70 Years of Sanderson Farms
How a small farm supply business in rural Mississippi became the third largest poultry producer in the nation
“We always want to be the kind of company that remembers its heritage,” said Joe Frank Sanderson, Jr., chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms. “My grandfather began the business with a focus on hard work, honesty, and family. As Sanderson Farms continues to grow, these values will always be a large part of our story.”
That story began in 1947, the year D.R. Sanderson decided to start a farm supply business with the help of his two young sons, Dewey and Joe Frank, Sr. The store sold feed, seed, and fertilizer to their neighbors in Laurel, Mississippi. A few years later, Joe Frank, Sr. returned home from training at a hatchery with an idea for the business. The Sanderson Bros. Feed and Seed began selling baby chicks, in addition to farm supplies. In 1955, the Sandersons decided to switch to selling chickens exclusively. They built the first feed mill and hatchery and renamed the new business, Sanderson Brothers Farms.
As Sanderson Brothers Farms profits and the national demand for chicken began to rise, company leaders were faced with decisions about restructuring. In 1961, Sanderson Brothers Farms merged with Miss Goldy, Inc., a processing plant in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, forming a company with poultry producing and processing capabilities. This new company was called, Sanderson Farms.
“The 1961 merger set the precedent for company growth,” said Mike Cockrell, Sanderson Farms’ treasurer and chief financial officer. “Over the years, the company has continued to expand through both thoughtful acquisition and carefully calculated new construction.” A few years later, in 1964, the City of Laurel passed a bond issue allowing Sanderson Farms to build a $3 million poultry complex within the city. To keep up with the demand for chicken, Sanderson Farms continued expansion over the next 15 years, purchasing processing plants in Hammond, Louisiana, and Collins, Mississippi, as well as building a new state-of-the-art feed mill and hatchery in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
In 1982, Joe Frank Sanderson, Sr. succeeded his father, D.R. Sanderson, as president of the company. As his father did before him, Joe Frank Sanderson, Sr. led the company with an emphasis on financially conservative business practices. By 1986, the company had reached $150 million in sales. Shortly after that milestone was reached, Sanderson Farms purchased National Prepared Foods in Jackson, Mississippi. This new acquisition allowed the company to offer more products and operate within additional segments of the poultry market. The next year, the company made the major decision to go public and begin trading its stock on the NASDAQ. Sanderson Farms’ first public stock offering brought in over $16 million in capital. For the next several years, Sanderson Farms used proceeds from the sale of stock to fund long-term growth for the company.
“My father passed down his business philosophies and showed me how to lead by example. After college, I began working on the farms and in the plants, learning every job there was to do,” said Joe F. Sanderson, Jr. “The lessons I learned from him, as well as my experiences in the field, prepared me to lead Sanderson Farms, when the time came.”
Joe Frank Sanderson, Jr. took over as president of the company in 1989. Under his leadership, Sanderson Farms invested almost $125 million into the expansion of all existing operations. In 1993, the company opened a $40 million retail poultry complex in McComb, Mississippi, and annual revenue rose to $269 million, with more than $32 million in operating profits. Just one year later, revenue was up to $372 million, with $43.8 million in profits. By 1995, Sanderson Farms operated five processing plants, four hatcheries, three feed mills and one byproducts plant. At this time, the company employed more than 4,000 people and contracted with over 600 family farmers. “I have worked alongside Joe Sanderson, Jr. for many years. He has shown himself time and again to be a decisive leader and a brilliant visionary,” said Lampkin Butts, current president and COO of Sanderson Farms.
Over the next 20 years, the company continued its tradition of judicious growth and strategic plant placement. Between 1997 and 2011, Sanderson Farms expanded operations in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. “We are three times as big now as we were when we started,” said Cockrell. “Under Joe’s leadership, we have expanded by seven plants.”
In early 2017, operations began at Sanderson Farms’ newest complex, a $155 million chicken processing plant and wastewater treatment facility in St. Pauls, North Carolina. Plans were announced in March 2017 for an additional poultry complex in Tyler, Texas, which will bring over 1,000 jobs to the area. “When we think about building plants, it is important that the development also benefits the communities we are entering,” said Cockrell. “We are proud to provide well-paying jobs and economic stimulation for the areas where we operate.”
A culture of giving has remained central to the Sanderson vision for good business. Joe Frank Sanderson, Jr. carries on his father’s and grandfather’s belief that a company will only be as successful as the communities in which it operates. Sanderson Farms’ close partnership with the United Way can be traced back to 1979, when Joe Frank Sanderson, Sr. served as Board President of the Jones County Givers Fund, an organization now known as the United Way of the Pine Belt Region. Since 1999, when charitable contributions began to be recorded by computers, Sanderson Farms and its employees have given a total of over $8 million to local United Way branches across Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia. That number does not include the over $386,089 in disaster relief given from 2011 to 2016.
“When a disaster affects our communities, we have a responsibility to support our employees, their families and the agencies committed to helping them rebuild,” said Butts. “Sanderson Farms is committed to supporting the communities where we live and work, especially during times of great need.” In addition to donating money, Sanderson Farms has given thousands of pounds of chicken, ice, and dry goods to help communities recovering from natural disasters, such as the flooding events in Louisiana and Texas, and tornadoes in Mississippi and Georgia.
In 2013, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant called Joe Sanderson, Jr. to ask for his help in saving Mississippi’s PGA TOUR event. Sanderson Farms decided to increase its commitment to its home state by becoming title sponsor of the Sanderson Farms Championship. After two successful years raising money for charity, in 2015, Sanderson Farms extended their agreement for an additional 10 years, ensuring that the Sanderson Farms Championship would remain in the state of Mississippi. Since the company became title sponsor, the tournament has contributed almost $5 million to charities across the state of Mississippi. A 2016 study showed that the Sanderson Farms Championship had a total economic impact of $27 million on the state. “During our years as title sponsor, we’ve seen how the Sanderson Farms Championship has increased visibility and support for Friends of Children’s Hospital and other area charities,” said Sanderson. “Additionally, the event has provided significant economic benefits to the Jackson, Mississippi, metropolitan area.”
Much of Sanderson Farms’ success can be attributed to the company’s unwavering commitment to family values and ethical business practices. “Sanderson Farms’ employees are our most important resource,” said Butts. “This is reflected in our commitment to employee safety, the wages we pay, the wellness and health care programs we offer, and our 401(k) and retirement benefits.”
Thoughtful, conservative growth has allowed the company to expand while incurring minimal debt. “We have maintained a good balance sheet and continued to train people to keep our company running well, while focusing on growth,” said Sanderson. Today, Sanderson Farms is the nation’s third largest poultry producer. With operations spanning five states and 14 cities, the company is still governed with the same hometown values established when the Sanderson family founded it in 1947.
“Focus on honesty and providing our customers with quality products and exceptional customer service throughout our company’s 70-year history has made all the difference,” said Sanderson. “These long-held beliefs have truly positioned Sanderson Farms to become a leader in American poultry production.”