Although only 44 when he died from a massive heart attack in 1960, H. Carl Buchan established the foundation for a company that profoundly impacted life in Wilkes County.
Born in Pinehurst a century ago this month (Nov. 27), Buchan moved to Wilkes in the 1940s when he and his brother-in-law, Jim Lowe, became co-owners of the hardware store that Lowe’s father started in North Wilkesboro in 1921.
When he bought out his brother-in-law’s interest in 1952, Buchan became sole owner of Lowe’s Hardware. He was unleashed to pursue his ambitious plans for the company’s growth and hire people to make it happen.
Buchan’s talents as an innovative thinker became apparent in the 1950s when he challenged the practice of retailers having to buy goods from wholesalers and other middlemen rather than direct from manufacturers. Fair Trade laws in several states protected the practice he challenged.
Buchan adopted the phrase, “direct to user” or “DTU,” which meant lower retail prices by buying direct from cooperating manufacturers. Federal legislation eventually ended Fair Trade laws.
He also was a great believer in any technology that could increase efficiency and keep costs down. Every Lowe’s store in the 1950s had an IBM 402 accounting machine, a workhorse of American business in that decade.
Buchan’s gifts included an ability to recognize talent and let people exercise it rather than micromanage.
“One of the things that made Carl Buchan an unusual entrepreneur is that once he had a team in place, he trusted us to do our jobs,” wrote Leonard Herring of North Wilkesboro in his book, “My Link In The Chain.”
Herring, retired Lowe’s president and CEO, added, “Most entrepreneurs have a hard time letting go; they think they have to oversee everything and make every decision.”
He also said Buchan was simultaneously a genius at empowerment and control.
“He would empower people to do something, then put in controls to make sure it would get done right,” said Herring in an interview for “No Place Like Lowe’s,” a history of the company’s first 50 years.
Before his unexpected death, Buchan put in place a five-member executive committee consisting of Herring in finance, Joe Reinhardt in distribution and data processing, Pete Kulynych in purchasing, Robert Strickland in marketing and Johnny Walker in sales.
These five shared Buchan’s dream of creating a national retail chain and after Buchan died led the company as a team until Herring was named president and CEO.
The team carried out Buchan’s intentions of implementing a profit sharing plan with annual dividends for employees, as opposed to a plan that didn’t pay out until retirement The plan was based on Buchan’s belief that a company was more likely to prosper if its employees had a definite stake in its fortunes.
Under the plan, Lowe’s paid 15 percent of an employee’s salary and the employee paid nothing. Ninety percent of this money was then invested for the employee in Lowe’s stock.
An employee could retire from Lowe’s after working 15 years and receive all of this stock. With the way Lowe’s stock increased in value, this made a lot of people wealthy.
The key to the plan was an agreement establishing terms under which the Lowe’s Profit Sharing Plan and Trust would buy Buchan’s Lowe’s stock from his estate after he died. This would let Lowe’s employees own the company while also provide for Buchan’s wife and daughter.
Under the agreement, the stock was to be sold to the trust at 10 times Lowe’s earnings for the average of the preceding three years.
The problem was that when Buchan died, the agreement was laid out in draft form and hadn’t been signed yet. The Lowe’s leadership team successfully argued in court that the agreement was valid based on an oral contract with Buchan.
Edith Richardson of Sparta, vice president of the profit sharing plan, said Buchan “wanted everybody to feel like they were part of the company and believed you produce more if you own something…. He wanted all to have their fair share.”
Richardson said Buchan started a college loan fund for children of Lowe’s employees.
She went to work for Lowe’s in 1949 when the company bought Sparta Farm Supply, making it the second Lowe’s store. Richardson was the first female Lowe’s employee and worked 23 of her 25 years with Lowe’s as office manager of the Charlotte store.
Bob Black of Piney Creek, a Lowe’s employee from 1955 until he retired in the 1970s, said Buchan was ambitious and liked people who worked hard, but also enjoyed sharing and helping others.
He said Buchan started a Boy Scout troop for youths in the area just north of what now is Wilkes Regional Medical Center and made Black the scoutmaster.
Black quoted Buchan as saying, “I can only eat one meal at a time and wear one suit at a time. Whatever I make, I want to share with the employees.” He said the Lowe’s profit sharing plan was uniquely generous.
Ed Greene of Wilkesboro, who went to work for Lowe’s as a sales trainee in 1954 and retired as a senior vice president in 1984, said Buchan “recognized people for what they did…. He was for fairness.”
Greene started out at the Lowe’s store on C Street, North Wilkesboro. He managed other stores before he was transferred to corporate headquarters in North Wilkesboro in 1966. Greene said Buchan’s legacy never received the recognition it deserved. Buchan was inducted into the Wilkes County Hall of Fame in 2015, after Greene nominated him.
Richardson, Black and Greene are former Lowe’s employees in the Carl Buchan Club, started in 1976 as a means for former Lowe’s employees to stay in touch with each other.
Most of the club’s annual dues are used to assist needy students with scholarships to Wilkes and seven other community colleges.
Bryan Pugh, president of the club, said over $10,000 has been raised for the scholarship fund in honor of Buchan’s birthday.