal experiences and his methodical compilation of detailed notes and records gave him a grasp of the hardwood lumber industry that perhaps no other American could match.
Paul Penberthy Sr. began his life on February 25, 1890 in Menomonee Minnesota. He was raised in an area that was then devoted to the manufacturing of birch, maple, and white pine lumber. He was the second child among a family of four sons and one daughter. His father, from whom Paul must have inherited some of his business ability, owned a large wholesale grocery operation that was known throughout Northern Minnesota. Paul remembered his mother as beautiful and kind. When Paul was only nine his father died at the age of thirty-five, and his mother died in the same year, leaving he and his brothers and sister to the custody of a guardian. According to the terms of their father’s will, the Penberthy children were to retain the family home in Menomonee, and their sizeable inheritance was to be used to provide for their education.
During the school year Paul Penberthy received his formal education at Orchard Lake Military Academy, a college preparatory school near Ann Arbor, Michigan. During the summers he received another type of education, while working as a tally boy in the sawmills near Menomonee. There he first became fascinated by the lumber industry. Having seen that fortunes could be made in the lumbering, he was inspired to enter the School of Forestry at the University of Michigan.
After spending two years at the university, Paul became concerned that the family’s funds would run out before his younger brothers and sister had completed their education. He also had a driving ambition to begin his career. So in about 1910 he and his brother, Arthur, came west to Seattle, where they hoped to find work in the lumber industry on Puget Sound. A few months later Penberthy arrived in San Diego to take an office job with the Charles r. McCormick Company, which was then shipping large quantities of lumber and timber through the Southern California Harbor.
After having worked in San Diego for several years, the lure of cheap land attracted Penberthy to the Imperial Valley of Southern California. There he and his brother filed on 160 acres of arid land that they hoped to irrigate and cultivate. The young men, who had no previous farming experience, found the work arduous and demanding, but in time made a success of their farm. Paul Penberthy acquired some of his knowledge about farming from books that he bought at a local bookstore. Paul became a regular customer at the store that employed a young lady named Lillie larey, the daughter of a local family of ranchers. At first Lillie thought that Paul visited the bookstore so often only because he was a serious student. Later she realized he was serious about her. The two young people became close friends. When the United States entered World War I, Penberthy enlisted in the Army and became a flying officer. While on leave in 1918, he married Lillie Larey. Following the armistice, the couple returned to the farm in the Imperial Valley.
After the war the Penberthy’s lived on their farm for only a couple of years before Paul Penberthy’s earlier fascination with the lumber industry finally got the best of him. In the early 1920s he moved his young family, which now included two sons, to Los Angeles. There he began working for W.E. Cooper lumber company. After proving himself a talented salesman, Penberthy became the firm’s sales manager. He began to spend much of his time traveling throughout the southeastern United States for Cooper, calling upon sawmills and purchasing hardwood lumber. By the time the Depression struck, Penberthy had a thorough knowledge of the suppliers of the hardwood lumber and the user in the greater Los Angeles area. He knew his customers needs and how to fill them.
Having learned so much about the business, Penberthy decided that the time had come to step out on his own. After he left Cooper, Penberthy’s first break came in the form of a request from his friend, Charles Kellogg, lumberman from Memphis who had helped to start American Hardwood Company of Los Angeles. Kellogg asked Penberthy to sell two million board feet of imported hardwood lumber that was then arriving at Los Angeles harbor. Penberthy undertook the task of selling such a large amount of lumber with diligence and ingenuity. Once he had sold the lot, he earned enough profit to rent a small piece of property with a shed in south Los Angeles. Lillie Penberthy, a partner in the firm from the beginning, held down the office and kept the books while Paul worked at cultivating his accounts. Slowly the company began to grow.
The Penberthy Lumber Company continued its growth throughout the 1930s so that it twice had to move to larger quarters. In the early 1940s the company purchased some property on Boyle Avenue (near Slauson Avenue) in Los Angeles from the Hammond Lumber Company, and the firm has located its headquarters there ever since. There the company grew into one of the largest hardwood lumber companies in the country. From there it ships lumber to customers throughout the United States and Canada, including many of the countries leading manufacturers of fine furniture, cabinets, pool tables, boats, truck bodies, musical instruments, office furniture, archery equipment, sporting guns, pictures frames and other goods. Penberthy also supplies lumber for construction and for industrial applications such as residential and commercial buildings, patterns for foundries, wear boards for steel mills, docks, pilings, excavation, and mine supports.
