Brenton S. Halsey was born April 8, 1927, in Newport News, Virginia. In 1945, he graduated from The Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and entered the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. Between 1947 and 1951 he attended the University of Virginia and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Following graduation, he joined the United States Navy, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet, and served in the Korean Theatre. In 1957, he attended The Institute of Paper Chemistry, Appleton, Wisconsin. Between 1953 and 1969, Mr. Halsey worked for the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company as a process development engineer; assistant technical director, director of research and development, and vice president – planning for Albemarle Paper Company, Richmond, Virginia; and general manager and president of Interstate Bag Company, Inc., Walden, New York, a subsidiary of the Ethyl Corporation.
In 1969, Mr. Halsey joined forces with Robert Williams, who worked for Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Corporation as vice president for research. Borrowing all they could, they engineered a $1.5 million leveraged buy-out of the money-losing paper bag company from Ethyl. Thus, James River Corporation was founded. The partners profitably shifted the company’s primary output from commodity kraft to automotive air-filter papers selling for twice as much per ton. From then on, they continued to buy factories fitted with machines too slow and too small for commodity production and converted their output to specialty products for which the sturdy old machines were still well suited.
Mr. Halsey was chief executive officer and chairman of the company until 1992. Under his and Mr. Williams’ joint leadership, James River grew from $4 million in sales to over $7 billion per year. This growth was accomplished through a strategy of acquisition and internal growth. Creative financing, reengineering of acquired organizations, attention to the integration of many cultures into James River, and an extreme focus on customers successfully drove James River’s growth. These methods were developed and used before they became popular in business publications in the 1980s and 1990s.
He was a dynamic leader as well as a doer. He built and motivated strong organizations. Through James River’s documented “Strategy Statement and Values and Beliefs,” the top management clearly communicated the company’s strategy and expectations to all employees. Throughout his period of leadership, Mr. Halsey was also personally involved with many aspects of the business, especially finance, planning, and acquisition.
An integral part of the two partners’ success was hard work, six days a week. Starting out with a crushing debt-equity ratio of 3:1, they never got in the habit of throwing money at problems. They personally designed James River’s logo, and for years worked right in the factory, yards from rumbling forklifts. They took the company public in 1973. Seven years later, with thousands of products ranging from green confetti for Easter baskets to sophisticated filters for jet fuel, it commanded roughly 17 percent of the specialty market. James River had revenues of $6 million in its first year. In 1984, there were 23 other mills, 21,000 employees, and $2.2 billion in sales. The company’s success story was well known throughout the American business community, and its dynamic leaders were as close to celebrity status as anyone in the U.S. pulp and paper industry. The company ranked 153rd in Fortune’s April 1986 survey and employed 35,000 people, 75 percent of whom owned stock in the company. In 1990, annual sales were approximately $7 billion.
Mr. Halsey has given generously of his time to numerous professional and civic organizations. For these efforts, he has received many honors and awards, including an honorary doctor of humane letters, St. Paul’s College; Fellow, Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry; Member, The Raven Society, University of Virginia; Paper Industry Management Association Man of the Year Award, 1985; William and Mary College Business Medallion Award, 1985; University of Virginia, Virginia Engineering Foundation, Distinguished Alumnus Award, 1991; National Conference of Christians and Jews, Humanitarian Award, 1992; Central Richmond’s Award for Leadership and Achievement, 1995.
He currently serves on the board of directors of Neenah Corporation; Plainwell Paper Company; Advanced Cast Products; Robert Bryan, Ltd.; chairman the board of trustees of The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc., Monticello; and trustee of The Mariner’s Museum; and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.
Mr. Halsey is a member of the Country Club of Virginia; the Commonwealth Club; Fishing Bay Yacht Club, past Commodore; and New York Yacht Club.
Mr. Halsey and his wife, Lindsay, raised four children. The couple resides in Richmond. In his free time, Mr. Halsey enjoys ocean sailboat racing.