March 2014
Co-op Matters

Meet Rivers Myers, AFC’s New CEO

  AFC President and CEO Rivers Myres

Rivers Myres assumes top job at Alabama Farmers Cooperative headquarters.

The new president of Alabama Farmers Cooperative was raised on cotton, switched to insurance and eventually found a home in the burgeoning catfish industry.

Put it all together and it’s evident Rivers Myres was no stranger to agriculture, big business or managerial responsibilities – assets that paved the way for the biggest promotion of his career.

His appointment on Jan. 13 to fill the vacancy left by the untimely death of AFC President Roger Pangle last December followed an intensive search for a presidential successor.

Several candidates were interviewed for the top AFC leadership position, but Myres’ credentials proved to be the deciding factor in his selection.

"Rivers’ character and integrity are impeccable and his experience in running his own division was very important when it came to picking a new president," said AFC Board Chairman Sam Givhan, referring to Myres’ tenure at Southfresh Aquaculture LLC that’s headquartered in Tuscaloosa.

Those familiar with his corporate accomplishments and popularity among employees are convinced he will be a major asset as AFC moves toward its 80th anniversary in 2 years.

AFC President Rivers Myres, right, meets with members of the SouthFresh Feed Mill crew (from left): Jonathan Bonilla, Tonia Osbourn, Debra Womack, Rhonda Haynes and Mark Lamb who has been named president of Southfresh Aquaculture.  

Myres, 53, has hit the ground running, learning the ropes during conferences with department heads, suppliers and AFC officials who enthusiastically endorsed his selection.

"Rivers is a working man’s boss, a leader with an open door policy who will listen to you," said Wayne Gilliam, manager of Tuscaloosa Farmers Co-op. "He expects you to do your job. It’s as simple as that."

Tim Wood, general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative, echoed Gilliam’s sentiments, calling Myres "an astute businessman who asks for opinions from his employees and gives them careful consideration."

"Well-rounded" and "well-grounded" are terms frequently used to describe Myres, a conscientious, hard-working illustration of their meaning.

Although he grew up on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville, Myres learned early that he would be expected to spread his wings one day and become acquainted with life far removed from agriculture.

His father wasn’t kidding when he told his son to become familiar with opportunities around him, especially one that did not focus on farming.

"He wouldn’t let me come home unless I worked somewhere else for 10 years," said Myres, who spent more than a decade working with independent insurance agents.

  AFC President Rivers Myres, right, meets with SouthFresh Aquaculture President Mark Lamb at the facility’s Demopolis headquarters. Lamb succeeded Myres as president of SouthFresh.

He would find the insurance business quite a departure from farming, but he enjoyed it because it often enabled him to help those in distress as a result of difficult times due to weather calamities.

"The insurance industry is not the villain as it’s often portrayed," he said. "If you covered everything, you’d never be able to afford the premiums. There’s always times something happens that’s not covered and it’s hard to deal with."

When Rivers and his wife Mary Tucker Myres moved to Indianola, he not only sold insurance, he also began to learn about catfish and how it has helped transform a depressed area of Mississippi.

In a way, it helped clear away any cobwebs that might have been attached to his formative years working on the sprawling family farm where he began driving a tractor at the age of 13.

He has a daily reminder about farm life – a scarred left arm resulting from an errant hoe wielded by a young worker on the other side of high cotton and grass. He didn’t see Rivers, but he left a lasting mark on Myres’ arm.

"I’m proud to have it," Rivers said of the scar. "It reminds me of where I come from and how important farming has been to me and my family."

Corporate managers, member store officials, division heads and directors of AFC subsidiaries were all involved in the selection process and Myres’ farming background helped make a final decision.

His agriculture experience may have been an important factor, but he also had management intangibles that made him the leading contender for AFC’s top job.

From left: (standing) Rivers Myres, son Rivers IV, daughter Mary Bryant, (sitting in chair) wife Mary Tucker and (sitting) daughter Tucker  

The turning point in Myres’ working career was 1995 when he joined SouthFresh Aquaculture and began to learn about catfish and what it took to raise them.

"I had a farming background and didn’t know anything about catfish," he said. "As a result, I learned all about the business from the ground floor up and it meant a lot of hours on the job."

His first days were difficult, especially when domestic bliss took a bit of a hit as he replaced his coat, dress shirt and tie with a hairnet and rubber boots and squished his way through smelly, soaking-wet rooms at a processing plant in Indianola.

"Mary Tucker told me the first night that I couldn’t come into our house until I took off my clothes," he said with a laugh as he thought about those early days on the job. "She also wondered why I’d give up my insurance career after 11 years and start all over again."

It was a good question, but Myres soon provided the answer as he advanced in his new career, impressing supervisors along the way.

"I had gotten pretty comfortable in the insurance business and took a pay cut to become involved with catfish," he said. "But, I could see the long-range potential and benefits. I’ve never regretted what I did. I’ve never looked back."

Myres’ determination to get to the top of his new career would not be at the expense of others and he made that point clear to anyone who might have had doubts.

"I wanted to do it the right way and that meant taking care of our employees," he said. "I knew that if I took care of them, everything would take care of itself in the long run."

When he became manager of the catfish processing plant, overseeing 200 workers, his ceaseless energy and concern for his workers was clear to AFC officials who visited.

"When I first met Rivers, I noticed how happy the people who worked for him seemed to be," said former AFC President Tommy Paulk. "It was a cold, wet place, but the people had a sense of urgency about them as they did their jobs."

What impressed Paulk the most was the demeanor of the workers at Indianola and he credited it all to the man in charge.

"The people there were smiling and happy," he said. "It spoke volumes to me about good management."

Myres spent 8 years as manager of SouthFresh Aquaculture before being tabbed to take over as AFC president. He wouldn’t have gotten the job without impressing Paulk and other AFC officials.

His tenure at SouthFresh occurred during a difficult period in the domestic fish industry and Paulk said Myres "did a magnificent job of running it since 2006.

"Rivers is a man of high character and is someone above reproach," said Paulk. "When he says something, you can believe him. He can determine the heart of an issue and find simple solutions to complex problems."

Myres isn’t the only AFC official receiving promotions in recent weeks and veteran observers of the organization can see "new look" leadership playing important roles immediately.

Givhan calls it "the most dramatic management change in recent history and I’m excited by what’s been done. These are good people in good places."

Gilliam used "changing of the guard" to describe the management moves and said it reflects his entry into a leadership position within AFC years ago.

"I had just gotten home from Vietnam and we were different from those in charge back then," he said. "I’m sure these new leaders taking over will do a good job just as we did back then."

One of Myres’ first appointments was to promote Al Cheatham from his chief financial officer position to chief operating officer. Cheatham, who has been with AFC for 13 years, will be responsible for overseeing organizational goals and day-to-day operations.

"Al’s leadership and vision are valuable attributes and will prove to be important assets when it comes to growing AFC," said Myres.

In addition to Cheatham’s appointment, Myres also named Tricia Arnold AFC’s new chief financial officer and Jo Ann Fuller as AFC’s new corporate controller.

Arnold has been with AFC for 12 years and has served in a variety of roles. She most recently served as AFC’s corporate controller.

Fuller has been with AFC for the past 7 years in corporate accounting and, most recently, was assistant corporate controller.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.