Colonel Gregory is the fifth generation to farm the rich dirt of Virginia. Truth be told, he's a lot smarter than he makes out to be.
The Colonel -- that's Colonel S. Stone Gregory, Jr., owner of Gregory General Farms -- feels something close to loathing for the close to loathing for the Internal Revenue agents who visit periodically after he's been written up in a newspaper or magazine. That's why he'll only say that Gregory General Farms sells a "nice seven figures" annually. He insists that the lessons he has to offer don't come from how much he sells, but rather from how he seels. "I've got no staff," he says. "There's just me, Stone Gregory, a poor, dumb dirt farmer."
Truth is, Colonel Gregory is neither poor not dumb. The Colonel and his two brothers do own a lot of dirt in Java in Virginia's Pittsylvania County, 125 miles west of Richmond, Va. But the Colonel doesn't so much farm it as he does promote its natural bounty, bit by bit, piece by piece, and drop by drop.
There's Gregory's White Hickory Smoke Bits, Incense Cedar Bits, Sassafras Root Bits, Combination Manure-Mulch-Compost-Peat, Creosoted Posts and Poles, and Virgin Spring Water. There's the Gregory General Store and, just down the road, Gregory's Hog Hotel, where some 1,200 Yorkshire hogs fatten for market while producing Gregory's Virgin Hog Crap, billed as Nature's Perfect Plant Food. "With the proper romancin' and merchandisin'," the Colonel says, "you can sell anything."
The Colonel just isn't the hard-scrabbling clod-busting dirt farmer he makes himself out to be. He's more an idea man, a born promoter with a dirtfarming background. It's a background that drives him to get the most out of what's available. He finds markets in industry directories and telephone books; he writes his own sales brochures, designs his own ads, and types his own letters. He pays his bills by return mail, goes to bed at nine, and sleeps very soundly.
The Colonel will argue all day that any business can be run his way. If it's not, it should be, especially when interest rates are going up and money's right and every little bit counts.
"All you need is a little common sense and ingenuity and internal ability," he says. "If you want to find a good idea, get out there and talk to people and listen. I never met a man I couldn't learn something from. Pretty soon you'll spot a need and then you keep thinking until you find a way to fill it. Maybe it's a crude operation, but I want to keep things simple."
Outwardly, everything about the Colonel is simple. "A smart man doesn't put everything in the showroom window," he says. "He also keeps the warehouse full."
He wears baggy corduroy trousers, a brown, short-sleeved work shirt, and a khaki hat darkened with sweat around the brim. He's 63 years old and rises six feet six inches off the floorboards in an impressively straight line, looking slightly faded, but dependable and sturdy.
His office is a small rectangular room attached to the Gregory General Store. The store was opened by his father in 1900 and has changed very little. It's a shuffling, friendly collection of freshly painted white claphoard with a long shade roof across the front and narrow double doors. Just inside the door is a handmade wooden counter with Ball jars on it filled with seed: Heart of Gold Cantaloupe, 95? an ounce; or Seven Top Turnip, 60? an ounce. Another big seller is Big Duke Chewing Tobacco, and there are Wolverine work boots and meats and groceries. A sign says, "Everything for everybody."
The Colonel works at a small, gray, metal desk. There's a typewriter on the desk, but the phone, an old, black finger-dialer, is hidden in the second drawer. The walls of his office are papered with hundreds of yellowing business cards, and stacked near the window are 400 new telephone directories.
Outside his office, the early corn is already four inches high. Gregory farmland ripples slowly toward the horizon in every direction. The Colonel's two sons, "the hardest-working two young men in Virginia," John and Stone III, are in fields nearby tilling and fertilizing. His brothers, Jim and Lewis, are working with their boys planting tobacco a mile or so away.
Lewis Gregory, the Colonel's great-great-great-grandfather, first planted family roots here in 1840. "He came from Scotland," the Colonel says. "We think he was about to be hanged for stealing horses or mules -- anyway he was stealing something." All Lewis had with him, the story goes, was an oak barrel holding his worldly possessions. But there must have been a little extra sandwiched between the pots and pans, because Lewis soon bought 200 acres of fertile Virginia farmland and began the endless round of tilling, planting, harvesting, and adding a few more acres every now and then that has occupied six generations of Gregorys.
According to Gregory custom, the Colonel was given responsibility early. He pulled his first commercial tobacco crop when he was only 12. The original receipt -- for $48.80 -- from Planters Warehouse in Danville, Va., dated January 27, 1930, hangs on his office wall. That was his first encounter with the tough economics of farming. "Even then it didn't seem like much money for all the work," the Colonel recalls, "particularly when I had to take out the $25 I owed for fertilizer. What's more, I couldn't help worrying about what would happen to me if my crop failed after I'd spent the money for fertilizer." He says this experience taught him to avoid products whose sale price he couldn't control and "never to put all my eggs in one basket."
