There is no doubt that the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt in virtually every sector of the US economy, perhaps nowhere more acutely than in agriculture. The pandemic followed three years of challenging market conditions, disastrous weather, poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs.
Some growers and the companies that serve them may have found themselves caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place, squeezed at that point by supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, or other hardships caused by COVID.
But rather than just getting through the hard times of the past few years, an agriculture-related business has not only grown but, according to company leaders, has improved.
Rodger Hurt, president of Jonesboro-based Southern Marketing Affiliates (SMA), which calls itself “America’s Agricultural Parts Supplier,” said that while the company has faced the same labor and supply chain difficulties that have plagued the economy in general, “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 farm parts laid out on top of an old ping-pong table covered in brown paper. Bill Hurt Sr. was the John Deere dealership operator when he and Bill Jr. started the parts supply business that nearly 60 years later, still family-owned, offers nearly 30,000 SKUs (product items) from its deep inventory to US customers.
Rodger Hurt and his cousin, Blant Hurt, serve as president and general manager, respectively. They are the grandchildren of Bill Hurt Sr. In 2017, the company acquired Tisco, based in Oakdale, Minnesota, which had been operating in the Midwest and East Coast for many years.
“This acquisition forced us to make changes… that were worthwhile,” said Rodger Hurt. “It gave us stronger systems, better management and made us a better, more reliable supplier. Our capabilities to serve our customers have improved. We are serving some of the most professional clients [in the industry].”
He said SMA’s customers include independent agricultural stores, independent workshops and OEM implement dealers (original equipment manufacturers) across the country, he said. A number of the parts SMA supplies to its customers come from OEM factories that supply the country’s implement dealers, he said.
“We do a good job of supplying parts for big agriculture,” added Blant Hurt.
SMA now supplies its customers from four warehouses — Jonesboro; Des Moines, Iowa; Corsicana, Texas; and Fresno, California.
“One thing that helps us,” Blant Hurt said, “is being a national company. This makes us more vital to suppliers. The four warehouses have different dynamics. We were here [Jonesboro] long time. In the Midwest, we are new”, for example.
“When we buy [Tisco]probably more people knew that name than SMA because of its long legacy,” said Rodger Hurt.
“While it’s a challenge to manage,” Blant Hurt said of the national company, “it’s like having a diversified portfolio in the stock market.”
Last year, the company posted $100 million in sales.
“That was a milestone for us,” said Blant Hurt.
One of the company’s challenges is ensuring it has a sufficient workforce. The pandemic has created a “work constraint,” a kind of “free agency” mentality, said Blant Hurt. “This causes enormous frustration to managers.”
The company, however, is trying to simplify jobs using automation and other processes. Rodger Hurt said the company has a loyal and experienced workforce of about 175 people nationwide, despite some forced labor challenges due to the pandemic.
“We have a lot of 40-year-old employees,” added Blant Hurt. “A lot of people come and make a career out of it. It gives us continuity.”
Rodger Hurt said they enjoy being privately owned and want to grow and continue to improve.
“We are the largest private company [in the ag parts arena]. We probably have a bit of an appetite for another acquisition or two,” he said. “We were very successful” being a private company, adhering to the principles of service, responsiveness, professional and fair dealing.
The company, added Rodger Hurt, keeps in mind the motto of founder Bill Hurt Sr. about the value of acquiring a customer and keeping them in the long run by being fair. “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once.”