HATTIESBURG – Joe F. Tatum, president and CEO of Tatum Development Corp., says the secret to their company’s success if very simple: tenacity.
Tatum Development Corp. is a holding company for the natural gas utility Willmut Gas, Nordan Smith Welding Corp., Merchants Company, a grocery distributorship business serving institutional food companies in a three-state area, and Mississippi Tank Co. Mississippi Tank is an ASME plant that manufactures overland transport vessels, butane and propane tanks, refinery equipment, and many types of prefabricated equipment for chemical plants and refineries.
Several other companies are included in Tatum Development Corp., which is one of the top 20 private companies in Mississippi with a total of 772 employees and annual sales of $170 million.
The Tatum family also owns the Timberton Golf Course and residential community, a large planned development in south Hattiesburg that is not part of the Tatum Development Corp.
Although known as one of Hattiesburg’s leading businesses, the companies owned by Tatum Development Corp. do as much business elsewhere as in south Mississippi. For example, Merchants Company is in the process of building a new distributorship in Clanton, Ala.
The Tatums originally came to South Mississippi in 1890. Joe Tatum’s grandfather, W.S.F. Tatum, was an early mayor of Hattiesburg.
“We were originally in the sawmill business, and the last log was cut in the sawmill in 1937,” Tatum said. “We went into the natural gas distribution business, and then formed the holding company.”
The Tatums could have been satisfied with Willmut Gas, which has about 22,000 customers stretching from Hattiesburg to Jackson, but instead started the holding company and diversified by buying up other companies starting in 1983.
“You either do one of two things in this world,” Tatum said. “You go forward, or you go down. You either expand or die. We are in a continual state of expansion. We are moving into Texas, and we are already in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee. When an opportunity presents itself, we have a fine group of young men who are really interested in expansion. By expanding and creating new quality jobs, and having people dedicated to business, it ends up as everyone’s benefit.”
Tatum said the key to their success has been securing good management. Each of the companies is autonomous. Good timing has also been a positive factor.
Tatum, 74, graduated with a degree in electrical engineering at the age of 19. He lived in the Northeast for a while, and then returned to the less hectic pace of South Mississippi. While Tatum sees business expansion as healthy, he would like to see South Mississippi manage its growth wisely.
“I came back to the South to clear air and clean water,” Tatum said. “We don’t have to try to make south Mississippi like Buffalo and Pittsburgh. I don’t like the way the Coast is developing. The law that you can’t gamble on land is the stupidest thing that has happened to us.”
Tatum, however, has seen economic benefits to gambling, and says some of the economic benefits of gaming have filtered up to the Hattiesburg area.
The Tatums are known as one of the largest benefactors in Hattiesburg. The family has donated significant time and financial support to civil and government organizations, the University of Southern Mississippi, William Carey College and Pearl River Community College.
“You need to give something back to the community where you live,” Tatum said. “So we actively support all projects in the city that are worthwhile.”
Hugh Bolton, executive vice president of Trustmark National Bank in Hattiesburg, said it is almost impossible to measure the impact that Tatum Development Corp. has had on the economy of the Hattiesburg area.
“The corporation oversees numerous different subsidiaries,” Bolton said. “It is a very diverse corporation, so they have an impact on many far reaching areas of the economy. The vision of the Tatum family and Tatum Development Corp. is one that has kept them at the forefront economic development in our community.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.