This is not David Twite. This is Mel Schmits. Mel hauls lumber for MacDonald & Owen Lumber Company ad hoc and with a standing order every Wednesday that takes him from Sparta, Wisconsin, to Sisseton, South Dakota, typically via the northwestward swath of I-94 though currently via I-90 West and I-10 North, typically a less efficient route but preferable to I-94’s interminable traffic clogs, detours, and off- and on-ramping due to heavy road work. Some eight hours later, Mel will pull his rig up to Woodland Cabinetry in Sisseton. Woodland ranks among MacDonald & Owen’s top five customers, purchasing about 15,000 board feet of high-grade lumber each week.A year’s typical mileage is 75,000 to 80,000, and Mel has been at the job for 15 years. He has amassed upward of 1.25 million miles.1 The surfeit of miles notwithstanding, Mel’s not retiring anytime soon.
Mel can tell you every detail about his three rigs, down to the current depth of their tire treads— today’s ride is the Peterbilt tractor, 1/28 inch, and the Transcraft trailer, 1/10 inch. This information flows as effortlessly as his name. Mel can talk trucks for as long as someone will listen. If you want to know what’s under the hood, all of Mel’s three tractors house 500 horsepower Caterpillar engines. Mel says they are good for about a million miles. He says that once they hit a million, he will overhaul them and ride them for a million more. Because he’s a chuckler, you might be tempted to take this as an exaggeration because who ever heard of anything lasting a million anything; but though chuckling may be natural to his demeanor, when Mel is talking trucking he is 100 percent true to his word. Sincerity is not punctuation by solemn faces in Sparta, Wisconsin, where most everything is delivered with a smile if not a chuckle.
Mel shuffles slowly in place, leaving small black smudges on the concrete floor while Ryan Zillmer drives his forklift in the same general manner as one would a sedan, backing up with his right arm extended, looking over his shoulder, and steering with the palm of his hand pressed against the wheel. He deftly loads a pack of 2 × 12-inch walnut boards onto the trailer of Mel’s rig.
‘I love the life,’ Mel says. He gives Ryan a long, blank stare and then his signature wide-mouthed, toothy smile before ducking into the tractor and taking note of the miles on the odometer in a small spiral notebook.
Mel speaks nothing but good about his 10 years working with MacDonald & Owen, and his inflections reveal much of the same respect and admiration he has for the trucks and the trailers.
‘Of all my clients, MacDonald & Owen, they’re the most courteous. They’re conscientious; they pay well and on time, and they take good care of me.’ Mel is referring to a specific practice of Ryan Zillmer’s, who approaches the inevitable when-life-happens moments uniquely. If a trucker is going to be late for a pickup—not just 6 p.m. late but midnight late if that’s the case—you might expect that someone’s going to be very upset. Ryan’s drivers know how to reach him day and night and are thanked kindly for arriving at any hour, which you have to agree is kind of rare. It is a rare sort of reversal, the conflating of the client and vendor responsibilities. ‘You don’t hear anyone saying, Well that’s your problem, isn’t it,’ says Ryan.
Mel says, ‘There aren’t many clients that we’re going to drop whatever we’re doing to accommodate, but we do for MacDonald & Owen.’
1 1,250,000 miles is the equivalent length of 3.5 billion standard-sized AAA-issue road maps of the US laid end to end or 19 trips around the actual globe, but surprisingly, and admittedly conservatively, equivalent to the lifetimes of six sets of good solid tires. Mel buys Michelin. Mel’s conviction for the brands he purchases are so direct and absolute that I needn’t shop around for my next set of tires; I am a sworn convert to Michelin. If Mel were to recommend ice cream, I think I would go right out and buy it, no questions asked.
Ryan Zillmer came to MacDonald & Owen in 2004. He says that David Twite’s generosity is no ruse. He is sincere about providing real opportunities for the advancement and the betterment of his employees, and his wages are unselfish and fair with fair expectations attached.
‘I didn’t graduate high school. I didn’t go to college. But I’ve held a good job that I’ve enjoyed for 10 years, and I’m getting paid well to do it. I’m not sure how to piece that puzzle together, but it makes me feel like I’ve achieved something. It’s David letting me know in a very meaningful way that my efforts matter. I’ve worked tons of other places. They are not structured the same as this place is. It’s different here. This has been a life-changing job. I grew up here. As the company has grown, so have I. That’s why I come in and do what I do—loading trucks after hours and on weekends. This place is like home to me. I have a family here, and I care about this family. I want us all to be successful and I’ll do what it takes to make that happen.’
