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Advocating the Co-op way

Charles Atkins is the 2019 Cooperative Spirit Award Winner
Story by: Glen Liford 1/6/2020

In recognition of the role he played in the advancement of the Co-op system, Charles Atkins has received Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s highest honor — the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award. The award has been given every year since 1999 to an individual whose contributions have had a positive and enduring impact on Tennessee’s farmers, our state’s agriculture, and our cooperative system.

The honor was presented at the business luncheon of TFC’s annual meeting on Monday, Dec. 2 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville.

A Monroe County native, Charles, or Charlie as most know him, was a branch manager at Monroe Farmers, managed Smith and Blount Farmers Co-ops, and was later a TFC employee. During his steady rise through the ranks, he started on the Co-op training program and later accepted assignments as general fieldman, director of field services, vice president of corporate and member services, and finally as vice president of sales. Through the years, he consistently and passionately played the vital role of advocate for the cooperative way of business.

Charlie was born Sept. 28, 1940 to Ernest and Hazel Atkins. He was the fifth youngest of six boys born to the couple. The Atkins family had a small, hillside farm located just outside of Madisonville where they raised a few cattle, hogs, and a small crop of tobacco and grew corn and some cotton — unusual for East Tennessee, says Charlie, noting that the family’s 28-acre cotton base was one of only three in the county at the time.

His earliest memory of the Co-op occurred about 1945 as Monroe Farmers Co-op was just getting started. Five-year-old Charlie was in the tobacco patch with his dad when two men came by trying to sell stock to start up a Co-op. They were trying to raise $3,000 worth of stock by soliciting $30 from 100 different farmers.

“My dad’s question, of course, was, ‘Well, what’s a Co-op?’” recalls Charlie. “They explained what it was and what they were going to try to do.”

Later, Charlie’s older brother Martin went to work at the Co-op as one of the businesses’ three original employees.

Charlie graduated from Madisonville High School at age 16 and attended Tennessee Tech in Cookeville for a year before returning home to attend Hiwassee College. That was a good move for the young farm boy as it wasn’t long before he met the attractive Sarah Simpson, who had grown up in Ringgold, Ga. The two met at a basketball game, and Charlie was soon smitten. He jokes that he simply thought she would make a good wife.

“It wasn’t quite that simple,” he says, “but that’s how it ended up.”

The couple married in 1961, and their son Phil was born in 1962, followed by David in 1965, and finally Patrick in 1975.

Charlie was soon offered a full-time job at Monroe Farmers, and he left school to accept the Co-op position at age 18 on Feb. 1, 1958. As a fast learner and keen observer, he quickly noticed how much the farmers depended on employees like Manager Bob Scott and Branch Manager Billy Stately, both of whom Charlie admired. He began studying the products and trying to emulate the men to be another resource for the farmers.

“I thought if I could make recommendations to these older farmers, it might mean something,” says Charlie.

When Billy left the Co-op to enter the Air Force, Bob asked Charlie if he would be interested in the branch manager job, and Charlie accepted.

It wasn’t long before Charlie was offered another position by the owner of a local farm equipment dealership for a career move that might offer more opportunity. After Bob got wind of the move, recognizing Charlie as a future asset to the Co-op world, the Co-op manager asked TFC Fieldman Cliff Stafford if he might find Charlie a spot on the training program as a manager trainee working for Tom Phillips. Charlie joined the progam and was sent to Middle Tennessee to train.

TFC was operating Smith Farmers Cooperative on a contract basis, due to financial challenges and a devastating fire that had destroyed the store, and Phillips asked Charlie to help get things back on track. After a few weeks of hard work and tidying up, Charlie had brought in a small amount of inventory and was ready to open. He even bought spots on the local radio station and staged a grand opening.

The grand opening, though, turned out a bit less than grand. By 4 o’clock that Saturday afternoon, the phone had not rung and not a single soul had walked through the door.

“I was standing in the door by myself,” Charlie says. “I was a bit blue about the whole situation. I thought that this might not turn out too well.”

Finally, a man came walking down the alley in front of the Co-op and Charlie struck up a conversation. The man was headed to Gore Supply, a local hardware store, to purchase a pound of nails.

