|Retiring AFC President Never Looked Back|
Leadership Skills Developed by Wide Variety of Bottom-to-Top
Tommy Paulk’s leadership track record made him a logical choice to become president of Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) 17 years ago. The only question was whether he’d accept the job because he already had a full plate as general manager of Bonnie Plants in Union Springs where he grew up.
After considerable contemplation, he accepted the offer and never looked back – much to the delight of AFC and Co-op managers around the state.
"Tommy’s passion to serve AFC as well as the important decisions he’s made over the years have been much appreciated by its members," said Tim Wood, general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Co-op with three stores in the Black Belt.
Most important is the bottom line and one look at it underscores Paulk’s skillful handling of financial matters. A good example is AFC’s annual sales totals. For fiscal year 2011, it was $450 million, topping the previous year’s total by nearly $50 million.
"Tommy came up through the ranks, starting at the bottom and working his way to the top," said Wayne Gilliam, a good friend and manager of Tuscaloosa Farmers Cooperative. "He worked the hay fields, drove trucks and did whatever else was needed to learn the ropes. All that hard work helped him become the success he is today."
Family connections didn’t provide anything but hard work and a chance at success. That’s just what happened as he worked his way up the leadership ladder at Bonnie Plants and then moved on to AFC’s top spot.
In addition to his agricultural "grounding" at the plant business in Union Springs, he also got a bird’s eye view of Alabama farms as a crop duster with thousands of hours at the controls of various aircraft.
And, if that weren’t enough, Paulk also became an attorney in his "spare time" – spending numerous nights on his law degree at the Jones School of Law in Montgomery.
Without telling him until after the fact, she enrolled him at AUM where she had just completed her master’s degree in education and "suggested" he complete his college education. He took the hint, finished college and then enrolled in law school.
Among them were decisions to close or merge underperforming Co-op facilities. Some managers were replaced while others advanced to leadership positions.
Wood lauded Paulk for his management abilities on the local Co-op level, saying consolidation "of the weaker financial locations with those who are much more stable" proved successful from the start.
Paulk’s work experience began at an early age when he found himself in the family’s fields, picking his way to a very small "fortune."
As he got older and moved into more responsible roles at Bonnie Plants, Paulk knew what his future would require. It was as much a part of his DNA as his breathing.
"I’d split my time between Bonnie and crop dusting in my younger days, depending on the seasons," said Paulk. "Bonnie Plants and AFC have provided me with some unforgettable experiences."
Most of those experiences had to do with Bonnie’s family-provided principles – a business that was always the cornerstone of his life, especially after it had to be resuscitated from the brink of bankruptcy.
That occurred in the mid-1970s when three consecutive years of hard freezes in Alabama, Texas and South Florida all but wiped out Bonnie’s plants at vital growing sites.
AFC bought Bonnie Plants, Inc., in 1975 for $250,000 and it proved to be beneficial for both parties. The result has been a $275 million bonanza – which is today’s value of the Union Springs enterprise with operations in every contiguous state.
It was a win-win situation all around. Today, Bonnie Plants is an AFC wholly-owned subsidiary and remains its most profitable business unit.
Paulk worked 11 years as a Bonnie Plants sales representative before becoming the company sales manager in 1977.
When he became Bonnie’s general manager in1986, he knew the company was again facing challenges. He proposed an aggressive greenhouse construction program to adjust to the changing industry environment and avoid those disastrous years of the mid-’70s when his family business almost folded.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.