Ryan’s cell phone number is taped to the window at the docks so truckers can contact him at odd hours. ‘If my willingness to be flexible with load times allows drivers to off-load a job early and maybe see some additional profit, maybe that helps out some at home.’ He says that it is Twite’s influence at work, the philosophy that says just do good, nothing else, no reason, no reward. Just do good things. ‘I try to do good things,’ says Ryan, ‘maybe I’m helping someone out.’
‘THINGS RYAN ZILLMER CAN DO WITH A FORKLIFT BUT HAS NOT DONE NOR WOULD HE EVER DO WITH MACDONALD & OWEN EQUIPMENT BECAUSE HE UNDERSTANDS THE CONCEPT OF MISFEASANCE AND WOULD PREFER NOT TO BRING INJURY OR CONFLICT TO THE WORK ENVIRONMENT.’
Ryan says that after a certain number of hours ‘you become one with your machine.’ He’s speaking in a way that doesn’t make you think he’s just come back from a Star Wars convention. This is his way of saying that if you sit in the seat long enough you get pretty familiar. ‘I’ve had truckers say I’m the best they’ve ever seen. Lots of them say that to me. I can even manage a couple of tricks: I can do wheelies in reverse and I can split packs of lumber in two.’
Michael Ladenthin first signed on to MacDonald & Owen’s sales and purchasing team in 2009. He worked the phones diligently and paid prospects visits for three years before giving it a go at another sales desk elsewhere. Three months later, at a standing softball game with his former colleagues, Clint West and Adam Hyer (MacDonald & Owen’s general manager and its international sales manager, respectively), Michael confided that while softball was his game, sales probably was not. West and Hyer were upbeat and mentioned a current opening on the production line back at MacDonald & Owen. Michael was encouraged by his former co-workers’ nonjudgmental and upbeat response—it was part of what drew him to the company in 2009. He received a call the next day offering him the job.
‘I imagine it must have been a difficult decision for David to make to have me back. But then again, doing something like that is entirely in character for him. I owe a lot to David’s inability to hold a grudge, even for a moment. I got a second chance to work with a crew that I should never have left. It was, and I mean this literally, like I never stepped out the door that day three months prior.’
An even temperament seems intrinsic to Twite’s character; it isn’t put on or managed or a matter of controlling his emotions, he is simply not one to get riled up over things that are beyond his control.
Michael says, ‘I think that if I drove the forklift into a wall or plowed into the rip saw or some other piece of equipment, David’s response wouldn’t be much more than ‘shoot.’ I mean, even a gaffe like that and, provided it was accidental, I doubt I’d lose my job.’
Jen Wulf is MacDonald & Owen’s chief operating officer, which essentially means that most everything falls to her. That she likes and appreciates the challenes the work brings notwithstanding, she is a mother of three, and they are all under five. That she is a valuable asset to the team who would not be easily replaced notwithstanding, her commitment to her family far outweighs her commitment to her job. Twite has said many times over that he ‘cares more about us as individuals than he does about the work that we do for his company,’ says Jen. It should come as no surprise that Twite allows Jen a nontraditional four-day work week.
‘I work four days a week so I can spend three days being a mom,’ says Jen. ‘It’s still hard to juggle, but David has kids of his own, and he has that perspective to draw on—that kids are young for only so long, that the investment now means I return more dedicated and harder working and committed than before, and that’s saying a lot.’
Jen says, ‘Last week a customer stopped by wanting to speak with David, who was not in the office at that particular moment. The customer shrugged and said he wasn’t surprised, and, of course, it wasn’t necessary for David to show up every day—that was why he had a staff. But he does show up every day. And there’s another way to look at it. It has less to do with trust, from either perspective, and everything to do with having a staff whom he cares enough about to show up for every day. It’s a rare thing to make yourself so available.’
Years ago, Twite and Randy Shafer both worked in Bangor, Wisconsin, Randy for Coulee Region Hardwoods as a lumber inspector and foreman, Twite and Clint West for MacDonald & Owen, whose office space was located next door. This was a time marked by Randy’s practice of cutting the sleeves off his T-shirts, answering to the name ‘Rambo,’ and making trouble for the law.
