Dunavant Enterprises lands new CFO
Over the years, Billy Dunavant II built his father's Front Street business into a 3,000-employee global giant, creating in Memphis the world's largest cotton trader.
Along the way, he relied on the wisdom of accountant H.J. Weathersby.
In 2010, the entire cotton business was sold. Dunavant Enterprises Inc. refocused on logistics, investments and land development, and in May reached another pivot point. Weathersby, employed in 1976 by the Dunavants at age 29, retired as chief financial officer after 40 years with the family-owned company.
"He was our number one asset," said Dunavant, 83, chairman of the East Memphis firm.
Billy Dunavant and his business, long regarded as civic pillars in the city, have been largely out of the Memphis headlines since the company's cotton era ended. Opening the door for a rare interview last week, executives introduced the new chief financial officer and described how a family recruits an outsider to its inner circle.
"We were about to enter one of the most important transitions in our company's history," said Bill Dunavant III, 57, chief executive of Dunavant Enterprises. "We thought we needed a breath of fresh air from the outside. We looked very carefully. We really wanted someone from Memphis who would engage with this community."
Weathersby's successor turned out to be an accounting scholar with a taste for waterfowl and Memphis. He was dispatched to the city nearly 16 years ago by the accounting firm KPMG. His name: Kelly Lomax.
He had been working as director of corporate accounting and financial reporting systems at Thomas & Betts Corp., a Memphis manufacturer of electrical products with about 9,000 employees worldwide. The company earlier had been his client at KPMG.
Once the Dunavants agreed to look outside the firm, they called friends. Lomax's name surfaced. His resume looked good, even the duck part.
The Dunavant offices for the 65 headquarters employees at 959 Ridgeway Loop Road carry the quiet grace of a fine Delta hunting club. A portrait of 19th century cotton classers occupies a lobby wall, one of the few reminders of the old ways, while much of the remaining decor on the avocado green walls consists of wildlife art, including duck prints. Years ago, William Dunavant Jr. was instrumental in bringing the head office of the environmental group Ducks Unlimited to Memphis, a city in the middle of the great Mississippi flyway for migrating waterfowl.
As the interview began, understanding accounting and finance, having a good grasp of technology, fitting in, being good with people, sensing how a 250-employee family business follows cycles unlike a public corporation — all this at the start was less pressing than something else.
"One of the first questions I was asked was: 'How bullish are you on the city?' " Lomax remembered.
Lomax, 38, was raised outside Memphis' orbit in Waynesboro, Mississippi, a small city in the pine barrens stretching between Meridian and Pascagoula. His grandfather, a cotton trader in Jackson, Tennessee, and later an architect, did know Memphis and young Lomax recalled the excursions he was treated to as a boy.
"From the first time I visited here, I had this love for the city," Lomax said.
During high school, he was immersed in the Mississippi School for Science and Mathematics, a boarding school in Columbus for exceptional students. He graduated in 1996. Four years later, the University of Mississippi handed him its highest academic honor, the Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medal, an award made to no more than one percent of each graduating class. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting at the university.
Joining KPMG, his practice focused on manufacturers in the Memphis area. He married, started a family, planted roots, became active in civic affairs. He's on the board of Junior Achievement of Memphis, which instills business principles in youngsters, and for a time served as president of both the Rebel Club for Ole Miss alumni in Memphis as well as the Memphis chapter of Ducks Unlimited.
He had become a Memphian. And in the interviews, his fondness for Memphis showed through.
"I think we have a bright future. With all the investment, it's only going to get better," Lomax said, referring to projects such as the $200 million Sears Crosstown renovation. "My objective is to continue to grow the city, make the city a better place."
In the end, the hiring decision was the chairman's to make.
Weathersby was a close friend of Billy Dunavant's, who remembered the CFO made sure the old neighbor on Front Street — Allenberg Cotton Co. -- paid top dollar when it bought the world's No. 1 cotton merchant. When Allenberg owner Louis Dreyfus Corp. separately bought Dunavant Enterprises' headquarters building at 3797 New Getwell Road, the signature on the warranty deed was Weathersby's.
Lomax wasn't Weathersby, but the chairman noticed, "He's good at everything he does. People like him. He's bright and quick to understand things. He's going to be a critical guy on our team."