RICK CLEVELAND: Sanderson CEO steps up, preserves state’s PGA event

DJR_07242013JACKSON – When it became clear Mississippi was about to lose its only tournament on the PGA Tour, Gov. Phil Bryant sought a savior.

“I needed a successful businessman who was passionate about golf and passionate about Mississippi,” Bryant said.

Turns out, he needed Joe Sanderson.

He got him. And we now have the Sanderson Farms Championship, won Sunday by veteran pro Woody Austin.

Meet Joe Frank Sanderson, Jr. – he goes by simply Joe – the energetic, 66-year-old CEO of Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the United States. What follows is the short version of his bio:

A Laurel native, Sanderson played halfback for the Laurel Golden Tornadoes under Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Barney Poole. He went to college at Millsaps, where he studied history and political science. He then returned to Laurel in 1969 to join his family business.

Sanderson Farms had begun in 1947 – the year of Joe Sanderson’s birth – as a farm supply store that sold seed, feed, fertilizer and other farm supplies.

Founders Joe Frank Sanderson Sr., D.R. Sanderson and D.R. Sanderson, Jr., could never have imagined then what that humble company has become.

Joe Sanderson took charge of the company in 1989 and since then Sanderson Farms has grown exponentially to where it now has a net worth of approximately $1.5 billion and annual sales of about $2.5 billion.

He has done it, he insists with “the same hometown values – honesty, integrity and innovation” on which the company was founded in 1947.

‘Remarkable man’
Says Sanderson Farms board member Robert Khayat, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer and former Ole Miss chancellor: “Joe has such vision, plus the determination and energy to see his vision realized. He’s a remarkable man. Just watch what happens to this golf tournament. It’s about to grow like you won’t believe.”

Says John Lang, the president of Jackson-based Century Club Charities, who has worked closely with Joe Sanderson on the tournament, “What you learn about Joe Sanderson really quickly is that everybody who works with him or for him would take a bullet for him. They know he cares.”

Sanderson approached the $3 million PGA tournament at Annandale Golf Club in Madison the same way he does his $1.5 billion business. That is, with attention to every detail and with a personal touch. That was Sanderson out at the Monday pro-am, greeting every individual in every group and thanking them for taking part.

That was Joe Sanderson thanking the greenskeepers for their hard work through all the inclement weather. That was Sanderson thanking the media for their efforts. (Since when has anyone thanked the media?)

Sanderson knows the success of any PGA Tournament depends on the quality of its playing field. Sanderson didn’t just thank the players with his words. Every player who competed at Annandale will be shipped a Big Green Egg ceramic cooker

Those were touring pros tweeting to their peers across the Atlantic Ocean (playing in the British Open), bragging about their Big Green Eggs.

“I want them to know I appreciate them,” Sanderson said.

Yes, it was an expensive gesture, but it will pay dividends in the long run. That’s a hometown touch. That’s a personal touch. It is also attention to detail.

Those traits have made millions for Joe Sanderson in the poultry industry. It bodes well for the Sanderson Farms Championship, which expects to make a move to fall dates in 2014 and beyond.

“I want this to be a statewide event that gets bigger and bigger; I’m excited,” he said, and you could tell he really is.

From the tournament, Century Club Charities will write a check for in excess of $300,000 to Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children.

“That’s what all this is really about,” Sanderson said. “Not me, not Sanderson Farms, but helping those kids.”

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.