goBeyondProfit CEO Interviews: Alex Willson, CEO of Sunnyland Farms
Friday, September 15th, 2023
Celebrating 75 Years of Generosity
Sunnyland Farms and its CEO Alex Willson were recently awarded the goBeyondProfit Champion award for their comprehensive, generational approach to generosity. Evidence that this notion of going beyond profit, infuses a company with enduring qualities that helps everyone around them prosper.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760-acre pecan farm and manufacturing company based in Albany, Georgia. CEO Alex Willson and his family have invested deeply in Southwest Georgia, providing quality jobs to generations of families as well as offering support to the local non-profits serving the needs of the community.
In our interview below with Alex, we explore how they instilled a people-first commitment into every aspect of company life and how that has helped the company weather hurricanes and a recent kitchen fire that threatened to shut the company down during their busiest season.
Decades Long Commitment to People
Sunnyland Farms has been an institution in Albany for 73 years of our 75 years. We started in Atlanta, and as the company grew, we focused not only on turning a profit, but providing more quality jobs and making sure we give back to the community in various ways. When my grandparents moved here, one of the number one things that they said they wanted to do was to give back to their community. They wanted to put down roots and they did that through the farm.
From the earliest days we have tried to play our small part in helping the greater community that is southwest Georgia. Where there’s a need, we try to help fill it.
Sunnyland’s commitment is to its people, 100%. Always has been, always will be. I think for any organization, employees are obviously the most critical thing you have. It’s your human capital. It is what allows you to do what you do. And I think most of our employees would say they have a vested interest in the company, because as a company, we try to make sure we have a vested interest in them – both here at work, but also outside of their job as well.
I think the biggest example of our passion towards community is displayed in our employee tenure. Most people at Sunnyland have worked here 15+ years. At our “Family Day” event we see people that have been at the company for 43 years and sometimes multiple generations of employees. It’s because we are so family-oriented and we believe in people, and we believe in promoting from within. That really started with my grandmother. She just was passionate about bringing people in and creating a family and a team that could work together for a lifetime.
To all our Sunnyland employees, I want to say thank you. We can’t do what we do without you guys. We have so many people who are experts in their fields, whether it’s cracking pecans, baking rum cakes, getting boxes out the door as fast and efficiently as possible. Thank you, guys, for everything you do. We couldn’t do this without you guys.
Generosity Endures When Tragedy Strikes
On Thanksgiving morning in 2022 I woke up to a text that said there’d been a fire in our kitchen. Our security guard was the only person on site and his calm demeanor made me think it was just a small fire, nothing big.
When I arrived and got to the kitchen, everything was completely covered in ash. It was soaking wet, where obviously the fire department has sprayed hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of water on all of our equipment.
We had pre-staged cakes, three or four pallets of cakes that were ready to be packed and sent out the door on UPS trucks. Those were all covered in soot and destroyed. Our entire kitchen became non-functional for the rest of the fall. We had to scramble, which was really chaotic, especially during the busiest four weeks of our entire year.
It’s still so emotional thinking about the way people responded. We saw people spring into action. We saw teams organize themselves. People were pulling equipment out of the ashes just to see if we could save anything, stepping up to the plate and comforting us when we were trying to bring comfort to our employees. The Sunnyland team-oriented environment was on full display.
We were all devastated. We were all scared, but I’ve never been prouder of our company in that moment. It showed us what we were capable of, in a good way, and it was one of those times when tragedy brings a community together.