Randy has a drinking problem and a record to prove it. Forever an advocate for the underdog, David has always liked him. After he came to work for MacDonald & Owen, and for a time, Randy worked days and served jail time evenings and on weekends.
‘I talked with David on breaks during the workweek, and that really helped. Not just the big conversations,’ says Randy, ‘Sometimes it’s the small things that David says or remembers, and I’m floored. I’m just floored. He always asks about my mom. He knows that means something to me, and he makes a point of asking. The thing is, it’s not just a passing remark. He stops and looks me in the eye. He says, How’s your mom, Randy? Then he waits for the answer. How many people do you know who wait for the answer?’
Jen says, ‘Randy came to us and we helped him unpack some old baggage. This is the culture. We all care about each other enough that it’s easier just to let it out and say so; then we’re all coming at it from the same affirming place.’
Randy keeps himself busy making birdhouses from scrap wood from the shop. He has built 23 in the past month. He puts them on a trailer on his front lawn with a sign that says $30. ‘Anything to stay sober,’ he says.
Randy likes to flex his arms, pushing his fists together and grimacing, a parody of what he was like ‘back in the day’ when he liked to get into bar fights, but he can hold the pose for only so long before he cracks himself up.
David Twite’s gait has a quality that calls to mind the word buoyant. He enters the shop in a manner reminiscent of first days back to school and first days of summer. His bag trails him, its strap tugging on the fabric at the yoke of his shirt. He takes long, ambitious strides, then stops abruptly and clasps his thighs, maybe winded, maybe struck with a thought, maybe annoyed with the pull of the bag. He looks up through an abundance of thick brown hair and gives the room his consideration.
Randy is standing a short distance away to Twite’s left. He extends his right hand to Randy who takes it and answers a few birdhouse-related questions. Twite wraps his left arm over Randy’s shoulder and pulls him in. ‘Your Mom is good?’ says Twite
‘I’ll tell her you asked, David. She appreciates it when you ask.’
‘But she’s good?’
‘She’s good, David. She’s real good.’
Twite adjusts the bag and pushes through several doors fitted with windows from the waist up, presumably so you can see him coming when he approaches, as he does now, backward, engaged in conversation and reaching behind him to work the latches.
‘I didn’t go to business school,’ he volunteers. ‘Business schools teach statistics and technique, but they miss the mark when it comes to what defines a good leader. You can’t teach a man to love; but the ability and willingness to accept employees as people who respond to genuine expressions of caring is intrinsic to responsible leadership. My point is this: we don’t hear the word love enough. When Randy grimaces and presses his fists together, we all say, I love you; and he either laughs at his joke or he gets a little misty because he knows we mean it.
‘I have the best job I can think of,’ he says. ‘I get to love the 24 people who work in this building every day.’
And, here’s what’s remarkable: he means it.
Twite’s office is not much to look at. There are no special appointments, not a hint that would out him as the president of a $50 million lumber company. The offices themselves are standard fare, and the seats all around are more often empty than full. Twite and his team are objects in transit. In fact, Twite is so often away from his desk that he has developed deftness with his mobile texting device to rival that of a 16-year-old. The profits are funneled back into the company, its workers, and the equipment that will make them more accurate and efficient.
Twite says he was for a long time a selfish businessman who measured success in ostentatious wealth and how much the accumulation impressed the neighbors, who didn’t much care. Asked how he had defined success, Twite ticked the trappings of his good fortune off his fingertips but ultimately came up empty when, pressed by a friend who asked had Twite only five days to live, what would be most important to him, the trappings fell away and he found himself profoundly lost for an answer. Twite quotes Henry David Thoreau and grants him great insight for saying, ‘[the mass of men lead] lives of quiet desperation.’
He also evokes John Paul Getty, in contrast, who on his deathbed was asked, ‘How much money, Mr. Getty, is ever enough?’ to which he famously responded, ‘just a little bit more.’ Twite delivers the line earnestly, Getty’s words as both humorous and sad.
‘There is no peace in that,’ he says.
Ultimately, what Twite would attempt to achieve daily up to and through those five days, whenever they would be, was significance. He defines significance in terms of his relationships, transcendent of accumulation. Nurturing those relationships by actively investing his time and resources, he could see a realistic path to a more relevant life. In five days, if you think hard enough, most of us could do some significant good for others; alternatively, if you take to your bucket list and ponder it in consideration of the five-day scenario, there is not much sense to a quick jaunt to Paris because whether you die on your living room sofa or while strolling along the Champs-Élysées, even your memory of the experience is another in the long list of what ultimately amounts to null. But your significance, your significance can live on.
