Carrying on a Legacy

By Brad McEwen

When my friend Perry Revell first suggested that I reach out to Albany native and Sunnyland Farms Chief Operating Officer Alex Willson for a Beyond the Bank interview, I must admit, I had mixed feelings.

While it was obvious from the amount of respect that Perry has for Alex—mentioning numerous times over the past couple of years how impressed he is with Alex’s acumen, insight and kindness—I had not yet had the pleasure of seeing those traits for myself.

All I knew was that Alex, along with wife Staci and their three children, had relocated to Albany a few of years ago so that he could begin working in the family business—thus becoming the third generation of Willsons to make a go of it growing, processing and selling nuts and specialty nut products across the globe.

His sharp intellect, thoughtful nature and graciousness simply had not yet been revealed to me.

As much as it pains to be say, when Perry floated the idea of doing the interview I did what far too many of us are prone to do—I let some of my preconceived notions about people who are born into successful family businesses, cloud my thinking.

Quite honestly I was blinded by my assumption that those who are the beneficiaries of their forebears’ hard work often lack the work ethic and drive that lead to the family’s initial success.

So it was with that kind of nonsense rattling around in my head that I made the journey across Dougherty County to the home of Sunnyland Farms to meet Alex.

Well, I’m proud to say that all of my preconceptions were completely shattered within minutes of my arriving at Sunnyland to engage Alex in what proved to be a delightful and insightful Beyond the Bank interview.

The first thing that struck me when I stepped through the front door of the Sunnyland offices, was that I was greeted not by a stern-looking gatekeeper posted up behind a glass partition, looking to keep the riff raff out. Rather, what I encountered when I walked into the lobby was Alex—whose open and door-less office connects directly to the lobby—chatting with a group of cross country travelers who had come through Albany in their RV and decided on the spur of the moment to pop by Sunnyland to check things out.

It was clear from the exchange that the travelers had not scheduled an appointment for a tour, but had simply shown up on a whim. But that didn’t seem to bother Alex at all, even though I now know he had plenty of more pressing matters to attend to.

Instead of being impatient and dismissive of the visitors, Alex was exceedingly gracious, listening intently as the visitors asked odd questions and shared stories that seemingly had no bearing on anything related to Sunnyland.

With a genuine smile on his face the entire time, he gave those visitors his undivided attention and when they were done, he earnestly thanked them for stopping by and invited them to return anytime.

And it was clear that he meant it.

And he gave me that same level of attention once the two of us sat down to discuss his decision to return to Albany and the family business, his thoughts on community and his vision to see Sunnyland continue to grow and thrive in a changing environment.

The first thing that hit me as Alex unfurled his backstory, was the fact that growing up, he didn’t give much thought to getting involved in the business that was started by his grandparents Harry and Jane Willson and is now run by his father Larry and mom Beverly, choosing instead to leave Albany after graduating from Deerfield-Windsor School with dreams of becoming a lawyer.

“I don’t know, maybe because I read too many Grisham novels growing up,” Alex joked when I asked what led him to the University of Georgia to study Political Science as preparation for law school. “I don’t know really. I’m still kind of fascinated by the litigation process, you know. I think it’s really interesting, the way you can take the same statement, argue both sides of it. I like to argue, so I think a lot of that kind of drew me in initially.”

Despite that intrigue, Alex eventually abandoned his plans to be an attorney, and like many of the kids of my generation, ended up spending a year after college trying to determine his life’s path, which at that time did not run through Albany.

“I decided, ‘I don’t really want to do law school,’” Alex said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I went and lived in Colorado for a year and had numerous random jobs. Basically all I did was ski when it snowed and climb, kayak, do outdoorsy stuff for a year.

“Then I wound up, I wanted to move back to the South and a big city but not Atlanta. So I moved to Nashville. I lived there six and half years. It’s where I met my wife and where I got into my previous career.”

That previous career, Alex explained, was in the world of finance, beginning with a stint working in “a small little niche for equity compensation,” as a financial advisor with Swiss investment bank and financial services company, UBS, before moving on to E-Trade in Atlanta.

