Between 2008 and 2010, the United States had a loss of over 200,000 businesses and 3 million jobs. This period of the “Great Recession” was particularly challenging for those businesses in the housing sector.  For those that survived, many found themselves in a better position with fewer competitors and leaner operations.  I had the opportunity this week to interview Floyd M. Sulser, Jr., Chairman of Southern Lumber Company, whose team persevered though the tough times and rebounded to have their best year in history in 2013.   Sulser’s father, Floyd Sulser Sr., retired from his first lumber career, and in 1983, he co-founded Southern Lumber with Bill Dearman. They acquired two sawmills and launched a very successful business. Sulser, Jr., a Jackson native, joined the company full time in 1996 when his father decided to retire for good.


Floyd M. Sulser, Jr.

Sulser, a Jackson native, had his own career before going into the lumber business.  After obtaining his undergraduate and law degrees from Ole Miss, Sulser went on to serve four years in the military with the JAG Corps.  In 1974, he moved back to Jackson and began his law career.  In 1981, Sulser along with Dick Bennett, Joe Lotterhos, and Marcus Wilson formed the law firm of Bennett, Lotterhos, Sulser, and Wilson, P.A., which continues to this day.  Sulser had provided legal services to Southern Lumber and held a seat on the Board, but he still faced a major life decision when his father asked him to consider taking over the company.  He explained, “I had grown up around the lumber business, and I felt this was an opportunity I could not pass up.”  His father’s partner Bill Dearman retired the same year and his son-in-law, Jerry Lee, joined Sulser in making a career transition that same year.

Making a successful family leadership change is never easy, but Sulser shared that his father was great through the process and allowed him room to lead and develop his own leadership style.  Sulser noted, “I worked very hard to really learn the business and to earn the trust and respect of the employees.”  He continued, “It was an interesting change coming from the law and abstract ideas to the practical realities of the importance of numbers and metrics in our business.”  In addition to succeeding his father, Sulser was essentially learning to work with a new partner in Jerry Lee.  The Sulser and Dearman families own the business 50-50, and so Sulser and Lee continued the successful tradition of their predecessors in learning to run a business cooperatively as equals.

Sulser candidly shared that he learned some powerful lessons in survival during the Great Recession years.  Their business, like many others tied to housing, took a major hit.  He noted, “Our industry had always been cyclical, but the challenges we faced in 2008 and the years following were unlike anything we had ever experienced.”  The owners cut and eventually eliminated their salaries; hard decisions were made; and they obtained creative financing to survive.  However, out of those hard times came opportunity.  As the economy slowly returned, they were a lean and highly efficient organization and began to have record growth and profits.  This rebound has now culminated in the acquisition of the company by Canfor, a publicly traded Canadian lumber company, which is scheduled to close in April.  I was inspired by Sulser and his team’s story of perseverance and resilience, and I am excited for the owners to have achieved the feat of exiting on a real high note.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, November 26, 2014.] Read More

I recently read an article advising foreigners on how to adapt to life in the United States.  It noted, “Life in the U.S. is generally fast paced and busy.  People don’t want to waste time on anything, even food. That is why the U.S. invented fast food and is the largest consumer of fast food.”  We are a culture that wants what we want, and we want it now!  For example, in order to provide more speed to consumers, Amazon recently partnered with the U.S. Postal service for Sunday deliveries.  Companies that will succeed in this new era will find ways to deliver an outstanding customer experience with the speed consumers are demanding.


Bernard T. (Bernie) Reed

My interviewee this week, Bernard T. (Bernie) Reed, understands the mindset of today’s consumer, and he has built a thriving business based on meeting his customers’ needs.  Reed is the owner of Reed’s Metals, Inc. based in Brookhaven, Mississippi which provides metal roofing and metal buildings direct to consumers.  Reed is originally from Florida, but he grew up around the country as his family worked in a seasonal agricultural business.  As an adult, Reed planted his roots in Monticello and started a pine tree reforestation business; however, the business was seasonal so he wanted to find something else to do in the off season.  In 1998, at the age of 28 he decided to start Reed’s metals with a pair of hand shears and a forklift.

From that humble beginning, the company quickly grew and today Reed’s Metals has over 160 employees in five locations: Brookhaven, MS, Tupelo, MS, Benton, AR, Lake Charles, LA, and Jackson, TN.  I have found that success leaves clues, and so I was curious about the secrets to Reed’s rapid growth.  Reed shared that he learned early on the value of hard work.   He was homeschooled and worked in his family business from a young age.  As a business owner, he models a strong work ethic for his employees.  He also has a passion for customer service.  He shared, “From day one we have strived to provide fast service for our customers. Even today, a customer can come to our store, choose what they want, and leave with their metals 30 minutes later.”

Reed also emphasizes the importance of creating a positive customer experience with every encounter.  He noted, “I emphasize the appearance of both our stores and our people.  We also greet our customers at the door and try to provide remarkable customer service.”  Scaling that kind of customer service is never easy.  Many people can talk the talk of customer service, but I have found it is much harder to walk the walk and continue to deliver outstanding customer service as organizations grow. While his business has grown to multiple locations, he regularly visits every store and has frequent huddles with his employees to emphasize the values on which the company was built.

