An Unbroken Man
04/10/2013 9:33 AM
04/10/2013 9:48 AM
The sun skims across Bob Warner’s shoulders as he hunches over a cedar dresser. Brushing varnish onto the pale, rich wood in steady, straight strokes—one of several pieces he’s crafting for his new business—he hums “Sirius,” an old Alan Parsons Project tune. It’s a song he and his son, Bob Jr., both used to listen to. Classic rock can’t always bridge generations, but it’s a song he thinks about a lot lately since this is a business they started together. “It’s been a long road getting here,” says Warner, whose business, Rustic Retreats Furniture & Accessories, transforms warm white pine, eastern white cedar and red cedar into sturdy, log-style designs that are timeless and minimalist. “It isn’t mainstream,” he says. “It doesn’t look like something that rolled out of a furniture store.” Warner doesn’t keep an inventory; each piece is custom made and delivered. So far, he’s had rave reviews. Wendy Smart, of Charlotte, had Warner build a dresser to dimensions that would suit her space. “It’s beautiful. My husband makes a comment about it every day,” she says. And David McSwain, of Shelby, had him build a king-size bed. It turned out so well he plans to order more pieces for a complete bedroom suite. Warner is no stranger to getting the details right and having customers come back for more. His professional background lends itself to that: managing chain restaurants for decades, including Long John Silvers and Arby’s; working as a management consultant; and as a territory manager for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. He was always ready to roll up his sleeves and take on virtually any roadblock—and he’s had his share, including a pink slip when Brown & Williamson merged with R.J. Reynolds, layoffs, restaurant locations that dried up, a business partnership that ended badly and the recession that continues to taint the economy. He thought he could handle anything, until three years ago when his son, then 25, died unexpectedly. The bittersweet success of his latest venture is that he started it with Bob Jr., or B.J., as he calls him. The death hit him hard. A parent is never supposed to bury his child. For a long time Warner retreated to his Catawba County home, trying to hide from the world. But even overcome with grief, Warner knew that sitting alone with his pain and his thoughts was just another kind of death—it certainly wasn’t living. Eventually he fought through it and got moving again. “As much as I told B.J. through the years that you have to persevere through anything, I feel like I need to go on with this business,” he says. “By me doing this, it keeps the memory of him alive, but it also keeps me alive. If I had to sit around and twiddle my thumbs all day, it would just drive me crazy.” One of the few fights they ever had was when Bob Jr. was 16 and wanted to get a tattoo of Dale Earnhardt after he died. Now Bob Sr., who strongly protested and told him no, has a tattoo of his son on his left arm—closest to his heart—and plans to get a dragon tattoo on his left shoulder blade to memorialize his son’s love of the Carolina Renaissance Festival. He wears a dragon necklace holding some of Bob Jr.’s ashes. He never takes it off. “His picture is hanging on the wall in my living room, surrounded by his guitars and drums. I refuse to pretend that he’s not around, or wasn’t around,” he says. One lesson his son’s death did underscore for him is the importance of time. Warner has many great memories raising his namesake, and he plans to continue enjoying some of life’s pleasures on his own bucket list. He figures B.J. can come along with his old man as he learns to snow ski and gives zip lining a try. He’s a man who lives a modest life, but he plans to splurge on things that test him and are good for the soul. He’s also nurturing a promise, a commitment, he made to his son to build the business they started together. And as he moves forward, he does so with a new perspective and sense of urgency. “The single most important thing we spend is time. We can’t get any of that back. Losing my son taught me the lesson: Take care of time. It’s a non-refundable commodity.”
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