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Deep Roots: An Interview with Staci Willson of Sunnyland Farms

Staci Willson and her husband Alex are the 4th generation owners of Sunnyland Farms, a unique pecan farm, processor, manufacturer, and catalog retail business.

Located in what has long been known as the “Pecan Capital of the World” Albany, Georgia, Staci and Alex are continuing to honor their family’s legacy, and build a bright future.

I spoke with Staci to learn more about the company’s history, her personal journey as a business leader, how she and her team have handled the pandemic, and the opportunities she sees for this growing family business.

Knowing that Sunnyland is a 4th generation family business, can you tell us a bit about the history of the company?
Sunnyland has a unique story. It started when my husband’s great-grandfather inherited beautiful pecan groves down here in Southwest Georgia, originally around 5,000 acres. Our groves today are around 1,700 acres, all planted with beautiful pecan trees. Alex’s granddad was a Harvard businessman, and after World War II decided he was gonna come down with his wife Jane from Atlanta and move to the agriculture hub of Albany, Georgia. They were already selling some of the Willson family pecans to college friends, etc., and thought there just might be something to that!

So they moved down here in the late 40s and started to cultivate the farm and started the mail-order business in 1948, just selling Sunnyland pecans. And from there it started to flourish. Then they started to add praline pecans, candies, cakes, and added other mixed nuts to their products. Developing relationships with nut farmers worldwide was crucial for maintaining Sunnyland’s standard of “Only the Best.” We still benefit from these relationships today, purchasing the highest quality almonds from California, Macadamias from South Africa, and gorgeous Cashews from India.

In the seventies, Larry, Alex’s dad, who is the third generation, came back and started to help his dad modernize the growing operation. He was one of the first pecan farmers in the industry to implement irrigation. He planted new and upcoming pecan varieties, which we are bearing the fruit from now. Pecan trees take 15-20 years to mature, so you really have to implement a long-term plan to see it through fruition.

With that long legacy, what are you and Alex doing now to keep it thriving?
Right, so Alex is the fourth generation. We moved back about six years ago and since we have been involved, we’ve been working on really modernizing the catalog business, the online business, the SEO, and all of the digital marketing and sales aspects of the business.

My thumbprint has been on most of the catalog business, recipe development and PR/Marketing. Our catalog is still a huge part of our business, we mail almost 3.2 million catalogs a year nationwide! You would think in the modern age, it might not be, but it is. And we’re really trying to minimize packaging and become greener. We’re working on sustainable energy as well, using some of our pecan shells to fuel our shelling plant.

Is there anything else that is unique about the company and your team?
I know I focused on the Willson men, but a legacy that Sunnyland has always had is a husband and wife partnership. And that started way back with Jane and Harry. They really were ahead of their time and Jane took such an active leadership role in the business. It continued with Larry and Beverly in the seventies, and now it continues with me and Alex, so it’s really a joint partnership and a beautiful legacy to continue.

We’re very, very proud to say that most of our workforce is 80% female. We have had really wonderful lifetime employees across the board as well. We just celebrated 44 years of retirement last week with one of our very best long-term employees. And that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s not an uncommon thing to have multi-generations working here, like we’ll have a mother and a daughter working in a department together.

How did you and Alex decide to come into the family business? Was that an easy decision?
We were living in Nashville at the time when Alex and I met, he was in the financial industry and I was working in the food industry. We were in our late twenties and I remember asking him, as you do in planning for your future, do you ever wanna go back and step into your dad’s/granddad’s footsteps? And I was asking myself, do I want to go back and be a part of this farm, this business, and this family? He never would rule it out and I wouldn’t rule it out either. It took us probably about five more years to make the final move down here from Atlanta.

In the end, the one thing that we wanted to do was make a difference. We love this community, and wanted Sunnyland to grow and thrive as an employer. We decided we can make a bigger difference by moving to Albany than we could by working in our respective industries in Atlanta. We can make a difference and continue a beautiful legacy of giving back.

