The gray, industrial staircase up to Corbett Companies headquarters still in use today was salvaged decades ago from the nearby World War II Liberty ships.
Corbett employees who climb these stairs daily – some with almost half a century of dedicated service – offer easy smiles and warm Heys.
At the top when you learn of the 55,000-plus acres of Corbett-owned land acquired over three generations, you realize you’re not only witnessing one of North Carolina’s most trusted and reliable timber companies and brands but also one of its most enduring historical threads.
“My grandfather, W.A. Corbett, moved the family from Atkinson in Pender County to Wilmington in 1927,” says Al Corbett, partner at Corbett Companies. “He only had an eighth grade education but knew for the betterment of his six children and their future that they had to move to the big city.”
Once in that big city – in a downtown home on Market Street, to be precise – the Corbetts began prospering in all sorts of ways, beginning with the re-establishment of The Corbett Package Company, located on the same Castle Hayne Road property where Corbett Companies exists today.
Here, the company produced wood baskets for produce shipment all across the nation.
In a presentation given to Wachovia’s Board of Directors in May 1936, W.A. noted that the Corbett Package Company – “our oldest and most outstanding company” – manufactured approximately 6,000,000 baskets annually and had 250 full-time employees.”
In the same presentation, W.A. reported that Corbett “owned in excess of 75,000 acres of land, the majority located within 50 miles of Wilmington, and was growing approximately 8,000,000 feet of timber each year.”
Market diversification through commercial flower growing (tulips and gladiolas), truck farming and a sweet potato canning plant soon followed, as did the entry of W.A.’s three sons – Horace, Waddell and Wilbur – into the family business.
“They made quite a team,” says Eddie Corbett, president of Corbett Companies and Al’s cousin. “Waddell was the accountant, Horace was the salesman, and Wilbur was the visionary who could see upcoming trends.”
Back then, trends included advances in the timber industry, wire crate production and freighting. Today’s trends have come to include the increasingly high-tech world of wood biomass procurement.
As the family business grew and its entrepreneurial interests expanded, however, the Corbetts never forgot their roots. Which is why in 1948 W.A. purchased the 100-plus acre, Live Oak-laden Airlie Gardens near Wrightsville Beach.
“My grandfather wanted his children and grandchildren to be close,” says Al. “Airlie brought the family together.”
And though the Corbetts sold Airlie in 1999, one could say the same spirit that inspired its purchase – and the creation of so many other Corbett family endeavors – lives proudly and firmly on today.
“People come first at Corbett,” says Hunter, managing director of Corbett Timber Companies. “We’ve had employees spend their entire careers with us, and now some of their sons and daughters work here.”
Fair dealing, says Eddie, is the cornerstone of Corbett Companies.
“If you tell someone you’re going to do something, you do it,” he says.
Common to all Corbetts is the love of seeing things grow, says Al.
And that means timber and timber by-products for a variety of different and increasingly global markets, which back in W.A.’s earliest days might have been unthinkable.
“I see us always being involved with timber,” says Hunter. “Our footprint here is – and always has been – big.”