(Photo by Marie Constantin)
Chad Foster is carving out a woodworking success story through hard work, intensity—a moment of humility—and a competitive drive.
In February, Chad Foster traveled to Pittsburg State University in Kansas to recruit interns to work at his millworking shop.
His goal was simple: Interview graduating students from the renowned architectural millwork program, entice them to work at Gator Millworks, his Denham Springs shop, and expand his already talented workforce to include a younger generation.
“This was so exciting for me,” says Foster, 38. “If I would have known about a program like this when I was younger, I would’ve gone. It is astounding that this trade is being taught.”
During the very last interview, Foster found a perfect match.
“I found someone like me,” says Foster. “It’s like I was looking in the mirror. This kid had an amazing work ethic and I knew from the moment I met him that he had the potential to be someone special.”
Foster is an old soul with a young mind.
“I have never been around anyone who works more hours and smarter hours than he does,” says Tom Choppin, director of business development for Gator Millworks, who shares an office with Foster. “He is competitive and wants to win, but he is not scared to ask questions and he always chooses to do the right thing. He was raised by his grandmother and he learned all the good things during that time.”
Foster’s father, Randy “Big Dog” Foster, and business partner Gary Henson started Gator Millworks 24 years ago. It was named after Gary’s dog, Gator, a black lab.
Foster began working there when he was 13 years old.
His parents divorced when he was a baby, living at different times with his mom and dad until high school when the teenager asked if he could live with his grandmother, Kathryn. She lived in Central and he wanted to attend Central High School. His parents agreed, and he lived with her until marrying his wife Kelly in 2005. It was those years with his grandmother, he says, that shaped his personality.
“I was probably a lot more mature than other kids my age,” reflects Foster. “I was just really motived and ready to grow up, and I always gravitated towards people older than me. I would never have a problem living in the ’30s and ’40s. Those people worked hard, did the right thing and were dedicated.”
There is an intensity to Foster that reveals itself within the first five minutes of meeting him. His handshake is firm, the eye contact direct and when asked a question he pauses and thinks before answering briefly but honestly. On this day he’s sitting on the edge of an office chair at the end of a large conference table inside an airy room of his millworking shop off La. 16 in Denham Springs, elbows perched on the table, hands folded.
His eyes light up when he talks about his family, especially his wife and young daughters, Alayna, 11, and Mia, 5. He loves traditional family time at their Watson home, and hunting and fishing at a second home in Woodville, Mississippi. And he loves his job.
Foster took over the company in 2004, a year after his father was hospitalized.
“I was in my last year at Southeastern University when I got the call,” Foster says. “My dad was in the hospital for 64 days for blood clots. Thirty days into his hospital stay, I told him I wasn’t going back. I needed to help him. So I did, and I never finished college.”
His father recovered and Foster became a young business owner.
“It’s very important to understand that I did not give him this company,” says “Big Dog” Foster, 62. “He bought it himself. He worked for it, and he worked hard for it.”
During his first couple years as owner, Foster discovered new software and technology that helped increase production, and he learned how to run a tight ship. In 2006, he fired six of his nine employees. Being young and in charge did not come without challenges.
“There’s an older generation in this industry, and I was younger and saw ways to do it differently,” says Foster. “At first it was hard to fit in, but it did happen, and it helped grow me. And I continued to grow.”
In August 2016, one day after completing a lengthy, $1 million custom cabinetry job on 62 suites at the New Orleans Superdome, Foster’s shop flooded. Nearly six feet of water swamped his shop.
“We lost everything we had and not only that, a third of our employees’ homes were flooded,” says Foster. “I needed revenue, and I needed people to know that we were going to be OK.”
Foster was in the middle of renovating Patrick F. Taylor Hall on LSU’s campus when the shop flooded.
“I needed a sander, and I needed to finish that job so we could continue to pay our employees,” he says.
A vendor Foster knew connected him with Jeremy McCutchen, owner of J-Kraft Inc., a custom cabinet maker with shops in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
And this is where loyalty met humility.
“It takes a special person to ask for help,” says McCutchen. “If I see something broke, I have to fix it, and he is the same way. We clicked and became friends within a day. He is the kind of person you would call at 3 a.m. and he would be there.”
Foster, his father and Choppin drove to Houston to borrow a sander from McCutchen to keep the job on track. And McCutchen returned with them to Louisiana, helping his new friends rebuild their office and homes of people in Denham Springs.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston one year later, Foster returned the favor, traveling with his family to Houston to cook for those who flooded and donate supplies.
“They were not even back up and running themselves and they came here and gave to us,” McCutchen says. “They are good, good people.”
Next year, Foster and his 46 employees will move into a new and bigger millworking shop under construction at Florida Boulevard and Juban Road. Close to Interstate 12, it’s the perfect location for residential and commercial clients from across the south to meet a young man with an old moral compass navigating a new path.
“I have never met anyone more ethical, more do right, more passionate than Chad,” says John Christian Williams, president of JCW, a marketing company that works with Foster. “He believes in waking up in the morning and doing the right thing.”
What drove me to be successful?
Tenacity and the ability to change has led to Chad Foster’s success.
“My father always told me you only get one name in this world,” Foster says. “Do the right thing and everything falls into place. And if there is one thing constant in life, it’s change. If you don’t change, the world can’t evolve.”
Foster is not afraid of change. He welcomes it. And he is usually the first one asking questions and seeking answers. Those answers help him navigate his career and life.
There’s a quote by American poet Maya Angelou that reads, “When you learn, teach, when you get, give.” Foster is more than familiar with this quote. He understands that his place in this world is bigger than him.
“We have a duty as humans to leave something better than we found it,” he says. “We need to share our knowledge. That is the only way we can change is to educate and help each other.”