And I was just fascinated with the farm, and the recipe development is something that I loved. It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful lifestyle change from Atlanta down here, and a great place to raise the family, and really put our roots down and give back.

On a personal note, is there someone who you looked up to as a hero growing up?
I would definitely have to say Julia Child. I come from the beverage and food hospitality industry, and she was just such a pioneer and leader. As a female within that industry and gaining the respect she did and continues to have, she is someone that I’ve always looked up to. I’m not a chef, I’m a cook, and I love all of her recipes, and her personality, and just her fearlessness. She had so much courage to lead in the male-driven, culinary world. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss these things!

What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learned along the way?
Definitely flexibility. Since we’ve moved back, we’ve dealt with devastating weather events, like Hurricane Michael where we lost 5,000 trees, a whole crop. Then we are dealing with the new digital marketing landscape that exists now. And then COVID. So we’ve been in constant crisis management since we moved back.

Now dealing with inflation and production shortages that affect our business from start to finish. So I have really had to work on flexibility. Things are always going to change. The life cycle of the business cycle is going to go up, and it’s going to go down.

And you manage that through embracing leadership within. We are very, very big on individual voices and we appreciate honesty and directness from our management leaders. We couldn’t do it without them.

What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. I would probably say commitment. Commitment to things that matter. Commitment to quality. Commitment to roots, to people, our team, to family, to Sunnyland. I moved around a lot in my life prior to this, and joining this family and this business and everything… roots mean a lot to me. I want to invest in people’s futures. We’re going to figure out ways to thrive in the middle of these crises. I think that’s something that we’ve done and will continue to do.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
Oh my goodness, there have been so many. I would probably go all the way back to my middle school chorus teacher, Miriam Walton in Richmond Virginia. She was so dynamic and so energetic. She led by example and encouraged my growth as a performer and singer. She had so much energy and passion for what she did. We still keep in touch and I’m proud to know her.

She encouraged me to step out and have courage, and believe in my talent. Getting up and singing a solo was difficult in middle school, but she encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think that honed some amount of leadership, learning to push through fear and knowing what courage looks like. And I know that may sound silly in middle school at a spring concert, but I look back at that and I really appreciate the influence she had on me.

That’s great. I think middle school is one of the most difficult times to stand up yourself, but if you can do it in middle school, you can do it forever.
Right. You know if you can do it in that moment, then you can do it forever, and in many other eras in your life.

***
Staci and Alex Willson are co-owners of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760 acre farm nestled in the heart of Pecan Country in Albany, Georgia. Since 1948 Sunnyland has been the premier provider of gourmet Georgia Pecans, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits, and assortments of gifts for all occasions. Their incredible gourmet, heart-healthy and Kosher-certified snacks and pecans are the perfect treats. To learn more about Sunnyland Farms, visit their website: sunnylandfarms.com

Photography by David Parks

To catch the next wave of growth, patience is key

Sometimes moving too quickly will slow you down in the long run. Making the right decision, not the fast decision is critical when your goal is long-term, sustainable, profitable growth. The wrong fit customer, the big but unprofitable sale, the commitment without the ability to deliver… these are all moments when companies think they are moving fast, but often ultimately end up moving backwards. But when you feel a sense of urgency and opportunity, what is the alternative? Take a deep breath, try out these small business tips, and remember: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

One of our Six-Point project managers brought a mantra to our company that I love: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
He is a big believer that getting the details right up front, excercising patience, asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the answers will save time and rework down the road.

And he is right.

I’ve been taking that mantra to heart not just in the day-to-day of our projects at Six-Point, but to my own strategy for my business as we ease out of pandemic lock-down, and to my work as an advisor for our clients. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

In the spring of 2020, I felt like there was no time for inaction. Anyone who froze and didn’t act was in jeopardy. Since we couldn’t control the landscape shifting under our feet, just moving forward was the smartest way to go.

In the spring of 2021, I feel differently. I feel like there are major opportunities for growth, but particularly for smart growth, because all growth isn’t created equal. And being ready with the right solutions for the right people at the right time will be the difference between catching that wave and getting either overwhelmed or left behind.

