At 35, Lawrence Ottinger was a somewhat spectacular failure. He had spent 14 years and $100,000 of his father's money on half a dozen promising but luckless business ventures. Now he had a new idea but he was reluctant to tap his father again. So Ottinger borrowed $500 from his mother. With it, he started a small company with a big name: United States Plywood.

Last week President Ottinger, now 66, rose before his stockholders in the plywood-paneled Manhattan offices of the world's largest plywood producer to report on his company. In August, sales had set a new monthly record of...

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