“In 2009 I got my MBA at Belmont while working for UBS,” he said. “In 2010, after I finished school, markets were pretty rough and UBS had hemorrhaged probably $50 billion or something like that in the previous couple of years and wasn’t really in a place where they could promote me, so I moved to Atlanta and started doing a similar job for E-Trade.”

While Alex said he enjoyed his time with E-Trade, he also shared that eventually the rigors the job—mainly travel—and the prospect of raising a young family in the hustle and bustle of Atlanta, got the family thinking about other options. Add to that the lure of potentially getting involved in the family business, and Alex said the recipe was right for the family to earnestly consider a big change.

“When I moved to Atlanta in 2010 I’d thought about it, and even kind of had a really, really initial conversation with my dad about, ‘You know, hey, what do you think this would look like?’ But I didn’t do it then, for various reasons,” Alex explained. “But then in kind of 2014, 2015, we started thinking, ‘You know, this is kind of a unique opportunity and Sunnyland has a good brand.’”

Although it makes sense that Alex would be attracted to the security working at Sunnyland could provide his family, he said he really made the final decision once he came to believe he could really make a difference in the direction of the company.

“I’ll tell you point blank,” Alex said. “I thought it was important, for me especially, to go out and forge my own career and be successful making what I thought my market value was worth, before coming back here. Part of my thought process was, if I ever go back there, it will be after I have been successful on my own. I didn’t want it to just be, ‘Well, Alex graduated from college and he’s just going to go to work for the business with no real world experience.

“And that was important, because I learned a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have learned in a family business. And I’ll probably, if my kids are ever interested, make them do that at least five or six years to gain that kind of insight.”

I was glad to hear Alex speak so matter-of-factly about this thought processes, but what I truly found interesting was the fact that he saw the opportunity much the way I feel anyone would view leaving a good, steady job to take on another role in a different organization.

“Just the opportunities of things I think we can do as a business were really exciting to me,” Alex said. “And that doesn’t even hit on the fact that I think there’s a lot of good that we as a company do in the community and can continue to do.

“That was kind of my thought.”

And it seems his thinking was correct. But before he could bring any new ideas to the table, Alex needed a crash course in Sunnyland’s operations.

“I thought it was important when I first came on, my first six, seven months, that I learn,” he said. “I came on in July, so I went through my first season [the fall months when the company is entering their busiest time of the year, preparing, packaging and shipping out the vast majority of its seasonal products] in 2015, and realistically I just kind of observed.”

And while taking it all in, Alex said he made it a priority to conduct himself in a manner that sent a clear message to the other associates of Sunnyland—that he was there to be a valuable teammate and asset.

“I asked a lot of questions of the person who was running our operations, but I was basically trying to be extremely respectful of the fact that, ‘Look, yeah I guess my family owns the company, but you guys have worked here and you know. I don’t know anything. I know certain things about certain things, but getting boxes out the door on December 7, I don’t know about that,’” Alex said. “So I did a whole lot of, ‘What can I do to help?’

“And I do this every Fall. I’m on the shipping floor picking up boxes, because I can do that. I don’t sit here and know how to run a packing line, but I can go pick up boxes and get them to the scanner and run them into UPS. I did a whole lot of that my first season.”

Whether he had learned it in one of his management classes or was shown by his father or others, by demonstrating that kind of work ethic and establishing relationships with the entire Sunnyland team, Alex not only forged a foundation for his style of leadership, he also did two of the most important things I believe any leader can do—establish a true team environment where everyone is working toward a common goal, and lead by example, not through fear or intimidation.

“I don’t know where I saw it, but there’s this like old Egyptian hieroglyphic or something and it’s got three people pulling this guy in a cart and he’s got like a whip or something, and it says ‘Boss’ above him,” Alex shared when discussing his thoughts on leadership. “And then it’s got an empty cart with four guys out front and an arrow pointing at one of them that says, ‘Leader.’

“I don’t want to ask anybody to do something I’m not going to do myself. So I tried to do a lot of that my first year. And I think that was important.

“There was a whole lot of trepidation on my part about coming in and these guys have all been doing this like 20, 30 years and now I’m here. They’re probably like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And I’m wrong a lot of the time. I think that’s important to point out.”