So I have taken the past two months and gone into listening mode. Because slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

What am I doing during this intentional slow down?

I am reading a lot and I am listening to a lot of podcasts. There are a lot of smart people who are extremely generous with their expertise and insights. I am also connecting with the authors and podcast hosts that I find the most valuable on LinkedIn (and sometimes offline, too) to be able to stay connected and in tune with what they are seeing and talking about.

I am interviewing leaders of successful brands in industries where I feel like my team can create true value. I’ve been having conversations with CEOs, sales directors, and marketing directors, and I am learning a lot about what it feels like on the ground in companies right now.

Our team is collaborating with Bean Group Global to survey business leaders all over the globe to better understand the effects of this acceleration into a hybrid world of both virtual and in-person workforces.

I am speaking less and listening more. And I am becoming much clearer for it.

I know it is tempting to just jump at opportunities, especially after you have either experienced a drought last year, or to keep your head down if you were overwhelmed with unexpected demand. But resist that temptation.

I would invite you to figure out what slowing down looks like for your business and your opportunity. Sometimes, the brave thing to do is to move forward even when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But right now, I would argue that truly courageous leaders are practicing discipline.

What might this look like? You might:

  • Start “auditioning” new relationships instead of selling to them.

  • Survey your customers to better understand what has changed in their world.

  • Set up some virtual coffees with key customers and just listen to what their world is like.

  • Talk with the competition. (I know, I know… terrifying! But we have seen some amazing collaborations when small competitors take on the big guys together.)

  • Collaborate with someone else who serves your industry and share insights.

  • Scan the social feeds of your ideal customers and see what they are talking about and doing that is not related to your product or service.

  • Read a lot, and not just about your industry. Find macro trends that you should be aware of and incorporate into your planning.

  • Prioritize with your team. You can’t do everything well, so what are the 1-3 things that are most important to knock out of the park? Allow them to really focus on those.

Now is the time to slow down.

To pick your head up and look down the playing field. To listen closely to your current and future customers. Listen, learn, and pick your best opportunity, not just any opportunity.

And then you will really catch that growth wave at its peak and let it carry you swiftly and smoothly to what’s next.

The Founder Effect

How does a brand transcend a founder while still keeping their value, perspective, and influence? This is a uniquely “second stage” dilemma. Whether you are talking about the next generation of a family business, a new company that emerges after a merger, or installing a new CEO, the question is essentially the same.

This is a bittersweet article for me to write. At the end of this month, Six-Point’s “founding father,” David Wicks, will be retiring.

We have been preparing for this moment for years, but it still somehow feels like walking off a precipice.

Since we began transition discussions, one of the main questions in my mind wasn’t “how will we replace David” (impossible!). Instead, it has been “how will we keep David’s influence intact?”

Before becoming Six-Point’s chief creative officer, David’s background was an art director and creative director. He has worked for large retail grocery store brands, technical manufacturing brands, as well as international consumer product brands like Guinness. He learned how to design “the hard way” — in the time before desktop publishing — painstakingly pasting-up layouts and hand-illustrating concepts to present to clients. The skill, patience, and creativity that went into his work over his career has made him into the multi-faceted, multi-talented creative thinker he is today.

Marsha Montori (who retired in 2019), David, and I started Six-Point back in 2007, and while Marsha strongly influenced the brand and its personality, David was the one who was most emphatic about what we would be… and what we wouldn’t.

  • We would be irreverent. If there is one thing that David can’t stand, it’s people who take themselves too seriously. For David, the work was important. We weren’t. Any time any of us started getting heated, or cocky, or focused on peripheral issues, David is there with a quiet but pointed remark to bring things back into perspective. 

  • We would be communicators, not artists.. A lot of creative folks think of themselves as artists. The beauty of the work is paramount. For David, all writing and design for an agency should be in service to the message and the strategy. Is this element moving us forward toward our goal? Or is it making things less clear? Or worse, is it doing nothing at all? “Because it looks cool” is never a justification at Six-Point. 

