Larry Leslie isn’t someone who freezes at the thought of challenges because he thrives on them.
How else can you describe a man who loves to climb some of the highest mountains in the world and does it by taking one step at a time without looking at the summit?
He views business the same way and has succeeded by setting goals and rules to avoid any roadblocks that might be in his way.
Business ventures can have unique challenges, but Leslie has conquered them with ease as general manager of Cherokee Farmers Cooperative.
For the second time during his three-decade-plus career with Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Leslie has been named E.P. Garrett Manager of the Year. It’s a singular achievement and is based on performance, not popularity.
He was honored February 13, 2013, by AFC’s Chief Executive Officer Roger Pangle at the organization’s 76th annual meeting held at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery.
"I’ve always pushed myself to reach my goals, my limits," said Leslie, 59, who also was named Manager of the Year in 1987. "I do it by not only setting goals but rules that tie in with them."
Growing up on a farm in the Tennessee Valley region between Guntersville and Scottsboro, Leslie learned all about hard work and responsibility at an early age.
After attending an area junior college, Leslie picked up a business degree at Auburn University and completed a stint in the Army before joining Monsanto, one of America’s largest chemical companies.
It didn’t turn into a career choice, however, because he was searching for something else and opted for a job with AFC as a management trainee. The pay was a lot less, but he could see something special down the road by carving out a career within the big Co-op family.
One of his first jobs was in Jackson County where he was sent to help operate a store and granary in Stevenson. That’s where he quickly learned just how hard managers and staff are expected to work at AFC facilities.
"I was working seven days a week, often 15-16 hours a day," he said. "It came out to about $1.85 an hour, but I wasn’t going to complain because I was learning."
A few months later, he was working at AFC headquarters in Decatur where his accounting skills were put to good use as he learned the ropes of the huge business.
It was a whirlwind training program where he got an understanding of just about every department within the organization. He also spent a few days on the road learning about peanuts at Anderson Peanut Co. and plants at Bonnie Plant Farm’s operation in Union Springs.
Then, in March of 1981, good fortune smiled on him in a big way – an opportunity to go to Cherokee Farmers Co-op where he trained under Phil Phillips.
"I thought I had died and gone to heaven in Centre," he said. "I’ve been there ever since and couldn’t be happier."
Cherokee Farmers Co-op was born in 1933 during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, but members didn’t let it keep them from establishing a farm supply store that could supply their agricultural needs.
Under Leslie’s leadership, Cherokee Co-op has continued to set the pace in the region. Part of that pace was becoming aware of expansion possibilities and it has paid off royally.
In 2010, Cherokee’s board met with AFC representatives and agreed to merge the Piedmont and Jacksonville operations into the Cherokee Cooperative.
Improvements were immediate and, the following year, Cherokee Farmers Co-op invested $1 million on new high-tech fertilizer equipment trucks to meet customer needs.
That substantial investment quickly paid for itself as they experienced sales increased by 100 percent over the previous year.
Leslie likes to point out that his AFC "Manager-of-the-Year" award is but a reflection of the support he has received from his employees at the Centre, Piedmont and Jacksonville stores.
"They all work as a team for one common goal, and that is to serve their customers with the best prices and service possible," Leslie said.
He also extends part of the credit to his board for giving him the opportunity to manage Cherokee Co-op "without any restrictions."
Leslie said the most recent business year included a projected goal of $15 million in sales and, while his operation came close during a difficult economic period, still reached $12.5 million.
The plan for the current year is that same $15 million sales goal and those who know Larry Leslie won’t be a bit surprised if it is reached.
Good health has enabled him to maintain a busy work schedule, not to mention his determination to reach as many mountaintops as he can.
Several have challenged him including Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Rainer, Mount McKinley and several more. On each occasion, he had reached the top and his goal.
His ultimate personal goal is to take on Mount Everest which is, at 29,000 feet, the tallest summit in the world.
Many have tried and died in their quest to reach the top and Leslie has no intention of trying that. What he’d like to do is just reach the base camp at a "mere" 17,600 feet.
"That’s my goal for Everest," he said, as the annual AFC meeting was wrapping up and he was preparing to head back to Cherokee County. "My strategy has always been to take one step at a time and not to look at the top. I’ve always been successful that way."
Leslie loves wide open spaces and, in addition to mountain climbing, enjoys scuba diving, snow skiing and kayaking. Then, there’s photography. He can’t wait to haul out his camera equipment to record beauty through his lenses.
If he says he’s going to Wyoming, Colorado and other wide open Western states to "hunt," it’s with his cameras, not his rifles.
Retirement is in the offing for Leslie and he has indicated he plans to relocate, possibly to Wyoming.
That may happen in a couple of years or so, but, until then, he’ll be hard at work in Cherokee County where he has established himself as one of Alabama’s leading Co-op managers.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.