Roy Richardson, an American fumigation entrepreneur with a hint of nutty professor, recently read that the largest furniture retailer in the world is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Incredulous, thinking, "I wouldn't go to Wal-Mart for furniture," he read on, learning that China, its major supplier, has become the furniture-making capital of the world.
What once was palpable passion around Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, furniture-making has gone to Chinese workers, who import oaks, use every possible inch for veneer (unlike in the U.S.), craft it upon cheaper wood, and send it to Wal-Mart for retail in return for handsome profit margins.
"So that oak log, instead of being used for one table, now it can do 10 tables," Richardson said. "But when I read the article, I said, wait a minute, if wood products are going over there they have to be fumigated. That's what I do!"
That's when the glow of China's growing pursuit of happiness began to touch Richardson and his company, the aptly named Royal Group, which is based in the state of Delaware.
Not only do the logs have to be fumigated—Richardson said chuckling—there's a literal logjam at U.S. shipping ports that's both slowing and spoiling log shipments to China.
Richardson, who is familiar with ports because of his fruit spraying business, found out that countless valuable red oak, elm and walnut logs have been spoiling in their own syrup at the ports, awaiting a draconian process of fumigation required for exportation.
"About 40 percent of all logs cut and sent to the port never made it overseas because there's no [fumigation] infrastructure to handle the capacity," Richardson said. "They literally were rotting in the containers because ports couldn't move them fast enough."
China wants America's woods, but not its bugs—and fast. That's why the American, or rather Chinese, dream begins for Richardson.
He decided to devote a large portion of his fumigation business to logs, creating massive plants outside the ports-the first of their kind—where killing bugs isn't a frustrating process. It's pure bliss.
And bliss moves fast.
"We just finished [fumigating] 21 million cases of grapes," Richardson said. Here's a more wood-to-wood comparison: While one eastern U.S. port can send 16 40-log containers per week through the fumigation process, Royal can get between 70 and 140 containers through, Richardson said.
"The fumigator typically gets stuck in the ratty old shed" at the port, Richardson said.
But not at Royal. There, the fumigator is the surgeon for the operation, and it's becoming world-renowned.
Richardson has two wood fumigation facilities now in Virginia and receiving accolades from both business partners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rumor has it the Chinese want to visit his facilities too.