  • We would make the work interesting. Never tell David that a client is boring, or that a project isn’t meaningful. As far as he is concerned, we are the only ones who can make something boring or exciting. Our passion, our curiosity, our creativity…That is what makes great work.

For all enduring brands, there comes a time when a founder needs to step back.

It’s always a precarious time in a brand’s lifecycle. Founders are the creators of the vision and the culture of their company. The brand is often very much in their image. The question of how to keep the success of a brand intact without this driving, central force is one that makes transition fraught with both opportunity and danger.

Six-Point Creative is no different. We have had to be intentional to build these founding principles into the daily rhythm of life at the agency. We infuse them in our onboarding. We tell stories to reinforce them. They also affect our selection of employees, partners, and clients. When you are clear on your values and your promises, you have the opportunity to attract like-minded people and create a virtuous cycle.

Preparing for this transition has allowed us to practice what we preach. Our work is all about making brands less dependent on individuals, clearer, more consistent, and more scalable. We are with companies during once-in-a-lifetime transition points when they need to orchestrate the careful balance between honoring the value of “what got us here” and also step bravely out into unchartered territory without dependence on any single person to bring about the future vision.

And now we are at a transition point ourselves. As we move into a new year, I am confident that David will still be with us in everything we do, just as I am confident that we will take that foundation to new heights.

I think David would agree that Mott the Hoople said it best:

Rejoyce for the king ain’t lost his throne, oh no
He’s still here, you’re not alone.

How I Learned to Let Go of Our Brand to See What it Was Really Made of

Going through a rebrand (or any major change to your company’s branding or positioning) while readying your company to scale and grow is an emotional process, akin to sending a child off to college.

Shortly after a meeting with a potential Solve for Y client the other day, he called me with a concern that had been on his mind.

“You talked in our meeting about your experience with your own rebrand at Six-Point. You said that you trusted your team and were willing to accept whatever creative they gave you. I thought that was great, but I am not sure we are ready to do that. We’ve always had a collaborative approach to our brand.” It was such a thoughtful and honest comment, it caught me off-guard.

It also made me reflect on the emotional ask that Six-Point makes of its clients. It is not a small one.

Sending your brand through Solve for Y, (our brand development program for growth-oriented “second stage” entrepreneurs) is somewhat akin to sending your child off to college. You know that they will potentially be very different when they come back to you. New clothes. New friends. Lots of new experiences. And all you can do is hope that you laid the right foundation and values in them, and that the professors and staff will be responsible for your child and cultivate what is best in them. And, although I am a long way from sending my toddler to college, I can already anticipate the pain and tears that day will hold. After all, who else would love him and care for him the way we do?

I certainly felt that way when the partners of Six-Point decided to “eat our own cooking” and ask our internal team to rebrand our company to test and hone our Solve for Y program — without our help. We would be interviewed, make our strategy and vision clear, but we wouldn’t do the work. Our team would wait and see what came back to us.

Now, just to be clear, there was no way I was going to just “take whatever was given to us.” I have a toddler now, but Six-Point is my first born. I am fiercely protective of the company and our brand, and if I didn’t like what was presented, we would be going back to the drawing board — or, like any good entrepreneur, I was prepared to roll up my sleeves and do it myself. Because, as a business owner, I can do anything; that’s my job, right?

That said, doing it myself would have been a horrible mistake. I never would have envisioned a brand like the one our creative director and the rest of the team put forward for us. Their creative talent simply dwarfs my own. Their ability to step back from my vision and show me what it would look and feel like if it came to life and stepped off the pages of my strategic plan moved me to tears.

I would never have been so bold or ambitious. I would have cut short the thinking or exploration.

“That’s good enough” is a phrase I would have said in order to have something in my hands, instead of the rounds and rounds of brainstorming they did to come up with most elegant — and effective — possible solutions to our brand challenges.

