“I couldn’t have done it better myself!”
My father’s (Zach D. Cox, Sr.) entrepreneurial skills came to light at a very early age. One of his first business successes involved selling roasted peanuts in Mt. Olive on Saturday afternoons when all the farmers where in town for weekly shopping. Zach reasoned that because the profit margin was so high on a roasted peanuts (he got them from his father for free), his best business strategy would be to fill the bags to the brim and to make money on repeat business rather than trying to maximize the profit on a single sale by skimping on the numbers of peanuts. Zach’s strategy of working to develop a long term business relationship rather than sharp dealing on a single transaction was to serve him well throughout his business career.
Zach’s next big entrpreneurial opportunity occurred a few years later in 1933. In addition to being in the grip of the Great Depression, Eastern North Carolina was also suffering from a prolonged drought. One consequence of this drought was that corn production in the area around Mt. Olive was severely reduced. Because Zach’s father, R. L. Cox, Sr., and R. L.’s business partner, June Martin, Sr., sold mules to the local farmers, the shortage of corn was especially severe for them. Without plenty of corn to keep the mules fat and sleek, they wouldn’t bring a good price. However, if R. L. and June could get some corn, then they would be able fatten their mules and sell them at a premium because the mules sold by other dealers would look worn out in comparison.
By keeping their ears to the ground, R. L. and June heard a rumor that corn could be had in the northeastern part of North Carolina. The story was that corn had been planted in the great swampy peninsula between the Albemarle Sound and the Pamlico River. Normally this area was too wet to plant corn. But during the extended drought, this swampy lowland had dried up just enough to be perfect for corn. In particular, the swallow Lake Mattamuskeet had nearly dried up and almost its entire floor had been planted in corn. But this story was still unproven and R. L. and June couldn’t waste their time chasing down every rumor of corn that came their way.
But young Zach’s time was a different matter. They equipped Zach with the mule truck, a set of scales, a big stack of cloth stacks, and two of the workers at the farm supply business. They gave him a roll of cash and told him to head for Lake Mattamuskeet and try to buy some corn. In those days, there were no driver’s licenses, people drove when they were qualified to do so. So off Zach drove, heading east to Kinston, north to Greenville, and finally back east deep into the wilds of the barely populated northeastern corner of North Carolina.
After beginning to worry that the entire area had been deserted, Zach finally came upon a field of corn in the bed of Lake Mattamuskeet that had been picked. In the distance, Zach spotted a ramshackle farm house. Pulling up into the yard, fourteen year old Zach hopped out of the truck and approached an old man sitting on the porch. Zach approached the elderly farmer and inquired if he might purchase some corn. He took one look at the beardless boy in front of him and said, “Go away kid.” Then he arose and turned to walk into his house. At this rebuke, Zach opened his coat, partially pulled out a stack of bills from his inside pocket, and ran his thumb along the edge of the stack producing a riffling sound. At this, the old man stopped dead in his tracks and turned to see what had caused the beautiful music his ears had just heard. Upon confirming that cold hard cash was the instrument on which that lovely tune had been played, the old man told Zach, “You’d better go inside and talk to my wife.”
Once past the gatekeeper and sitting across the table from the decision-maker, Zach quickly struck a bargain for a truck load of corn at a price that was lower than Zach had hoped and higher that the old man’s wife had expected. A deal had been made that left both parties satisfied and wanting more. The old man then reasserted his authority and directed Zach and the two workmen to crib full of unshucked corn. The two workmen proceeded to fill the cloth sacks with corn and toss them up to Zach on the back of the truck. Zach weighed each bag on the scale, recorded the weight on a ledger sheet, and stacked the bags, all under the watchful eye of the old man. When finished, Zach took the ledger sheet back to the old man’s wife and tallied the weights and multiplied the total times the price previously agreed upon. After the old man’s wife checked Zach’s math, he counted out the money due for the corn.
Well if R. L. and June had thought they had sent Zach on a wild goose chase, they were mighty pleased when he came back with a whole truck load of geese. And when they found out the price that Zach had paid for the corn, June Martin proclaimed to one and all, “I couldn’t have done it better myself!”
Realizing that Zach was fully competent to handle corn purchases and that the price was right, R. L. and June quickly dispatched him back to Lake Mattamuskeet. Zach drove back to the old man’s house and inquired if he had any more corn to sell. After a pause, the old man said, “My son, who lives right down this road, has some corn for sale. Tell him I sent you.” With this introduction, Zach purchased another truck load of corn. With each trip, Zach returned to the old man and was directed to one or another his relatives. Eventually the rains returned, Lake Mattamuskeet refilled, and the swamps reemerged from the crop lands. And this return to the status quo also meant that corn could be grown and purchased locally. But Zach had learned a valuable lesson in business -- if you find something good, play it for all it’s worth, but don’t mess it up by overreaching.