It was during World War II that the Colonel spotted the need that would later launch him into business. He was 24 years old, a freshly minted colonel in the US. Army's armored artillery serving in the North African invasion force. In November of 1942, he was talking with two Egyptian Army officers over dinner at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo. The Egyptian officers were reminiscing about vists to the United States. They told the Colonel that one of the experiences they had never been able to duplicate was the gastronomical delight of a Virginia ham. How was the unique flavor achieved? they asked. The Colonel explained that the hams were cured in the smoke of smoldering white hickory. "It's the smoking, not the heating," he said, "that's the secret."
In January 1947, the Colonel retired from the regular army with 14 American and foreign decorations. He was 29 when he returned to the Gregory farms. A long line of his forebears had been content to work the land and they had prospered, but the Colonel already had a different approach to prosperity. He wanted to develop products that, unlike wheat, rye, and barley, would be free from the pricing constraints of agricultural commodity markets.
One afternoon, on a tour of the Gregory reserve, he found himself studying acre after acre of flourishing white hickory trees and thinking about a dinner conversation in Cairo five years earlier. He cut down a tree, sawed it, and chipped it into small bits. Then he sent a generous sample to the two Egyptian officers, telling them that more was available at a modest price. Some time later, they sent him his first order for $28 worth of white hickory smoke bits.
"I knew there was a need for it," the Colonel says, "and I knew the market was a lot bigger than two friends in Egypt, if only I could let the right people know."
The Colonel drew heavily on his dirtfarming self-reliance and set to work concocting the right blend of "romancin' and merchandisin'." He sent for a variety of industry directories published by trade associations, private companies, and the federal government. Before long he had a list of meat packers, sausage smokers, food processors, charcoal manufacturers, and many others who could be potential users of white hickory smoke bits. "You'd be surprised how much information is available for free if you take the time to look" he says.
The Colonel's wife, Helen, describes what happened next: "One afternoon, Stone came home with a big sack of hickory bits. At the time, we had three children and they were still pretty young. Stone sat them down at a table in front of the television and told them to fill these little cellophane envelopes with hickory bits, put on his business card, and then staple the two together. It was a regular production line. I can still see the kids sitting there with their feet dangling off the floor and their heads barely poking over the tabletop."
The Colonel took his samples back to the office, hired a part-time assistant, and spent the next two weeks organizing his customer lists and mailing 2,000 letters with samples to the president of each company. "I only deal with the top man," he says. "Life's too short for anything less."
In the same letter promoting the unparalleled excellence of Gregory's white hickory smoke bits, the Colonel also asked for some advice. He wanted to develop a company logo, something that would give his products a little color, a little romance. "I felt there were two things most people think of when they think of a Southern farm," he says. "One's a Kentucky colonel with a wide hat, mustache, goatee, and a string tie. The other's a mule. But I couldn't decide what to use, so I asked these presidents which one they liked. Why should I pay some consulting firm to ask for me?"
It must have been one of the more unusual letters a company president ever received. But its combination of gritty determination and old-fashioned honesty did the job. The Kentucky colonel image was elected unanimously, and ever since, the smiling southern gentleman has graced all of Colonel Gregory's sales literature and letterheads.
Along with the ballots came more than 100 orders for bits. The Colonel hastily constructed a wood processing and storage shed and built his own hickory chipper from old saw blades and other spare parts lying around the farm. The facility was completed just in time to show visiting customers and to produce enough bits to meet the first shipment dates.
Five years after he shipped those first orders, the Colonel estimates that he was chipping his way to annual sales of between $50,000 and $70,000. To his way of thinking, this wasn't a bad return at all, because his homemade brand of market research, advertising, and promotion only cost him about $3,000. "Sales have been growing ever since," he says. "Now, it's a nice six figures."
Based on the success of the White Hickory Smoke Bits, the Colonel fashioned a highly personalized business stategy that he has repeated time and again. Its motivating idea is the complete confidence in his own abilities, and its chief characteristics are his determination to do as much as he can by himself, to extract the greatest benefit from what is at hand, and to offer honest value -- no gimcracks, gewgaws, or modern flapdoodle.
He also matches the bluntness of his marketing with an equally straightforward billing system. His terms on any product he handles are 2/10/net 30 and no volume discounts. If a customer doesn't pay in 30 days, the Colonel calls him collect every day until he does and then kisses him goodbye. "I can have a past due account," he says, "but only once. Everybody gets one chance. If you go back on your word, that's it. Life's too short. Remember, you haven't accomplished a thing until you have a check in your hand -- a good check."