Did I love it all? Well, mostly… but I had some tough questions. It turns out they could answer them all with strong rationale. They had dwelled in the details of the brand for much longer than I had. While I might not have solved the problem the same way, their solutions were valid, thoughtful, and … if I am honest with myself, they were better than my first thoughts.

I also had some insights. But instead of saying “why didn’t you think of this,” I tried to remain in a yes, and mindset. Yes, you could do that and we could also add this feature. Yes, that language is fresh and it could also be more relevant to our target audience this way. Instead of being a downer, I was part of the new creative energy that was taking hold of our brand, a co-creator with something valuable to add.

So, bringing me back to my conversation with a prospect and the metaphor I started with… 

  • You don’t need to be ready to accept what is given to you. I would never let my son be mistreated at college and just accept it. If he was miserable, I would go and rescue him. If his friends were asking him to act outside of the values I instilled in him, we would be having some long serious talks about why that is not acceptable. That said, be prepared to let your own brand, your own people, your own company surprise you. New experiences and new perspectives are part of growing up. They make us richer, more resilient, and allow us to grow and flourish in new and exciting ways.
  • And most of all, be a proud parent. Take all the credit. Your company and your brand reflects your DNA. It wouldn’t be what it is without its roots, its values. At the end of Solve for Y, that is what should come through more than anything else. Underneath the new clothes, the new hair style, the fancy new vocabulary, you should still be able to clearly recognize the eyes and the smile of the brand you created and nurtured.

Letting go is tough. It is. But the rewards are real.

Running and Leadership Lessons

Six-Point Creative CEO Meghan Lynch is still applying leadership lessons she learned when she ran her first ultramarathon, years after the race was run. Meghan applies what she learned to her brand strategy work today, helping companies scale, grow, and sharpen their focus.

The first time I ever climbed up Mount Tom, I almost threw up. Overweight and out of shape but determined not to give up, I was climbing up a trail that was short, but ridiculously steep. I was gasping for air, trying not to embarrass myself any further in front of the friends I was with.

This person, kneeling on the rocks, would someday run a 50-mile “ultramarathon”? Impossible. Until it wasn’t.

I wrote an article about what I learned in the actual 50 mile event and how it applies to my work, but you don’t go from couch potato to running an ultramarathon without learning a few things along the way. I learned plenty about myself as a person, but I also still use that transformation as a touchstone professionally as well. Here are three nuggets I carry with me.

  • How you do it matters more than what you do. I never liked running. Until one day a hike turned into my first trail run. Instead of a suffer-fest on the road, I could bound down a hill like a child and get the lift of spirits that just comes with being in nature. I realized I didn’t hate running. I just hated road running. (I still do; it’s just not my thing.)

This is something I have applied to my professional mission as well. I know so many people who have been burned by marketing and branding agencies that now simply the word “rebrand” might as well come with a trigger warning. It made me determined to reclaim the value of branding by changing the delivery system. Could branding development be a fun experience instead of a frustrating one? Could we make clients feel part of our team instead of at odds with us? Our Solve for Y brand development program is built on the fundamental belief that yes, it is possible. Branding is not good or bad. There are just ways to make it feel better or worse for people engaged in it.

I think this applies to lots of things people will say that they “hate.” Sales. Negotiation. Networking. But what if you found a way to do these things in a way that aligns with your values and personal style? Would they really be so terrible? Or could you find some joy in them?

  • Others can see your potential more clearly than you can. I would have never dared to even attempt going the marathon distance if a friend and mentor didn’t invite me to a six-hour charity running event. “Just go as far as you can in that time. You never know!” During the last hour, when I realized I had passed the marathon point, I yelled to her triumphantly. She just grinned. She already knew.

I often get to reverse those roles when I work with our clients. I am the one saying, “Let’s just see where this takes us,” knowing that at the end of the discovery process, they will see potential in their own company and brand that they were once blind to. In fact, a big part of our Solve for Y program is centered on equipping our clients with creative ways to see new opportunity in their brands, to redefine failure, and to silence the “voice of unhelpful judgment” that keeps us from taking risks that can move us forward. We incorporate applied improv with a professional facilitator into our brand workshops as one way to help tap into this hidden potential.