Reed also shared that he has surrounded himself with great leaders in his organization.  Like other successful entrepreneurs, Reed understands the importance of hiring very talented people and letting them do their jobs.  Savvy leaders understand their own strengths and limitations and hire talented people to shore up their weaknesses.  Reed is a great Mississippi success story.  His focus and passion are contagious.  With a solid business model and plans for further growth, I know Bernie Reed and Reed’s Metals will be having an impact for years to come.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, November 20, 2014.] Read More


Garrick Combs

As regular readers of this column know, one of the things I like to do is spotlight up and coming leaders from around the state.  These are the men and women who are on the fast track to success and are actively building Mississippi’s future.  This week I had the opportunity to interview one of those leaders, Garrick Combs, who serves as Executive Director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation.  The foundation serves over 300 members and includes six distinct organizations including the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Economic Development Alliance and the Brookhaven Tourism Council.

Combs, a Roxie native, received his undergraduate degree in history from USM as well as a Master’s in Economic Development. He began his career by serving as Director of the Economic Development Department and Chamber of Commerce in Franklin County from 2002 to 2006.  He then moved on to hold several positions at the Mississippi Development Authority including Manger of the Southwest Regional Office and Project Manager in both the Global Business and Existing Industry Divisions.  Combs has served as the local developer or lead project manager of new locations and expansions that have announced over $500 million in new capital and 2500 new jobs. Among the Lincoln County companies Garrick has worked with includes Rex Lumber, Delphi and American Railcar.

Combs shared that his father was a big influence on his leadership style. He explained, “My father never felt the need to overpower a room or demand attention.  He tended to facilitate and make sure that each person had the opportunity to voice opinions if they chose to do so.  But, he had the ability to distill the discussion into key items at the appropriate time and make sure the group came away with specific tasks that they could work together on to accomplish a common goal.”  Combs later noted these same traits in Jimmy Jones, the former Chancery Clerk of Franklin County.   Combs shared, “Jimmy had numerous employees but when key issues needed to be addressed, instead of dictating a solution he was able to seek input and allow his employees to learn from the discussion and decision making process. Instead of having an employee blindly follow direction, he made his employees better—and thus a better local government—by allowing them input into the process.”

One of the key traits of leaders that Combs has incorporated into his leadership style is adaptability.  He said, “No matter what the task, leaders should be prepared to accomplish the task at hand, changing course if needed, and be able to do what is required that day in order to ensure that the long term goals are met.  I’ve learned that the ability to adapt and respond to the unexpected in the short term allows a leader to achieve long term goals.”   Combs also strives to elevate those around him to reach their full potential.  He noted, “I believe that leadership is defined by the ability to create an upward pull. Being a leader isn’t the same as being a boss or commanding a room.  It’s about the ability to create a shared sense of what needs to be accomplished and creating a shared sense of accomplishment when goals are achieved.”

Combs’ early influences have helped him develop into a strong leader who is actively partnering with local and state leaders to drive economic development in his area of the state.  I was inspired by his passion for elevating others and making a difference. He understands that great leaders aren’t tyrants barking orders, but people who inspire others to be their best and align to accomplish great things. I believe leaders like Combs will be key to Mississippi’s future.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, November 13, 2014.] Read More

Leadership guru Ram Charan noted, “Talent, as every leader knows, is the most essential ingredient of business success.” Good to Great author Jim Collins echoed the importance of people when he said “To build a successful organization and team you must get the right people on the bus.”  While most business leaders would agree with these statements, I have found that it is harder in reality to “walk the talk” of valuing the importance of people.  One business owner told me, “My employees should just be happy they are getting a paycheck!” In contrast, visionary leaders understand the importance of people and act on it.  Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is a great example of this.  He recently announced that in addition to providing health insurance for part time employees, his company has partnered with Arizona State University to create a program to help his employees earn degrees for essentially no cost. He explained, “You cannot build long-term value for the shareholder, in my view, without building long-term value for your people.”

My interviewee this week, Hal Miller is one of those leaders that understands the value of people.  Miller, a Jackson native, recently left his position as Executive Vice President of Miller Transporters, Inc. to serve as President of the Mississippi Trucking Association.   Miller had worked in his family business for over thirty years before joining the MTA full time.  He had previously served as a Board member for 22 years for the organization that serves over 320 members with a wide array of services.  Miller shared with me that the trucking industry plays a vital role in the state’s economy and that 1 in 12 jobs are tied to the industry.


Hal Miller

Miller brings a people-oriented perspective to the job.  He shared, “My grandfather established a tradition of making sure people mattered in all of his decisions when he started the family business. I had the honor of working directly under two Millers, my uncle Scott and my cousin Lee. Both upheld that tradition started by my grandfather over 70 years ago. I try to make sure that plays a major role in my decision making whether it be the people employed within the Association, the members, the employees of the industry as a whole, as well as the general public that our industry interacts with every day.”  Miller emphasized that his father Hal Miller who spent his career as a lawyer influenced him as well on the importance of people.  He noted, “My father has a plaque in his study at home that has been there since I was a child that reminds him daily of the value of people which states ‘People are important. We are God’s gift to one another.’”

I asked Miller about making the major career shift to leave the family business.  He explained, “It was very difficult to make the decision to leave my family’s business as I am very proud of what Miller Transporters stands for and think very highly of all of the great people that worked with in that organization. However, being allowed to represent our industry as a whole was very exciting idea for me. Our industry has many wonderful stories of success and perseverance. The trucking industry represents the best of the best when it comes to down-to-earth hard-working people that live by very strong principles. To be allowed to provide support and advocacy for this group is indeed an honor.”

I have observed first hand Miller’s passion for putting people first, and I know that he “walks the talk” like other truly great leaders. I know that the MTA and many others will benefit from this conviction and his commitment to “doing the right thing.”

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, November 7, 2014.] Read More