The scene is repeated numerous times across the Cotton Belt, and it might be the cornerstone of what makes the cotton industry so special.
A family spends a lifetime committing itself to farming, ginning or running a warehouse, and in the end it’s the pure love of the job that keeps everyone motivated. No matter what kinds of challenges might appear along the way, it’s the family unit that keeps finding new ways to be more efficient and profitable.
Such is the success story you’ll find at the Burlison Gin located seven miles outside Covington, Tenn., in the western part of the state. Here is where you’ll find the Kelley family running one of the largest and most efficient farming, ginning and warehouse operations anywhere in the region.
A first-time visitor to this sprawling complex of white buildings probably thinks that a large corporate entity owns the company. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a family-run enterprise in every sense of the word. From the simplest tasks to the most important decisions, a Kelley family member is involved in the process.
You might say that this is the essence of a hands-on operation. And the Kelleys wouldn’t have it any other way.
Long Journey Paying Off
Richard Kelley and wife Charlotte decided to buy the Burlison Gin in 1989 after Richard had spent most of his career being a farmer.
Through the years, the family involvement in the overall operation has increased. Both daughters – Kerry and Leslie – and sons-in-law Brad Williams and Michael Roane – have become valuable additions.
Richard oversees the entire business while Charlotte, Leslie and Kerry handle financial details, customer service, gin and warehouse records and human resources. Brad is the gin technology expert, oversees the warehouse operation and marketing of crops. Michael supervises much of the farming operation of 20,000 acres, consisting of cotton, soybeans and corn.
Through the years the Kelleys have gradually expanded the gin and warehouse operations. In addition, they have embraced technology as needed to make the gin as efficient as possible.
The gin’s capacity can be anywhere between 45,000 and 80,000 bales annually, depending on the cotton yields in West Tennessee. The hourly output is in excess of 70 bales per hour if the raw cotton’s condition is at its best.
A Proactive Approach Works
While new technology is important to the success at Burlison, Richard is a hands-on engineer who believes in doing all of his own upgrades on gin equipment to save money.
“We are in a competitive business, and I firmly believe in constantly trying to tweak and improve our gin,” he says. “It is almost like working on a NASCAR race car. We have to keep trying to make the gin better. Everything just keeps evolving, and we have to keep evolving right along with all of this new technology.”
No matter what kind of new innovations occur at the gin, Kelley and his family know that they must be vigilant in doing the best job possible for the customer’s cotton.
Just a few years ago, there were four gins in Tipton County (Tenn.). Now there are two.
“Because of consolidation, we do whatever it takes to survive,” says Richard. “Plus, we have to take care of our farmers’ cotton. That has to be our main priority.”
The Kelley Way
Richard And Wife Charlotte Committed To Cotton
Richard and Charlotte Kelley figured they had the perfect marriage. He was a cotton farmer, and she had a nice job working at a downtown bank in Covington, Tenn.
Everything changed in 1989 when they decided to purchase the Burlison Gin. They pooled their resources and decided to take the plunge – and more then 20 years later they have never looked back and have no regrets.
They have made a lifetime commitment to cotton that goes beyond farming, ginning and warehousing the crop each year.
As active members of the National Cotton Council, they regularly host overseas trade teams at their gin and office. Conversely, Richard has traveled on many U.S. trade teams that visit other countries. This fall, he will continue that trend when he participates in a cotton trade team visit to China.
“We have always enjoyed having folks visit our gin and spending time with them,” says Richard, current president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association. “Charlotte and I feel the best way to be a part of the industry is to be actively involved. That’s why I’m excited about visiting China this fall. That country is U.S. cotton’s most important customer, and it will certainly be a learning experience for our group.”
Make no mistake about it. Richard and Charlotte are a team when it comes to operating and running the entire operation. Richard is the person who loves to go into the gin and find ways to improve any component of the equipment. He’s also a producer-ginner who likes to look at the big picture.
Meanwhile, Charlotte has a financial background because of her many years of working in the banking industry, and she is comfortable keeping up with the accounting and bookkeeping.
“We are so thankful that our daughters and both of their husbands are involved in the business,” she says.
“We’re all involved in something that we love. Plus, we live close to each other and have been able to see our grandkids grow up.”
From her vantage point in the office, Charlotte also has a view of Richard’s non-stop involvement in the gin every day.
“Richard routinely will put in 18-hour days trying to find a new way to improve the gin,” she says. “Then, after he finishes with that project, he’s ready to go make another change to improve the gin even more. It’s definitely non-stop.”
Both Richard and Charlotte realize that the cotton industry is changing rapidly with consolidation and competition from other crops. But they also know that they must walk a fine line in embracing technology but only doing so when it makes financial sense.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re all on a railroad track, and there are a lot of trains behind us,” says Charlotte. “We have to adjust and keep changing. If we slow down, the train behind us is going to run over us.”
That might be a perfect way of describing today’s cotton industry. Adjust or get left behind.
As for the Kelleys, they plan to keep adjusting and adapting no matter what it takes for their operation to survive. Their view is straight ahead.
Close-Knit Family Works Together
Kelleys Find A Way To Make Everybody Comfortable
It isn’t easy for a husband and wife, two daughters and their husbands to work together in any kind of business, but the Kelleys of Burlison Gin have been doing it for nearly 20 years.
They wouldn’t have it any other way. In addition, their homes are next to each other and within a few hundred yards of the gin office. Talk about a short drive from the house and avoiding rush hour traffic.
“It’s not easy, and we have our ups and downs,” says Richard with a laugh. “We fuss like any family, but we are absolutely fortunate to have everybody involved in the business. And I can assure you that this is a team effort. Everyone is vital to our success.”
Richard is willing to speculate that had it not been for the influence of his two sons-in-law (Brad and Michael), the operation might not have embraced technology as quickly as it did.
Brad had worked for Staplcotn while Michael had worked at the university level before joining the family business. Richard says he might have had several reasons for hiring the two young men. He knew they were imminently qualified to work for him. And, he also knew that it would be ideal to have the family living and working together.
“Someday, the business will be passed on to my daughters and their husbands,” he says. “That gives me a good feeling. In the meantime, I get to see my four grandkids grow up right here in front of me.”
Charlotte shares Richard’s feelings about the benefit of having her daughters and sons-in-law working alongside. She calls it the best of both worlds.
“I sometimes think that Richard and I are an extra mom and dad to these young men,” she says. “They are as much a part of this business as we are. To say that we are fortunate is an understatement.
“I can’t imagine any other arrangement that would be better. It’s just perfect for us.”