Running a successful business requires a total team effort and Karen Linker of the Franklin County Co-op was the first to acknowledge that fact when she received the E.P. Garrett Manager of the Year Award for 2008.
"This would not be possible without Kristy, my staff and my family," Linker said after being named manager of the year at Alabama Farmers Cooperative’s 72nd annual meeting on Feb. 4-5 at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham.
She referred to Kristy Martin, her assistant manager, along with employees Brandi Hood, Rowland Looney, Greg Harville, Billy Cooper and Randy Cook—a loyal staff who helped her resuscitate a business that had been on its last legs earlier this decade.
When Linker arrived at the Co-op in 2002 as a bookkeeper, she may not have known much about the intricacies of agriculture, but she did know people are people no matter what their surroundings.
She was a quick learner, too, and, a year after her arrival and promotion to manager, smiles began to replace frowns on both sides of the counter because of Linker’s belief in a two-word path to business success.
"‘Customer service’ is the reason we’ve done so well," said Linker, who was surrounded by well-wishers and family members not long after AFC President Tommy Paulk announced her selection as manager of the year. "When you make people feel welcome, they will keep coming back."
Linker became only the second woman to be honored with the coveted cooperative manager-of-the-year award. Frances Dahlke won it in 1978 — making Linker the first female recipient in three decades.
During his introduction of the manager award, Paulk began to outline accomplishments of the winner. It didn’t take long for many in the packed hotel ballroom to begin looking over at Linker because they knew immediately she was the one he was referring to.
They were well aware of what she had accomplished since becoming manager and those who didn’t were soon apprised of her success by Paulk.
He said once she had been promoted from bookkeeper to manager, the business "began the ascent of a store that had struggled for years and was on the brink of closing."
"Today, the Franklin County Co-op is a profitable, viable business providing valuable services to its members," said Paulk.
The annual award is not based on popularity. Co-op managers must show in their records how well they’ve done during the year. Many have good years, but it takes a special manager to become best of the best.
In the five years since Linker has been manager, the Co-op in Russellville has shown a 165 percent growth in sales. In 2008, sales were $2.8 million with accounts receivable at a solid 99 percent current rate.
The Co-op’s profit growth has increased five-fold since Linker took over, said Paulk, who added she is "very much a people-person and knows a manager is only as good as the people who work for her."
During her 13 months as a bookkeeper, all Linker had to do was look around the Co-op and see things weren’t being handled properly, especially on the management level.
Prior to joining the Co-op, Linker had worked in hotel management and helped unemployed Alabamians apply for benefits. Dealing with people in various capacities and walks of life had, unknowingly, helped her prepare for the best job she’s ever had.
"The Co-op was in bad shape when I was promoted," she said. "They were talking about closing it and I had some ideas I thought would help save it."
She said the first thing she did was "just be what I’ve always been and that’s a people-person. That’s something I’ve been all my life."
It didn’t take long for Linker and her staff to rebuild the trust between area farmers and the Co-op staff who served them.
Linker told the Franklin board of directors that, while it would be quite a challenge for her, she felt she was up to the task and was eager to try and turn things around.
Growing up in the Morgan County community of Hartselle, Linker learned the value of hard work, dedication and good ethics from her parents, Leslie and Fay Odell. She made sure to thank them when she received her award.
Farmers who walk into the store today are treated like members of the Co-op family with everybody referred to by their first name.
"Karen’s not only my boss, but my best friend," said Martin, who has been Linker’s right arm since taking over as manager. "She deserves this award more than anybody. She has done a wonderful job."
Martin said it must have been a no-brainer when the Franklin County Co-op Board of Directors began looking for a new manager.
"They knew they had a winner when they saw her for the first time," she said. "Karen has shown them since taking over that she not only could do the job, she has done it."
Paulk pointed out to the large crowd that becoming manager also provided Linker with an unexpected benefit — a husband.
"It’s where she met Don Linker while he was working for a local dairy," Paulk said. "They were married in 2003 and combined two families into one."
The AFC president then presented Linker with icing on a very special cake when he turned around at the podium and gave her the keys to a new Chevrolet pickup truck for her use during the year.
Standing right behind her were her proud husband and members of their family who were on hand for her big moment.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.