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All in the family: Utah’s Woodbury Corp. looks back on 100 years of business

Lynn Woodbury, senior vice president of architecture for the Woodbury Corp., left, Guy Woodbury, senior vice president of hospitality, Jeff Woodbury, senior vice president of development, Rick Woodbury, chairman, and Randy Woodbury, president and CEO, pose for a portrait at the company’s office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. Woodbury Corp. is celebrating 100 years in the business.
Lynn Woodbury, senior vice president of architecture for the Woodbury Corp., left, Guy Woodbury, senior vice president of hospitality, Jeff Woodbury, senior vice president of development, Rick Woodbury, chairman, and Randy Woodbury, president and CEO, pose for a portrait at the company’s office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. Woodbury Corp. is celebrating 100 years in the business.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Woodbury Corp. first opened its doors, a gallon of gas cost a quarter. Woodrow Wilson was president, and the first loaves of machine-sliced bread wouldn’t be sold for nearly a decade.

F. Orin Woodbury, a recently married furniture salesman with a baby on the way, was struggling to make ends meet at the tail end of World War I. He went into business instead with his brother-in-law, LeGrand Richards, who owned a small real estate company before becoming a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Woodbury later bought out his partner and led the company that would one day manage more than $3.1 billion worth of shopping centers, offices, homes, hotels and land in 16 states.

One hundred years later, five of Woodbury’s grandsons tell his story in a sleek, brightly lit conference room at the company’s Salt Lake headquarters. The Woodbury Corp. marks a century this year, a milestone that’s rare for family-run businesses.

“They often say it’s rags to riches to rags in three generations,” Chairman Rick Woodbury said. “It’s hard for third-generation businesses to succeed, especially with several people in the business.”

But the Woodburys largely attribute their company’s success precisely to the fact that it is, in the most literal sense of the phrase, family-run. And as the third generation begins to look toward passing the torch to their children, Rick Woodbury and his brothers and cousins say they’re confident the fourth generation of Woodburys will carry on the principles that have sustained the company since 1919.

Even if the Woodbury name itself doesn’t ring a bell, it’s likely, if you live in the Intermountain West, that you’ve seen or been inside a Woodbury building. The company manages 8.5 million square feet of retail space and 3.5 million square feet of office space, with 14 hotels and three more on the way. Projects in Utah include University Place in Orem and Falcon Hill Aerospace Research Park, which sits on the Hill Air Force Base.

At the head and heart of the company today are five third-generation brothers and cousins: chairman, Rick Woodbury; president, Randy Woodbury; senior vice president of development and acquisitions, Jeff Woodbury; senior vice president of architecture, Lynn Woodbury; and senior vice president of hospitality. Guy Woodbury. The company also employs 18 members of the fourth generation in management roles.

The Woodbury Corp. operates using a rare sort of one-for-all system: Any decision must be unanimously agreed upon by all third-generation and certain fourth-generation Woodburys. If one person disagrees, the decision is put off.

There is, technically, a clause in the company’s bylaws that allows a nonunanimous decision to be made, “just in case somebody wants to be a stick-in-the-mud,” as Guy Woodbury put it. But it hasn’t been needed so far.

There’s a method behind what may sound like an unnecessarily difficult decision-making process.

“If you can get people to agree to something, nobody gets the blame and nobody gets all the credit,” Jeff Woodbury said. “Theoretically, that’s one of our elements of success.”

Of course, he added, that’s not to say it’s always easy getting everybody on board.

“The truth of it is, there have been a lot of decisions that have required compromise,” Jeff Woodbury said. “Lots of times you have to say to yourself, ‘Is this really worth fighting over? If everybody else thinks it’s right, maybe I should think it’s right.’”

The cousins similarly attribute the company’s longevity to an even division of responsibilities between family members, dating back to the mid-20th century when F. Orin’s sons, Wallace and Orin R. Woodbury, took over the business. When the third generation were teenagers, the cousins did odd jobs around the office, and when they turned 16 and earned driver’s licenses, cleaned properties.

“That’s how each of us got our start, on the business end of brooms and shovels,” Randy Woodbury said. “But I’ve always felt that that’s been a real key component to our ability to understand and appreciate how everyone contributes all the way down to that front line, to the people that are doing the least glamorous part of the work, and it’s all important.”

After scattering briefly — to law school, to business school, to architecture school — the cousins, one by one, returned to the family business, with each bringing his own strengths to the company: Lynn Woodbury contributing architecture expertise, Rick Woodbury serving as the third generation’s main strategist, Jeff Woodbury providing legal knowledge, and so on.

“I feel like that’s how this company has worked,” Rick Woodbury said. “It was the idea that if everybody is doing the best they can, and working hard and doing it well, it really frees up everybody else to do what they do best.”

“It’s been great for everybody to have their own areas of expertise, or as my father would say, our own petunias to water,” Guy Woodbury chimed in.

Often, the cousins said, they’re asked whether working in such close proximity to one another makes for a closer family.

“It is interesting, because we don’t really socialize with one another,” Jeff Woodbury said, chuckling. But “working with my brothers and my cousins has really been a lot of fun,” he added. “And even though we grouse with one another quite a bit, we spend more time laughing with one another and enjoying one another than we do arguing.”

The Woodburys have over the years made substantial donations to a number of colleges across the state and country, including Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University, Utah State University, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University-Hawaii and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Utah Valley University’s business school, the Woodbury School of Business, bears the family’s name.

Still, the Woodburys and Woodbury Corp. have managed to keep a relatively low profile in the public eye. And that’s the way they’ve liked it for 100 years.

“I think we have cared an incredible amount about our reputation amongst those people that needed to know,” Guy Woodbury said. “Those are a big deal to us, our partners and investors. Nobody else needs to know.”

Now, as the third generation enters and passes through their 60s, they’ve begun to consider what the company will look like under the fourth generation of Woodburys.

“We’ve had substantial discussions about how do we pass the reigns now to a fourth generation,” Lynn Woodbury said. “It’s not something that just happens. It’s something that if you plan for it, you can find a way to do it.”

He’s been pleased to see members of the fourth generation coming into their own as leaders, he said, speaking up more in meetings and expressing their opinions.

“They understand the changes in technology and in generational attitudes about things that, frankly, the old guys don’t really quite fully understand,” Lynn Woodbury said. “So it gets a perspective, I think, that will help ensure that we’re going in the right direction in the future.”

The second generation of Woodburys led the company into commercial and shopping center development, while the third generation branched out into hotels and residential space. The legacy of the fourth generation remains to be seen.

Regardless, Randy Woodbury said, he has “no fears” about the next generation “continuing this and making it bigger and better than where we’ve dreamed it would be.”

“It’s just that dang fifth generation we’ve got to worry about,” Jeff Woodbury joked. “That one’s still up in the air.”