Although Alex is humble enough to remind me repeatedly that he had a steep learning curve and that many of his thoughts and ideas early on ultimately didn’t work out, the truth of the matter is, by taking a steady and measured approach to learning the business and then using his knowledge and understanding of modern ideas and techniques that have proven to be effective in other industries, Alex has also done some exciting things that have had a very positive impact on the performance of Sunnyland Farms.

“When I first moved in I put up what our last year’s sales were and put 10% or something just as outrageous on there and said, ‘That’s what we’re going to do next year,’” Alex said with a laugh. “It’s not really outrageous, but what I found is that I would up doing a lot more operational things to make things more efficient and save money.

“Certain times I’ve said, ‘Why are we doing it like this? And it’s made a big difference, and it’s cut costs and made us more efficient, things like that.”

To illustrate the point, Alex shared a few of the ways in which some of the questions that popped into his head as a relative observer in a new situation have ultimately led to important changes for the company.

“One of the things that I noticed right on when I came on … we were still marketing in older methods,” Alex explained. “Let’s say we were just dropping catalogs out, going by a list that we had purchased from a list broker, which is the way things were traditionally done. But currently you can use analytics to kind of model what your customer is and then say, ‘Okay, I want to try to find more people like this.’

“For instance, maybe not in this previous year, in 2017, we actually took a look at our total mailings and reduced our mailings by 20 percent, which is a lot cheaper obviously because mailing catalogs is real expensive. We were all really nervous about that. But we actually had a slightly better sales season than the previous year.

“So the thought is to constantly tweak that, and then with the money you’re saving, look at how we can reinvest into the company, like putting a lot more money into digital marketing, things like our search engine optimization, our pay per click marketing,” Alex continued. “You know, some social media and doing things we haven’t done before like going to a couple of the more quality shows for our wholesale business. And honestly taking some of that money and reinvesting it into our infrastructure, especially our IT infrastructure.”

Those changes, like others that have come about during Alex’s tenure with Sunnyland, are also important, not just from a dollars and cents perspective, but from a client standpoint as well.

Like many companies, Alex said it’s critical for Sunnyland to always be focused on how to better connect with its customers. And to that end, a lot of the reinvestment Alex has spearheaded has been geared at the ever-important client experience—which more often than not is what drives a customer to one provider over another.

“We’re trying to reinvest in that and make it a better experience for our customers,” Alex said. “Because really the whole focus is, it’s easy to buy all of the product and make sure it’s the highest quality, which is kind of what we were founded on, but now what we have to do is make sure our customers are getting the best experience.”

Additionally, Alex is also trying to encourage other associates to be willing to try new things if it might make things better for everyone.

“What I’m trying to tell a lot of our people here is, ‘Don’t be scared to take a risk and do something that’s different, because you think you might fail,’” Alex said. “’You’re going to fail. But at least maybe we’re failing forward. So either way you’re learning something.’”

And while Alex is trying to be a resource for the Sunnyland employees, encouraging them to explore new methods for doing things and trying to teach them about some modern approaches to things like digital marketing and using social media, he’s quick to point out how fortunate he is to be working with his father Larry.

Although he had some initial concerns about working with family, Alex said his coming on board has actually gone quite smoothly.

“You know I’m lucky in terms of a family business because my dad is the owner,” Alex said. “So that’s nice. Of course I was kind of worried about that, like, ‘How does that change the dynamic, working with family?’ But it’s actually been extremely easy, which was very shocking to me.

“But realistically he knows that we need to change to stay relevant and he’s open to lots of the ideas that I have, and that other people have.

“He’s very clear-headed and when he says, ‘Have you thought about this,” he’s almost like a little Yoda sitting over there in the corner,” Alex continued. “He likes to sit there and read the paper, but when there’s something that’s important going on and I need his thoughts on it, he’s a great sounding board.

“It’s actually been great. He’s a pretty good boss. Which, you know, I’m sure anybody who’s worked in a family business, or left and then come back, is somewhat nervous about that, which I was.”

Even though Alex had some concerns about his choice to join the family business, he said the decision to move his family to Albany, however, was fairly easy.

Having lived in larger cities like Nashville and Atlanta, Alex said there was great appeal in coming to Albany, as he knew it was a good move for his entire family.

“One thing that is a lot better, I see my family more,” he said. “I was traveling a lot so I was out of town a lot. I lived in Decatur but our office was in Alpharetta so I’d easily spend an hour each way getting to work. I spent a lot of time commuting.