Twite is also a man who has been at the side of his wife, Tracy, for 27 years, who has raised four natural born children. Seven years ago at the age of 47 he and Tracy adopted a baby girl named MacKenzie and only last year they adopted a boy named Bentley. He describes it in terms of an adventure that you can experience eyes wide open or shut tight: ‘You can miss an awesome experience that you would never have known you couldn’t live without.’
Ask Twite how he comes to know others, strangers to him, so intimately, so fast.
‘I bump into people,’ he says. He means this in the active and purposeful sense, his fearlessness of asking questions others shy away from, thinking it impolite to probe too deeply.
‘I’m also very curious.’
It’s something you can see in his eyes. It may rank very highly among his desires, this wont to know people, not for gossip’s sake but because he is a student of humanity. Learning what makes people tick is Twite’s heart. He is devout; five minutes in his good company guarantees you elite access to his gregarious soul. He is also a very good salesman, which he attributes to nature, something he is—something that can’t help but suit him because it is intrinsic. The combination would lead most to think him hell-bent on getting you into heaven.
‘I have about as much control over that as I do the size of your feet,’ says Twite. ‘I share my experiences. I share them because they never cease to amaze and excite me. And I share them because I have an awful lot of them every day.’
Merely hearing about the extent to which Twite is actively involved in daily compassionate acts leaves you exhausted. Exhausted and thankful that someone is taking on the work that most of us want to see done but cannot take on ourselves. Twite’s work is primarily to do with troubled teens, but no one is turned away based on their cause demographic. That’s another thing unique to David Twite’s approach to the bettering the world. He doesn’t take on causes, he takes on people.
Hai Lam spent more than a year as a POW in North Vietnam. After escaping from the POW camp, Hai and some 36 other refugees made their way to Cambodia. They lost half their number during the two-year trek, some to disease, others to jungle cats. The Viet Cong were said to patrol the Cambodian border indiscriminately. Few questions were asked, and few requests for proof of citizenship were made. Decisions were ad hoc; those assumed to be Cambodian passed unquestioned; those assumed to be Vietnamese escapees were killed outright.
From Cambodia, and with the help of various agencies and sponsorships, Hai landed in Philadelphia where he tended a hotdog stand. He eventually found his way to La Crosse, where he found work washing dishes at the Peking Chinese restaurant. He watched the cook while he worked. One day when the cook did not show up, Hai volunteered to pinch-hit. It went well, and after some time Hai and his wife, Chang, bought the Gyro King in the Valley View Mall in Onalaska. To their benefit the couple added Chinese food to the menu, and the Gyro King became a popular destination with the locals. This is where Twite would come to truly understand significance, in a Gyro King in Onalaska, 15 miles outside of Sparta, when he met Hai Lam.
The restaurant was a favorite of Twite’s, and he visited often. Because he was such a good customer, the Lams would keep a homemade brown sauce on hand that was suited to his taste. Every time the Twite family came to dine, Chang brought out an egg roll for the baby.
Over time, Twite and Hai told their stories. Twite, unafraid to ask questions and of the mind that there is nothing inappropriate to ask because one can always refuse to answer, learned about Hai’s experiences in Vietnam and admired him for his conviction, for not giving up on life amid unimaginable tragedy, for moving forward undaunted.
‘I try to put myself in someone else’s—, I try to understand others’ circumstances. We think we know how other people suffer. I don’t know anything. We like to say that it hurts to see others suffer. It’s all lip service. You can’t be the guy who’s suffering. I’m not going to pretend I know what someone is truly feeling, but I try. I get in there and try.’
Soon Twite would stop by the restaurant at the end of Hai’s shift just to talk. Hai and Chang were invited to the Twites’ for holidays. Chang was never without small trinkets for the children, and she seemed to carry with her an endless supply of egg rolls for the baby.
The Lams were so demonstrative with their love that the Twites couldn’t help but love them back. Twite became so impressed with Hai and his life and the struggle and the victory in it that it stirred in him a desire to help the family in any way he could.