Paul Penberthy’s sons, Paul, Jr., and Farrier grew up in the family owned firm. They both attended Stanford University. Following in their father’s footsteps, both sons served as pilots in the United States Army Air Corps during world war II and both returned to the family firm after the war. Paul Penberthy, Jr., eventually became president of the Penberthy Operation in Southern California, which includes the hardwood distributing business. He was responsible for laying out and implementing the plans for a second 15-acre yard in Carson, California, near the Los Angeles harbor, as an addition to the firms distribution yard on Boyle Ave; both yards have drying yards, dry kilns, and rail facilities. The Carson plant, which was established in 1969, also includes many of the most modern, efficient equipment for the storage and handling of lumber, such as automated grading, tallying and stacking machinery.
Meanwhile, Farrier “Fay” Penberthy became president of Penberthy’s Northern California softwood production facility located in Yreka, California. Known as the Pine Mountain Lumber Company, the northern subsidiary was acquired by Penberthy in the late 1930s. The plant sawed spruce and other softwoods for the war effort during World War II, and has been steadily improving and automated during the ensuing years. The twenty five-acre facility includes complete sawing, milling, drying, and shipping capabilities. Each day it manufactures 300,000 board feet of California softwoods such a ponderosa and sugar pine, Douglas fir, and Western Cedar. The mill’s productions are shipped through out the United States for constructions and commercial applications. Penberthy Lumber Company also operates a branch in Portland Oregon, managed by a grandson of the founder.
Much of Penberthy Lumber Companies success stems from its willingness to train and develop capable workers. Many of the men and women who have become leaders in the hardwood lumber industry in Southern California have been trained in either the Penberthy office or sales staff.
As the Penberthy firm grew, and especially as his sons became involved in managing the daily operations of the firm Paul Penberthy, Sr., increasingly devoted his time to establishing and maintaining his companies sources of supply for hardwood lumber. Between the end of world war II and the fiftieth anniversary of the Penberthy Lumber Company in 1981, Paul and Lillie Penberthy made more than fifty trips overseas to search the far corners of the world for the choicest hardwoods. Sometimes they traveled to the orient twice a year, often returning by way of Africa or of Europe. They also traveled throughout South America. They often endured primitive conditions, poor transportation, and even dangerous travel in their efforts to find supplies that would accommodate their customers back in the United States.
Everywhere they traveled, from the jungles to the cities, Lillie Penberthy took meticulous notes on all of their meetings to confirm impressions, decisions, and commitments. Her notes testify to the literally thousands of relationships that the Penberthy’s have established with lumber people through out the world. They also show that while traveling, Paul and Lillie shared in a hard working partnership that left little time for sightseeing or shopping.
The key to Paul Penberthy’s success as a lumber buyer around the world was the same as the key to the success of his firm from the start he profited by always giving primary consideration to his customers needs. While in Los Angeles he kept in close contact with his sales staff and with their customers so that he could always be aware of those needs. Then when traveling he would buy particular hardwood species, sawn to specific sizes, with specific customers in mind.
He became a major supplier of exotic hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony from south America, Asia, and Africa, which were sold to accounts that made specialty products such as musical instruments and sports equipment. As a sales agent for the government of Thailand, Penberthy became a major supplier of teak to the boat industry. Although when he first went to the Philippines he found that it was a strong hold for his competitor, E.J. Stanton and Son, he established his own sources for Philippine Lumbers. Soon he also became an important supplier of those products.
Penberthy has also introduced many new foreign hardwoods to the American market, some, of which he developed and distributed under his own trade names. Shedua, a copyrighted trade name of the Penberthy Lumber Company, was one of his biggest successes. This highly figured, dark brown, hard and durable wood, Penberthy imported from Ghana especially for his custom furniture and cabinet accounts. The wood has also been widely used for turnery, flooring, and in archery equipment.
In celebration of Penberthy Lumber Company’s fiftieth anniversary in 1981 the firm held a gala open house that included a buffet style luncheon in a huge, gaily decorated tent. A spirited Scottish bag pipe band and rollicking highland dancers provided entertainment of the open house. Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles honored Paul and Lillie Penberthy with a special commendation for their long-standing contribution to the local business community. Guest at the celebration, including prominent lumber people from throughout Southern California enjoyed tours of the firm complete planing mill facility. At the time of the celebration the Penberthy yard contained eleven million board feet of imported and domestic hardwoods and softwoods, which represent more than seventy-five species from around the world.
As well as a celebration of the fifty years of the firm, the golden anniversary party was also a tribute to Paul and Lillie Penberthy. Paul Penberthy so completely dedicated his life to his business that even at the age of ninety-two it remains his primary interest. Although he no longer travels throughout the world, samples of foreign hardwoods still crowd upon the desk in his warmly furnished office. The vitality, imagination, and dedication of the Penberthy’s have been an inspiration to their company, and to people associated with the hardwood lumber industry. Their reputation will long endure within the industry.