The power of an outside perspective is also a reason why I am a big fan of peer learning. I have been and continue to be active in a number of CEO roundtables and formal and informal peer groups. And let me say, the outside perspective from people who really do “get” what you are struggling with is so valuable. If you are not a part of a peer group or have never experienced peer learning, find a group near you. (And feel free to reach out to me if you need ideas on where to start!)

  • Small changes will create bigger changes. I love Harvard Business School’s definition of entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. It clearly captures the trust that entrepreneurs must have in themselves and their company, as well as the huge risks they must take in order to make their vision a reality. And the higher the stakes gets, the scarier those trust leaps become. This is when focusing on small steps and wins becomes critical to getting you (and your team) to where you need to go.
Entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.

I see the effect of these ‘small steps’ with our clients. Once they have a phrase that peaks the interest of a prospective customer, they can’t ever go back to using the old language they used to love. Once they have creative that sets a new standard in quality and impact, everything else looks dingy and outdated. When they get overwhelmed with all of the changes they need to make, I will focus them on the next step, the next win. And this is because I know from experience that one will naturally lead to the next.

A client once compared our agency to a drug dealer, “Once I have had a taste, I’m not satisfied with the way things were!”

I don’t love the comparison, but I know what he meant. Endurance running became my drug, just as entrepreneurship is now. A little further. A little faster. To me, there is nothing better than the intrinsic reward of relentless forward progress.

Prevailing Through Improvisation and Collaboration

Prevailing Through Improvisation and Collaboration

One of the ways businesses can navigate change or overcome challenges in their market is exploring collaborations with like-minded brand partners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Six-Point Creative has challenged its own stance on collaborations with peers, and in some cases perceived competitors.

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” -Charles Darwin

I have always been a big believer in collaboration…in theory. After all, I started a marketing agency with two partners, right? But I was also the kid in school who hated group work. I would be the one doing all the work, not because the other kids couldn’t help, but because I was pretty sure that I could do it better on my own. I knew my own capabilities…I didn’t know theirs. Why take the risk?

I’m sure for some kids in my group that was totally fine, but if I got paired with another high achieving control freak, watch out… the battle of wills would begin, and I would usually be in tears by the end of the assignment.

But the last several years of my life have been learning to let go. To allow other people to “yes and” my vision for my company, to collaborate with me on strategy for a client, to use their strengths to balance my weaknesses.

Up until now, though, most of Six-Point’s collaboration has been internal or with trusted vendors. Yes, it was a respectful collaboration, but I was still the leader of the “group work.”

Worst case, I could pick up my poster board and glue sticks and walk home.

Lately, though, I have been kicking off truly exciting collaborations with other experts who also serve “second stage” businesses in different ways… Ruth Lund, a thinker about organizational culture whose scientific approach perfectly complements our approach to branding. Kirsten Modestow, an incredibly bright design thinker who takes my lofty theories and brings them to the minutiae of hyper consistent brand design. AJ VanWallendael and Tamala McBath, with whom I had the honor of presenting on a panel about the overlap of access to capital, talent optimization, and branding. And the list goes on…

And the best part? These are all the high achieving control freaks, but there is no battle of wills. Instead, we are drawing energy from each other in a stressful time. We are building on each other’s ideas, seeing connections and opportunity, and building out new content and programs that are far more rich than either of us could produce alone.

I would definitely encourage you to be thinking about this as a unique time when collaboration is not only more possible, it is an opportunity to prevail in an extremely challenging situation. Do you have “competitors” who are really just competing with you in name only? Or someone who offers a complementary product or service that would allow you to bring exponential value to your customers? Now is the time to go for it.

So this week I just nodded and smiled when my son confidently spouted out random addition equations. “1+1=11!” I know his preschool teacher might see it differently, but from my experience, he is absolutely correct.