‘Hai and Chang became part of our Easters, Christmases, and Thanksgivings; those were the only days they had off work. I would regularly meet with Hai. I never set out to teach him English, but I am sure his English got better as we spent time together. I assisted Hai when the mall where the store was located failed to renew his rental agreement because the landlords were not impressed with all the equipment he had jammed into a small space, and he had an attorney who failed to advise him that they would not be renewing his lease.’
Twite helped Hai and Chang relocate to another facility.
In 1996 Hai had saved enough to sponsor the extradition of his sons, Bona and Sina, from Vietnam. He was up against US governmental red tape and Vietnamese governmental corruption. Twite immediately contacted Steve Gunderson, a close friend and longstanding member of the US House of Representatives, representing Wisconsin’s third congressional district. Gunderson contacted the Vietnamese Consulate of Immigration. Gunderson’s intervention got things moving. In 48 hours, Bona and Sina were on a plane to America.
Their first night in Sparta, Twite took Bona and Sina to a grocery store. They had only 48 hours prior been living in a hut in the rice fields of central Vietnam. That night they learned their first English words: banana, garbage can, and orange.
Twite accepts credit for helping Bona and Sina get to the United States but demurs should you suggest that his contribution was fundamental to a positive outcome.
Bona worked at Webster Industries in Bangor from 1997 to 1999, then at a local dry cleaner, before coming to MacDonald & Owen in April 2002.
‘Bona is now our best lumber inspector. He grades boards like a madman,’ says Twite. ‘It’s an art, and Bona is a master. He is awesome and will have a job as long as there is grass on the earth.’
Bona embraces all things American. He is something of a dandy; his dress is more suited to grander occasions than grading boards. He dances and sings as he grades; it helps his English, which though not perfect, is more than serviceable. Recently he returned to Vietnam for a visit and was teased for his poor Vietnamese. He said it took a few days for his Vietnamese to come back to him—he says he ‘thinks in English’ now.
In 2012 when the MacDonald & Owen Brookville, Pennsylvania plant was looking for graders, Bona said yes. He wanted more responsibility and influence. Hai and Chang now live in Florida. Ask Twite what was it was like to say goodbye, and he is uncharacteristically silent.
In 1980 Archie MacDonald called 20-year-old Twite and offered him a job in the lumber trade; it struck Twite as a dull career choice, but he took the job anyway. Soon after Twite started, MacDonald pulled Twite from the line and told him he was hired to sell, which was no small relief to Twite. He would not know it for many years, but MacDonald had bumped into Twite and given him the opportunity to hone his craft, to do what he would come to love, because it was what he did best.
Twite thrived. In 1997, at 37 years old, Twite was offered and purchased one-half of MacDonald & Owen and took full responsibility for sales and operations, as MacDonald inched away, collecting profits. Soon thereafter he and Twite drafted a buy/sell agreement for MacDonald & Owen in full, but at the last minute MacDonald asked for changes to the agreement to his significant benefit. Twite sought the advice of a trusted friend and resolved that he would act in accordance with his advice.
‘Do the right thing,’ he was told. ‘Do the right thing and give him what he wants.’
Twite and MacDonald had the agreement altered. Twite signed and MacDonald & Owen was under new ownership.
Although agreements had already been worked out, although the company had ostensibly been under Twite’s sole management for six years, and although Twite was solely responsible for revenues, maintenance, and growth, Twite quietly let go, but he couldn’t help but ponder the lesson: How was this the right thing?
When Twite was having reservations about adopting MacKenzie, it wasn’t until he held her in his arms that he knew that by having faith he had done the right thing. Soon after the sale, MacDonald was diagnosed with ALS; he suffered badly for two years and then died. Twite was grateful for the ease between them and glad to be of some comfort to an old friend during his last years.
It might be said that there was a greater debt of gratitude to be paid to Archie MacDonald, who had bumped into a 20-year-old kid because he saw something unique. Maybe it was MacDonald who put Twite on the road to significance.
Now Twite is content—content but not complacent. The burden of keeping current with the latest-issue electronics is gone; he takes instead the greater pleasure of his wife and children, six in all, four natural and two adopted. MacKenzie, seven years old, and Bentley, just one, are the result of Tracy’s convictions, her desire to be significant.
Ask Twite on his deathbed how much significance in life is enough, and he might think to quote Getty again, only this time his tone would be brighter: ‘just a little bit more.’