There is no question that COVID-19 pandemic disruptions have been felt in virtually every sector of the U.S. economy, perhaps nowhere more acutely than in agriculture. The pandemic followed hard on the heels of three years of challenging market conditions, disastrous weather, poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs.
Some producers and the businesses that serve them may have found themselves stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, squeezed into that spot by supply chain disruptions, labor shortages or other COVID-caused difficulties.
But rather than merely getting through the tough times of the last few years, one agriculture-related business not only grew but, company leaders say, improved.
Rodger Hurt, president of Jonesboro-based Southern Marketing Affiliates (SMA), which bills itself as “America’s Ag Parts Supplier,” said that while the company experienced the same labor and supply chain difficulties that plagued the economy generally, “we [the company] made a lot of improvements at the same time.”
“When you have good processes and good leadership in those departments,” the company can grow, he said.
Launched in 1964 by the father-son team of Bill Hurt Sr. and Bill Hurt Jr., SMA began modestly with a selection of agri parts arrayed atop an old ping-pong table covered with butcher paper. Bill Hurt Sr. had been the operator of John Deere dealerships when he and Bill Jr. began the parts supply business that nearly 60 years later, still family-owned, offers some 30,000 SKUs (product items) from its deep inventory to U.S. customers.
Rodger Hurt and his cousin, Blant Hurt, serve as president and general manager, respectively. They are grandsons of Bill Hurt Sr. In 2017, the company acquired Oakdale, Minn.-based Tisco, which had operated in the Midwest and East Coast for many years.
“That acquisition forced us to make changes … that paid off,” Rodger Hurt said. “It gave us stronger systems, better management and made us a better and more reliable supplier. Our capabilities to serve our customers improved. We’re serving some of the more professional customers [in the industry].”
He said that SMA’s customers include independent farm stores, independent repair shops and OEM (original equipment manufacturers) implement dealers throughout the country, he said. A number of parts SMA supplies to its customers come from OEM plants that supply the nation’s implement dealers, he said.
“We do a good job of supplying parts for big ag,” added Blant Hurt.
SMA now supplies its customers from four warehouses — Jonesboro; Des Moines, Iowa; Corsicana, Texas; and Fresno, Calif.
“One thing that helps us,” said Blant Hurt, “is being a national company. That makes us more vital to suppliers. The four warehouses all have different dynamics. We’ve been here [Jonesboro] a long time. In the Midwest, we’re new,” for example.
“When we bought [Tisco], probably more people knew that name than they did SMA because of their long legacy,” Rodger Hurt said.
“While it’s challenging to manage,” Blant Hurt said of the nationwide company, “it’s kind of like having a diversified portfolio in the stock market.”
The company last year logged $100 million in sales.
“That was a milestone for us,” Blant Hurt said.
One of the company’s challenges is making certain it has a sufficient labor force in place. The pandemic created a “tightness of labor,” somewhat of a “free agency” mindset, Blant Hurt said. “It causes enormous frustration in managers.”
The company, however, is trying to make jobs simpler to do by using automation and other processes. Rodger Hurt said the company has a loyal, experienced workforce of about 175 people around the country despite some pandemic-forced labor challenges.
“We have a lot of 40-year employees,’ added Blant Hurt. “A lot of people come and make a career out of it. That gives us continuity.”
Rodger Hurt said they like being privately-owned and want to grow and continue to improve.
“We’re the largest company that’s privately-held [in the ag parts arena]. We’ve probably got a little appetite for another acquisition or two,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success” being privately-held, adhering to principles of service, responsiveness, professional and fair dealing.
The company, Rodger Hurt added, keeps in mind the motto of founder Bill Hurt Sr. regarding the value of acquiring a customer and keeping the customer over the long haul by being fair. “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.”