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Exciting times for family-owned Mid-South Produce

Grenada — Mid-South Produce Company Inc. is a family-owned operation that has been in continuous operation now for more than a half-century. Yet, these are perhaps the most exciting times at the fruit and vegetable distribution company.

“We’re 51 years old and still growing,” said Judy White, a second-generation principal at Mid-South. “I know Daddy would have been thrilled to see that his company is still here, still growing, and that his family still worked here.”

“Daddy” was Lebeth Huggins, a native of Corinth, where he worked for a candy company. One day, a Tupelo businessman approached Huggins about relocating to Grenada and turning an idled facility into a fruit and produce operation. Armed with little more than faith and hope, Huggins left friends and family and commenced operations in 1955.

Mid-South, located on Mississippi 8, took off, growing its clientele through a reputation for dependability and a personal approach. Not only did Huggins and others of his family that worked at Mid-South become first-name familiar with its customers, so did its other employees. A loyal workforce is still a hallmark of the company, some representing third-generation workers.

In 2000, Judy’s mother passed away (Lebeth Huggins preceded her in death), leaving a void at the family-run business. Judy grew up at Mid-South, but never worked there. Instead, she made her career as a social worker with the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Seeing a need, she retired from social work and went full time at Mid-South.

Physically, it was a short move.

“My office was across the street from Mid-South,” she said with a smile. “I tell people I left one career, walked across the street and started another one.”

In the mean time, Judy’s husband, Will White, had forged a career in the automobile business. Recognizing his management experience would be a plus at Mid-South, he joined Judy at the helm of the company.

The Whites didn’t have to start from scratch like the Hugginses. Today, the Grenada facility employs 15 workers and operates a fleet of 11 trucks. Will gave a conservative estimate of 200,000-300,000 boxes of fruit and vegetables shipped annually. Its service area encompasses a large area of Mississippi and even includes customers in parts of Tennessee and Louisiana. These buyers include grocers, restaurants, wholesalers and schools.

Schools have long been an important segment of Mid-South’s customer base. They are even more important today as the company’s fundraising business is currently exploding.

Founded several years ago, Mid-South offers a fundraising program to area schools providing citrus/apples, cookie dough, pizzas, cheesecake, pies and candy. The program, which is run as a separate division, began with a mere three schools, but has grown rapidly ever since. Mid-South, which has developed the program to include sales training to participants, a system to track school’s sales performance over time and more, picked up an additional 20 schools last year, and expects to pick up another 15-20 this year. These schools are located in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. (To give back, Mid-South has initiated a scholarship program. It recently awarded three scholarships, and expects to award four next year.)

Mid-South’s growth is not limited to fundraising. In January after six months of market analysis and searching for a facility, the company launched its first operation outside of Grenada when it opened a second facility in Jackson at the Farmer’s Center Market on Woodrow Wilson Drive. The Jackson operation already employs 10 workers, but additional hiring is anticipated. Will said the Jackson facility has the potential to be even more successful than the one in Grenada.

“In Grenada, we operate in a rural environment,” Will said. “The customers are spread out. That affects delivery times, which is important when you have a perishable product. Not only does Jackson offer more potential customers, those customers are closer together. We also already had customers in Jackson, so we didn’t come here and start from scratch. And we have experienced workers in Jackson who are familiar with the area. So, we’re expecting great things from Jackson.”

Even though Mid-South now operates in the “big city,” the Whites said they plan to continue to run the business using the time-proven, relationship-building approach. However, that is not to say they will not explore new horizons, such as technology, in the future in order to continue to grow. And a recent experience confirmed that.

In 2005, Patty Howard of Jones County-based Howard Co. Computers & Electronics Inc. approached the Whites about entering The World of Difference contest. Put on by the Small Business Technology Institute and Intel, the grand prize was $100,000 in hardware, software and services from Intel. (The program requires nominees to be teamed with an Intel “Channel Member,” a designation held by Patty Howard.)

In order to earn that prize, participants had to go through an exhaustive questionnaire that asked probing questions about their businesses. Before the Whites knew it, they were conducting a thorough self-analysis including everything from how implementing certain technology would equate to lifestyle benefits to looking at using alternative fuels for its fleet.

The Whites said the self-analysis alone was worth the effort. However, they were thrilled when Mid-South was still standing after a judging body made up of Intel resellers culled the more than 2,300 contestants. Mid-South was named one of the five finalists, representing the only operation based in the South to make the cut.

In January, the Whites flew to New York for the final round of competition, which included a 15-minute Power Point presentation by the Whites. In the end, Mid-South Produce didn’t win first place, but it did learn a lot about itself, and it also proved to be great PR for Mississippi. Intel is now talking about bringing some of its programs to Mississippi as a result of Mid-South’s strong showing.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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