CEO Conversations

One Local Farm’s Experiments with Flexibility

At goBeyondProfit we are eager to hear from leaders of different industries around the state and understand the nuance of business generosity across sectors and sizes of companies. We had the opportunity to talk with Staci Willson of Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Georgia. Sunnyland is a family-owned, fourth generation pecan farm that has been in business since 1948. What started as a mail order company has grown to serve tens of thousands of customers around the world.

Perhaps what’s most informative about this conversation lies in its relatability. A pecan manufacturing company in Albany, Georgia faces the same dilemmas and pressures of any sized global business residing elsewhere in the state. How Staci and Sunnyland Farms respond to the demands of business give us valuable perspective into how to deliver on a values-based, employee-centric culture, through the good times and the bad.

What does business generosity mean to you?

I’m so passionate about this topic because Sunnyland has always been a people business and a community business. We’re a small business here in town. We’re a family business to begin with, but we also are nationwide and global.

We have always focused on our employees and the health of our employees. We’ve always strived for work-life balance, in a company where women compose about 70% of our workforce, making sure that they have the support that they need to be working women balancing all the demands of working when you have children and families that also depend on you.

Giving back to our community is just something that we’ve always believed, ensuring that we are actually investing in the community, investing in the youth as well as investing in leaders within our company and turning to our employees to guide us into the future as to what they want, as opposed to what we think.

Implementing A New Kind of Flexibility

They want authenticity and they want some kind of ownership of their work.

That’s what I think that people are looking for these days is flexibility. They want authenticity and they want some kind of ownership of their work. Telling your employees that we really support you and we want to hear from you, we want your ideas, we want you to feel invested and encouraging that open dialogue within the business.

As far as flexibility goes, it begins with asking them what they want. Really understanding what they are looking for as far as work-life balance. Something that we heard right from the start was a four day, 10 hour work week. We are actually rolling that out next week. It’s the same amount of work, but hopefully it is going to improve efficiency because when they’re there, they’re going to focus.

Another thing that we are doing is asking employees where they see themselves within our company, instead of us pinpointing where we think they would work best. Of course, we have input on it, but we’re cross training. We selected 4 leaders within the company and we’re cross-training them within multiple departments and then going back to them and asking them, where do you see yourself fitting in? Where do you want to invest your work hours? Is it in production? Is it in the office? Where do you see yourself within our company? I think that gives them a sense of ownership of work.

It’s so important to embrace change, not run from it, but embrace it, roll with it, try new things, be flexible and be willing to look for new innovative options, because it’s going to continue to change. The only thing that doesn’t change is change, it is the only constant in business. Embrace change and don’t be afraid of it.

How Mission & Values Guide Requests to Engage Socially

I think that COVID gave us a lot of challenges. We’re a food business and people really wanted to know that our safety procedures are up to par in the middle of a pandemic. We had to really just push out there that we could provide a safe work environment, but also provide a safe food product.

Also, there was just a lot of social tension nationwide. And because we do serve all over the country, we had to focus on being able to articulate our mission as a company. For instance, we want to implement things that support our employees like letting them off at noon on election days. That is very important for us, that our employees feel like we support their right to vote.

We’ve really learned to lean in to articulating our mission as a company, as employee driven and safety driven as well.

Customers feel comfortable reaching out to us and asking us to define our stance on an issue. Someone from maybe Los Angeles will call and say, “You’re in Georgia. What are your thoughts on this, that or the other?”  And for us, we’ve had to take a step back and say, as a company we are going to show our values through our work. We’re going to show that we support our communities.

I do think that moving forward into the future our customers are requesting more transparency of our values. They want to see what we’re doing to support Earth Day. They want to know what you’re doing as a company to help the environment and they want you to market it. They don’t want you to just hold it close to the vest. No, they want to know what you are actively doing to help. Making sure that we are staying authentic to our core values, I think is most important.

The consumers are selective now. Like they’re so selective, they want to know what your mission is, what your values are, they’re very hands on and selective of which company they’re going to go with for their needs.

Staci Willson
Creative Director, Sunnyland Farms
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