Charles O. Gordon, Jr.
Class of 1969, BS
As a boy, Chuck Gordon and his sister were corralled into the family car on football game days and traveled the more than 100-mile one-way trek to Virginia Tech. In the 1950s, that meant meandering along a two-lane, Route 11 for hours, watching a three-hour game, and then arriving back home in Johnson City, Tennessee, much later the same day to avoid a motel bill. And Chuck loved it.
“As a little guy coming to the games, I saw Virginia Tech as a military school. I loved to watch the Corps march by and all the other pre-game activities,” Mr. Gordon recalls. His father’s love of the university was contagious, and the visits helped the young boy define his life-long game plan well before he was accepted into the industrial engineering (IE) program at Virginia Tech.
“Dad impressed upon me that I needed to be a good student in order to get into Virginia Tech. He said industrial engineering would give me a good education for the family manufacturing business. So I concentrated in math, science, and physics, applied only to Virginia Tech, and knew that when I graduated, I would come back home to our family business.”
By 15, he had gotten his feet wet with Gordon’s Inc., the furniture manufacturing company established by his father, also an IE graduate, after World War II. Their clients soon included Macy’s and Marshall Fields, along with furniture retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada. The young Gordon would report to work after high school and during the summer.
“I worked from one end of the factory to the other, from the lumber yard to the finishing room. I worked with individuals who were highly skilled, but usually not well educated. They loved and respected my Dad because he spent a lot of time in the plant, so they readily took me under their wings. It was fascinating to see how boards of raw lumber could be made into beautiful pieces of furniture,” Mr. Gordon says.
By the time he enrolled at Virginia Tech, he understood manufacturing processes, had an insider’s knowledge of what he was studying, and possessed a private pilot’s license. After he graduated in 1970, he helped double the size of the family company within about 15 years, from less than 200 to more than 400 employees. “We became well-known for our unique designs and the quality of our occasional furniture. These are tables and cabinets for the living room areas,” Mr. Gordon says.
In the early 1970s, as the company’s vice-president, he added some business courses to his skills, enrolling at the Executive Institute at the University of North Carolina, and later at Harvard. “This gave me the business background that allowed us to grow our company through marketing and managing our unique brand and style,” he adds. He became president in 1982.
Having attained his Airline Transport Pilots rating, he was able to fly the corporate plane to meetings around the country, influencing the company’s growth.
By the early 1980s, his two brothers were working at the family business, and Chuck recalls “it was a really good time.” With their father, they also owned the Tri-City Beverage Corp., and a few other entities, so they formed a holding company, Bydand Corp. Chuck became Bydand’s vice-president in 1984, and president in 2002.
While Mr. Gordon was running the furniture company, another prominent Virginia Tech IE graduate, Charlie O’Brien, who was then the executive vice-president of Thomasville Furniture of North Carolina, owned by Armstrong World, approached him with a business proposition. The alums, also both members of the Virginia Tech German Club, held several conversations about a convergence of their companies.
“Retailers had advised Charlie to talk to me about our tables, and the possibility of supplying them to Thomasville,” Mr. Gordon relays. The dialogue led to Thomasville acquiring Gordon’s Inc., and Mr. Gordon stayed on for another nine years. Within the first year and a half he was given the responsibility for another one of their subsidiaries, Thomasville Upholstery Inc., for a total of six manufacturing plants. When Mr. O’Brien retired, Mr. Gordon took his place, in charge of 17 Thomasville facilities in four states with over 4500 employees.
Armstrong sold Thomasville in 1996 and, a year later, Mr. Gordon returned to his family’s entrepreneurial roots and acquired the High Point, North Carolina-located Giorgio Collection, Ltd., a line of high-end Italian furniture produced in Italy and marketed in the U.S. “I had always kept in touch with some Italian furniture friends of mine, so we designed a line of bedroom and dining room furniture that had a well-defined European contemporary style. Since most of the retailers knew me, we were able to quickly advance our collections onto their floors,” Mr. Gordon says, and the furniture that was dedicated to a special niche of clients is still operating today. However, he decided in 2006 to sell his ownership of the company, and returned to Johnson City to run Tri-City Beverage.
Founded in 1949 by his father, Tri-City Beverage, developer of the Mountain Dew brand, has also produced the popular energy drink Dr. Enuf since the year it opened for business. A bottle of Dr. Enuf is advertised as having 260 percent of the daily requirement of B1, 90 percent of vitamin B3, and 80 percent of potassium iodine. In the past four years, Mr. Gordon has tripled the output of this plant, and the business has more than doubled. Tri-City beverage is also known now as a contract bottler, including such well-known brands of Canada Dry, White Rock, A&W Root Beer, and SunDrop. “We have been able to maintain a busy schedule throughout this weak economy,” he acknowledges.
Mr. Gordon says he is “happy to be back” in one of the same family businesses he knew as a teenager. “As an entrepreneur, I can continue a productive work schedule and still have time for personal interests. The manufacturing and marketing challenges are now more fun than they are work, and I can do the other things when I want.”
One of the “other things” is his love of music. As a teenager, he appreciated the music of the country and mountain folk who worked in the furniture plant, and he also played in a rock & roll band in high school. When he returned to Johnson City after graduating from Virginia Tech, he took an interest in the violin that he often turned into a fiddle. He successfully auditioned for the local symphony, playing the more classical style and remained with the highbrows for the next six years. But every once in awhile, he could still be heard picking on the five-string banjo or bluegrass guitar.
After a lengthy hiatus from playing music formally, one of his fellow musicians from his high school band days called him to play at their 1998 reunion. This gig inspired the two of them to regroup, adding some other serious musicians, and formed The Spirit of Soul Dance Band, an 11-piece group specializing in the R&B and soul music of the '60s and '70s. Chuck and his friend Bill still play both lead and rhythm guitars as they did some 45 years earlier, and the band is fast becoming one of the most popular groups in the three-state region surrounding East Tennessee.
Mr. Gordon and his wife Betsy remain active in a number of civic projects as well as Virginia Tech endeavors. Among the latter, they serve on the National Campaign Steering Committee for the Campaign for Virginia Tech, acting as campaign co-chairs for the Greensboro/Winston Salem Region. It is difficult to find a family more supportive of Virginia Tech than the Gordons, with three generations of the family serving as members of the University’s prestigious Ut Prosim Society.
As his father did, Mr. Gordon passed on his love of Virginia Tech to his twin children, “dragging them to the football games” at an early age but on a much better highway. His son Charles, graduating in 2004, received a masters in marketing and research in 2007 and is employed at Moog in Blacksburg. His daughter Elizabeth graduated in 2004 and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2008, and is now practicing medicine in Tennessee. For their twins’ graduation presents, Chuck and Betsy presented the university with a mobile sports medical X-ray imaging unit that can be transported to various athletic venues.
Chuck is a member of the engineering department’s Committee of 100, the ISE Academy of Distinguished Alumni and has served on the ISE Advisory Board. He is a past member of the Virginia Tech Foundation Board and its Alumni Board, and has been a long-standing member of the German Club Alumni Foundation Board.
Back home, Mr. Gordon has been active in Rotary International and is a Paul Harris Fellow. He was on the advisory boards of the Johnson City Medical Center, First Tennessee Bank and the National Association of Manufacturers. In North Carolina, he served on the High Point Salvation Army Advisory Board and as president of Grandfather Golf and Country Club. He is a Master Mason and Past Master.
Chuck Gordon’s induction into the Academy of Engineering Excellence comes 12 years after his late father’s, a member of the inaugural group, and they represent the first father-son membership in the Academy.
Class of: 1969
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011