From cotton gins to golf courses
Many family businesses have undergone changes over the generations, but few have changed as much as the Pursell family’s enterprise in Sylacauga, Ala. When Jimmy Pursell joined his father-in-law’s business in the mid-1950s, Parker Fertilizer and Parker Ginning were all about cotton, and Jimmy had some catching up to do. “I didn’t hardly know what cotton looked like,” he recalls.
A fast learner, he was rapidly promoted and was given the job of changing the business’s direction. As he recalls, “Mr. Parker told me, ‘I think cotton is going to leave this part of the country, and I would like to see us get into the lawn and garden business.’” Under Pursell’s leadership the business successfully made the transition, first selling fertilizer to major retailers and later opening manufacturing plants for its own patented product.
During the 1970s the company’s culture itself underwent a dramatic change. The shift resulted from the family’s deepening religious belief as Pursell’s three children—sons Taylor and David and daughter Chris—attended Auburn University and were impressed by the Bible study groups held by the charismatic Auburn ex-football star John “Rat” Riley. Pursell and his wife soon found themselves similarly “filled with the spirit,” and the family began discussing what their faith should mean outside their home.
As David recalls, “We asked ourselves, ‘What does our faith mean, not just from a personal perspective but from a business standpoint? If we live our lives a certain way, shouldn’t we live our corporate lives that way too?’” In 1976 Jimmy, now president, called the employees together and announced that the company would run based on Christian values. Under his vision this included tithing company profits, banning alcohol from company-sponsored events and offering Bible study groups after hours. “I was amazed how well it went over,” says Jimmy. “I didn’t lose a single employee.”
By the 1990s the company had branched off into selling fertilizer to golf courses and other “professional markets” but found that its limited capital made expansion into the new market difficult. An offer from Citicorp Venture Capital to buy the company brought mixed reactions from the family. David describes the story as a “tale of two sons.” David preferred the professional side of the business and had some reservations about the offer; Taylor preferred the consumer side of the business and was in favor of the sale.
The family compromised by splitting the company and selling the consumer division with the proviso that Taylor would run it. The move was a win/win for both brothers, David says. “Taylor had some big ideas on how to ramp up the consumer side of the business,” David recalls. “The sale provided him with an avenue out of the family business and put him in control of this new business. On the flip side, the sale provided liquidity to what remained of the family business so that we could focus on expanding the professional market, which was what I was most interested in.”
Four years after the spin-off, the family broke ground on a novel marketing idea: a golf course that would also serve as an R&D facility for their fertilizer and a way to demonstrate to customers how good their product was. In 2006, the family once again divided their company and sold the last remnant of the fertilizer business. “It was just time to take our chips off the table and cash in,” says David, now CEO. “We could pay off all our debts and start new from a cash position rather than a leveraged debt position.” The remaining company, FarmLinks at Pursell Farms, is part training ground for golf course professionals, part hospitality center for business meetings and part general entertainment center featuring hunting, fishing, trap shooting and, of course, golf.
What about the next generation? One of David’s sons-in-law has already joined the company as director of marketing, and several of David’s six children now attending college are interested in joining. “Hospitality is now the family business,” says David, “and my kids are very interested in helping us succeed into future generations.”
William H. Stevenson III is a writer based in Huntsville, Ala.
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