In 1953, five years after the introduction of hickory bits, the Colonel tried his hand at diversification and got burned. It started on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The Colonel was working at his desk when a man stepped into his office and amounced himself as one A.S. McQueen of Johnston City, Tenn., inventor of a revolutionary tobacco curer. Most Virginia-grown robacco is heatcured for five days in smokehouses. McQueen said that his curer burned sawdust only and could save farmers a lot of money in fuel costs.He said he needed $500 to have a prototype built, but no one would give him the money. The Colonel agreed to finance the prototype. "A month later," he says, "McQueen showed up with this contraption stuffed into the backseat of his old Hudson and tied onto the roof. We wrestled it out and fired it up. It worked fine."
The Colonel ordered a hundred more and the two men drew up a handbill that looked like a wanted poster for a member of the James Gang and started hawking the curers, which sold quickly. The Colonel, sensing something big, ordered 800 more. Then he made what he considers was a fatal mistake; he hired an M.B.A., newly graduated from a well-known southern university, to market the new curers. "I don't know what came over me," the Colonel says. "Farmers want to see things in operation, but this guy never wanted to leave his office in Richmond. One day I just got fed up. I called him and told him to get his butt out in the field. And the next day his wife called me and said she didn't want her husband doing any manual labor. I reminded her that I hadn't hired her, and then I fired her husband."
But it was too late. The sales campaign never regained its momentum. The Colonel still owns 732 revolutionary tobacco curers. "I lost $60,000 on that one," he says, "but I haven't give up yet With the price of every other fuel going up, sawdust is looking better all the time."
After the currer flasco, the Colonel quickly returned to his do-it-yourself brand of romancing and merchandising and scored a big hit with Gregory's Virgin Spring Water. He knew there was a need for the stuff, because as he traveled to trade shows in various cities, he often found that he couldn't drink the local water Instead, he filled Thermos jugs with spring water and took them along on his trips. "I ask you," he says. "What would you rather drink: recycled sewer-age or my Virgin Spring Water?" So back he went to his dog-eared directories and telephone books, his time looking for private-label bottlers with established distribution networks. He sent out his letters, distributed his samples, and took visiting customers home for dinner. As a result, the Colonel's elixir is now sold to bottlers in 12 eastern states.
The Colonel added another winner in the early '70s when he introduced Gregory's Incense Cedar Bits. These flakes are made from the stems of a highly aromatic species of cedar tree that grows naturally on Gregory land. The Colonel always knew they were there, but it wasn't until he started running the Gregory General Store that he discovered there might be commercial use for the fragrant stems.
As part of his "everything for everybody" policy at the store, the Colonel used to sell handmade pine coffins at $49.50 each to local tenant farmers and personally deliver them to their homes. Usually, when he arrived, the traditional "sit-up" was already well under way. A "sit-up," the Colonel explains, is a funeral observation, something like a wake, that was peculiar to tenant farmers in the area. It could last a week or more, the Colonel says, because it took that long for all the family's friends and relatives to arrive from distant farms. The Colonel often saw large bundles of cedar stems smoking in the family's yard. When he asked what they were used for, he was told that they were a kind of ceremonial incense long known to ward off evil spirits.
"The custom died out in the late '40s," the Colonel says, "but those cedar stems stuck in my mind. When I bought the big chipper, I knew that I could process them just like Hickory Bits."
Today, the fragrant chips are sold to chemical and pharmacecutical companies for use in a number of products including deodorizers, detergents, and cosmetics.
Even though the Colonel has become increasingly proficient over the years in spotting and filling needs, occasionally he still hits a snag. Recently he ran into some unexpected marketing difficulties with his Virgin Hog Crap. The Colonel first used this fertilizing miracle on his own lawn. He thought it was great stuff and convinced some golf course and park groundskeepers to try it on their green sward. The grass loved it. Unfortunately, for two or three days after application, there was this disturbing odor in the air, which greatly offended local authorities.
The Colonel had even gone so far as to send out his habitual promotion letter to several lawn and garden centers. One owner of a New Jersey store, he relates incredulously, actually called him up and asked how the powerful fertilizer was made. But the Colonel remains convinced of his product's merit and thinks that he may have solved his marketing problem. "I've come up with a way to deodorize the stuff," he says, "using dolomitic limestone and a couple of secret ingredients that I can't describe because my competition will no doubt capitalize on it."
When asked if he thought his product's slightly indelicate name might be a drag on sales, the Colonel said he saw it as a personal challenge. "Anyone can sell manure," he says, "but how many people can merchandise crap?"
That's Colonel S. Stone Gregory, Jr. Maybe the last of his kind, maybe the only one of his kind. He says that right now he has five or six new product ideas, and he points to the stack of new telephone directories as proof of his claim. Then he leans back in his swivel chair and sighs: "But I'm still just a poor, dumb dirt farmer trying to keep his head above the waterline."
You be the judge.