“He said, ‘The preacher is coming tomorrow, and my wife wants me to fix the steps,’” says Charlie. “I said, ‘We have nails.’ Only one kind of nails did he need, 16 commons – 10 cents and a penny tax. That was the total sales that day.”

After such a banner opening, Charlie was still offered the position as manager. He set about rebuilding the community’s trust in the Co-op and getting to know the county’s farmers. The business grew slowly with Charlie carefully cultivating relationships with customers, calling on dairies, poultry growers, and hog producers. The Co-op eventually got a good chunk of the feed business and opened a tire shop at the store.

“After about four years, we were No. 1 [in the Co-op system] in tires,” says Charlie.

Charlie remained as manager of the store until 1968 when the opportunity to move to Blount Farmers Co-op in Maryville came up.

Blount Farmers was a different setting. The Co-op was one of the largest in the state and was in a strong financial position. It was one of those places featured when tours or dignitaries came through the state, like the time Charlie and the Co-op hosted President Suharto of Indonesia when he visited the area.

Charlie continued as manager of the Co-op until 1972 when he accepted the position of general fieldman. In a few years, Charlie was promoted to director of field services, a role which he held until he was promoted to vice president in 1992.

Under his leadership, the field services group helped develop many of the programs and financial management tools which evolved into the modern methods today’s Co-op leaders use to effectively manage their businesses.

For example, when Charlie started as a fieldman, the Co-ops were still writing tickets by hand. Later, the field staff would be instrumental in helping move the Co-ops to the first automated point-of-sale program. Accounts receivables in those early years were maintained the old-fashioned way — by hand — and the interpretation of information for business decisions was difficult.

 While Charlie was still managing Smith Farmers Co-op, he first met the engaging James Walker, who had taken over the position as director of training in 1962. Charlie points to Walker’s placement as a pivotal time in Co-op history, noting that it was under his leadership that the system began to focus on recruiting and training the high-caliber employees for which the Co-op has become known.

Charlie certainly fit that mold throughout his career. He retired on March 22, 2002 after 44 years of devoted service to the Co-op system.

Since retiring in 2002, Charlie and Sarah have moved twice — once back to Charlie’s hometown in Monroe County and later back to Maryville. Their boys have blessed Charlie and Sarah with five grandchildren, and the doting grandparents spend as much time as they can with them.

The couple volunteers at Blount Memorial Hospital at least one day each week. And with a home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Charlie spends hours hiking favorite trails in his beloved mountains with friends. He estimates that he has hiked more than 500 miles over the last year or so.

In recent years, Charlie and Sarah have spent most of their winter months in Phoenix, Ariz., at a senior park where they enjoy socializing with friends from all over the country.

Even though Charlie has been away from the Co-op system for almost 18 years and is an outside observer now, his perspective on the system is still informed and filled with an insider’s intimate knowledge.

The success of the system, he says, has been driven by the fulfillment of the farmers’ needs and loyal people who committed themselves to the cause.

“You really get to know people,” says Charlie. “You get to know people you work with. You get to know the directors. When you’re working in the field, you get to know a lot of people. You find that they have a lot in common. That’s what makes the organization go. The people. The need is there. The people develop the products, the programs, the services, and everything to fill the need. It is that simple, and it’s that complicated. That’s what this is all about.”

Charles Atkins is 21st Walker Award Winner

Past winners of the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award are James B. Walker, 1999; Kenneth Michael, 2000; John Wheeler, 2001; J. Franklin Nix, 2002; Thomas H. Ward, 2003; Billie O. (Bill) Sparkman, 2004; W.E. Bailey, 2005; James M. Wright, 2006; Dan Smith, 2007; Philip Buckner, 2008; Allen Pogue, 2009; Vernon L. Glover, 2010; Franklin D. Black, 2011; Jerry Kirk, 2012; Johnny Daniel, 2013; David Lancaster, 2014; Sammy Young, 2015; Larry Paul Harris, 2016; Fred Brewster, 2017; and Kenneth Nixon, 2018.

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