“I like the flexibility I have here,” he added. “Not to say that my old job, especially my last one—my old boss at E-Trade was just great—wasn’t. But I can take a week or two off. I can take my kids to the beach very easily. So it’s just really easy to have a little bit better quality of life—work/life balance I guess—for the majority of the year, other than October to December."

And the young man who grew up an avid outdoorsman, hiking, kayaking, skiing, golfing and such, also keyed in on the fact that Albany also affords him plenty of opportunity to be outside, enjoying nature with his family.

“I mean we like to be outside, do things on the Riverwalk, take the kids out,” he said. “I’m not a big hunter. I play golf when I can, although not a ton.”

Even though living in Albany makes it harder for Alex to do certain things like ski or do any serious backpacking, being at Sunnyland, and working around the seasonality of that business, does give him the flexibility to take time off occasionally for adventure trips with his friends or his younger brother, Justin, with whom Alex took a slacklining trip to Moab last year.

And speaking of his brother, Alex said he and Justin have always had a good relationship and he was quick to point out that his decision to enter into the family business had virtually no impact on that relationship.

“He’s getting his doctorate currently, in a very specific area of art history,” Alex said. “He’s currently at Princeton, but this year I guess he’s into his thesis portion of it. He’s finished all the classes. He’s studying in Russia for a year, on his project, so I don’t think (he has any interest in the family business).

“If he ever does, I’d love to work with him. He and I have a great relationship. I don’t see that being something he probably would be interested in, but you never know. If you’d asked me 15 years ago, I would’ve said, ‘No way.’ There’s no way I thought I was coming back to Albany. So you never know.”

Having now been back here almost four years, Alex said he has no regret about his decision to relocate and when he talks about the things the company is doing to modernize and grow, his excitement is palpable.

He said he is very confident about the future of Sunnyland, believing the company will not only continue making an impact in the industry, but also continue having a positive impact on the community, which is something that is very important to him, which makes sense given his family’s long history as a community partner.

“I like Albany because it’s easy to plug into things that you care about,” he said. “My grandparents, my parents, all have causes that they’re really passionate about and they work hard at.

“We are a partner in excellence for MLK Elementary and we try to do things for both the teachers and the students. We’ve always worked really well with Relay for Life—that’s near and dear to a lot of our employees.

“The Boys and Girls Clubs, that’s one that my grandparents were passionate about, that a lot of people in the community are passionate about,” he continued. “I am on their board and I really like working with them, because you know, I’ve got a soft spot for kids. You can’t help the situation you’re born into and I think it’s important for people who have a lot to try to figure out a way to give to those who don’t and have it maybe level the playing field.

“I think things like the Boys and Girls Clubs are really great. They do a great job of feeding kids, keeping them out of trouble, helping them study, taking them on college tours, all that kind of stuff. It’s awesome.

“So yeah, it’s kind of in our corporate culture to be, ‘How can we give back, especially in our slower months? How can we find something that we’re passionate about and give back?’”

That commitment to the community at large also extends to the entire Sunnyland crew, many of whom have been with the company for decades.

“I said this when I moved down here; one of the good things about a smaller company, a family business, is that you know everybody, so even if our newest employee wants to come and sit down and talk with me, I’m happy to do that,” Alex said. “And we’re trying to make sure we treat all of our employees extremely fairly, even in tough times. We know you. We probably know your family and we’re not kind of looking at you as another line on a spreadsheet, and what your cost to the company is and things like that.

“I really enjoy that part of the family business—that we know everybody and they know us.”

As I listened to Alex talk about his transition to Sunnyland, and heard how pumped he is about the about some of the plans that lie on the horizon, I couldn’t help but think how totally off-base my initial thoughts about doing the interview had been.

Even more so though, I couldn’t help but think about how cool it was getting to know another young professional whose passion for business and for his hometown will no doubt have a major impact on our community for years to come.

While I’m certain that Alex Willson’s return home has been, and will continue to be, a boon for Sunnyland Farms, as a resident of this area who cares deeply about its future, I honestly believe we’ll all benefit from that decision.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

Click here to catch up on previous Beyond the Bank Features