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Friday, July 6, 2012

Cotton Man

It is the spring of 1995, and the editor of Barron's sends one of its writers to Memphis to do a story on William B. Dunavant Jr., the greatest cotton merchant in Memphis history--indeed, the greatest cotton merchant the world has ever seen. Cotton prices are on the rise, as China, India, and Pakistan have all seen their cotton crop destroyed by Mother Nature, and there's money to be made--lots of money--by the merchant who can play his cards right. And no merchant plays a better hand than Mr. Dunavant. How does he do it? In a market with so much volatility, how does he stay on top?

I can only imagine that the writer Barron's dispatched to Memphis was 27 and from the North. How else would a sentence like this appear in the final copy? "The unpredictable nature of the [cotton] trade is never far from people's minds at Memphis' Front Street cotton market, where Dixie chauvinism and nostalgia for antebellum glories have driven countless Sons of the South to dream of $1 cotton and mount suicidal Pickett's charges on the market." Predictably, Dunavant's voice is a "drawl" that is--you've got it--"smooth as molasses." And right on cue, an "air of Southern gentility" settles over his office.

To be fair, aside from the excess and cliches, the author, whose name is Jonathan R. Laing, provides an intriguing profile of Mr. Dunavant. We learn that Mr. Dunavant keeps a clean desk and writes nothing down, relying solely on his memory. His messages are delivered in shifts by one of two secretaries, who hand him notes written on sheets from scratch pads.

Mr. Dunavant, who was the principal owner of the Memphis Showboats of the old USFL, is known by many in Memphis as the guy who tried to get the city an NFL team. When that effort failed, he consoled himself by purchasing a 14,000-acre ranch in Montana. With crates of Mississippi tomatoes in tow, he spends several months a year in the Big Sky State.

At the time the article appeared in the May 8 edition, Dunavant Enterprises was buying and selling around 4 million bales of cotton a year, to the tune of approximately $2 billion, making it among the largest cotton firms in the world. In 2010, Mr. Dunavant, who is now 79 years old, sold his cotton interests to another longtime Memphis firm, Allenberg Cotton. Today, Dunavant Enterprises focuses on "logistics," that is, the transportation of goods and commodities from one point to another.

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