He may be young, but Quality Cooperative’s general manager has proven he’s got the right stuff to lead in challenging times.
"Loyal." "Innovative." "Progressive." Ask folks who know him to describe Ryan Williams, general manager of Quality Cooperative Inc. in Greenville and recipient of the 2016 E.P. Garrett Manager of the Year award, and these are a few of the words you’re likely to hear.
"When I hired Ryan, I noticed there was something special about him," said Chris Casey, general manager of Jay Peanut Farmers Co-op and the award’s 2015 recipient.
Williams got his start with Alabama Farmers Cooperative Inc. as a management trainee working for Casey, then general manager of Altha Farmers Co-op in Altha.
"Ryan has a good head on his shoulders. He’s even-keeled," Casey said. "I’d tell him to do something, and he’d go get it done – and he’d do it right."
Furthermore, Casey said, he often didn’t even have to tell Williams what to do, because the young man showed initiative, taking it upon himself to complete tasks he knew needed doing.
That’s why, after just a few weeks under Casey’s supervision at Altha, Williams was sent to take over as branch manager at Altha’s store in Marianna. Casey said he needed someone there he knew he could trust.
By his second year at Marianna, Williams had turned that location into a profitable one. Under his leadership, the store’s gross margins improved every year.
When the opportunity to become a general manager presented itself, Williams was ready. In 2010, he took over the struggling Greenville location.
"It was a bleak picture," AFC President and CEO Rivers Myres said.
According to Myres, by embracing change and bringing positive energy to his team, Williams was able to transform Quality Co-op into a store that’s not only profitable but thriving. Within five years, sales at the location had risen 178 percent, gross margins had nearly doubled and working capital had improved by $820,000. Moreover, patron equity had grown 175 percent to $1.3 million.
As impressive as all of this is, do not expect to hear Williams boast about the work he does day-in and day-out. Instead, he gives credit to those who helped him achieve the success he’s now enjoying.
"Thanks to Chris Casey for giving me a job 10 years ago – for seeing something in me I didn’t see in myself," Williams said after receiving the surprise honor at AFC’s 80th annual membership meeting in February. He also thanked Ashley, his wife of a little over a year, who he calls "a great listener and supporter."
Ryan was surrounded by his family at the annual meeting when he was announced as Manager of the Year. From left are Jimmie and Becky Jones, Ashley Jones-Williams, Ryan, Nancy and Ronnie Williams, and Megan Williams.
Williams thanked the Quality Co-op Board of Directors, a group he said has been "nothing but supportive" of him, giving him the reins and trusting him to do what needed to be done to turn the store around.
One Quality board member who was not able to attend the February event was Ted Tindal, who passed away in December.
"I was so grateful Mrs. Judy [Tindal] was able to be there at the banquet," Williams said. "This award would have meant the world to Mr. Ted. When I looked out and saw Mrs. Judy there, I started to get choked up."
Williams was able to recover and did not stop thanking folks before giving credit to his staff, who he describes as a great team. A former Alabama Southern Community College basketball player himself, Williams knows the value of teamwork.
"We have a good working environment, and each person knows his responsibilities and does them," he said. "They deserve this award as much as I do."
Not a product of an agricultural background or an ag school, the Conecuh County native and son of two lifelong educators described himself as an "underdog" when he entered AFC’s management trainee program.
"I had a lot to learn when I started out – still do," Williams said, explaining that, though he considers his degree in business administration and marketing from Troy University an excellent foundation for what he now does, he entered an ag-related career with very little knowledge about agriculture.
So, he set about educating himself the best ways he knew how, reading as much as he could about farming and AFC in his free time, asking lots of questions and listening carefully – both when his customers were talking to him and when they were conversing with each other.
"I just picked up as much as I could early on," he said.
The knowledge he’s gained has certainly paid off. Truth be told, attaining AFC’s highest honor was a goal he set the day he landed his job as a general manager.
To be eligible for the award, one must have been in a general manager position for a minimum of five years at the same location and have recorded a profit for five consecutive years. 2016 was Williams’ first year of eligibility for the award.
"I knew it was the first year I was eligible, but I didn’t think there was any way I’d win it," he said.
One reason for that is the unique market his Quality Co-op serves. Although the surrounding area was once dominated by agriculture, that is no longer the case. Williams and his staff serve a customer base that is predominantly suburban nowadays – not your typical Co-op crowd.
The market he’s in has forced Williams to think outside the box, offering more products that appeal to the gardener and homeowner than you’ll find at the usual Co-op. He has introduced popular brands to the store and seen them prove quite appealing to his customers. He’s also made effective use of Facebook to promote the store; a move Myres commended him for in his remarks before announcing the recipient of the award.
"Ryan is going to be one of our future leaders in AFC," Myres said.
As such, Williams offers a few pieces of advice to those who, like him, have their hearts set on excelling at what they do – especially if that’s leading an AFC retail location.
"Treat people right. Be a man of your word. Be personal with people. That’s more than half the battle," he said. "Once you gain someone’s trust, everything else will take care of itself. If you treat people right, service what you sell and stand behind your word, that goes a long way."