Davis Lee, surrounded by family and many friends in the Guntersville Civic Center, was inducted as the 50th member of the Alabama Poultry Hall of Fame. Five previous inductees into the Hall of Fame were also in attendance.
Following a brief video presentation, AP&EA President John Pittard presented Davis with a lifetime membership certificate. Davis, originally fromArapahoe, N.C., has been active for many years in the Alabama poultry industry. Since 1977, when he came to work for ConAgra Poultry in Decatur, Davis has been, except for a three year stint outside of Alabama, a fixture in the Alabama poultry industry. He served as Alabama Poultry & Egg Association president from 1992 until 1993, and in 2000 he started AlaTrade Food, a further processing company which debones 4 million chickens a week. He has also started a company that markets wood pellet burning furnaces for poultry houses, as well as a company that makes the wood pellets.
Not only is he an entrepreneur extraordinary, he is also a benevolent patriot, having sponsored an Honor Flight for the World War II veterans of Sand Mountain. In 2008 he started a company called Liberty’s Legacy that is dedicated to educating school children to the meaning of liberty. It was a great party, for a worthy new Hall of Famer. Congratulations, Davis!
Davis Lee was born in a two-room house in tiny Arapahoe, N.C., located near Pamlico Sound, on the Neuse River, where his father, Lytle Lee, ran a ferry and had a small farm.
When he was born, he was so sickly that his mother’s doctor predicted that he would not live two weeks. Davis says of his mother, Eva, and of her efforts to save him, “I think she willed me to live. She would not let me die.”
Though neither his father or his mother had gotten much past the 6th grade, he credits them with equipping him to be successful. The lessons that they taught him have stayed with him all of his life.
His mother told him once, “If you’re a bread truck driver, be a very, very good bread truck driver.” Working with his father one day, he recalled that his father had told him that he would probably be working all his life, so he should make work fun. So, he asked his dad, “Where’s the fun in this?” His dad handed him his watch and told him to time himself on his next load. “Then what?” Davis questioned. “Do it faster,” his father replied with a grin. Reflecting on it today, Davis says, “I think that he meant, ‘Be all you can be and be satisfied with that.’”
Davis’s first experience with chickens came when he was 13 years old. He needed an agricultural project for school, so he ordered 100 chicks from Purina. When the chicks arrived he found that they had sent 150. However, as he watched those chicks grow, temptation got the better of him. By the time the chickens were ready for sale, there were only 52 left. He had killed and eaten the rest.
In high school, Davis participated in all sports. But he was best at baseball, winning a scholarship to Atlantic Christian College, in nearby Wilson, N.C. He majored in business administration. His parents could not support him while he was in college so he worked for two summers on a commercial fishing trawler out of Gloucester, Mass. While attending college, he worked various jobs such as a high school basketball referee and worked night shift at a pork processing plant.
In 1960, his first job out of college was at Rose Hill Poultry Company in Rose Hill, N.C., working as an accountant. By 1962, he had worked his way up to sales manager. In three years, he increased Rose Hill Poultry’s sales volume by 100 percent. By 1969, Davis was ready for a hiatus from the poultry industry, and went to work for National Spinning Company (a textile plant), as plant controller. He considers this as his “Rhodes Scholarship” in business.
He learned great attention to detail during this time. Two years later, he took the valuable lessons that he had learned in the textile industry and returned to Rose Hill Poultry as general manager. In his absence, Rose Hill had been loosing approximately $500,00 per year, At the end of his first year as general manager, the company showed a net profit, and by the end of his second year, the company made a million dollars, a 3 fold turnaround.
In 1977, he went to work for ConAgra Poultry in Decatur, Ala., as complex manager. It was here, in 1981, that he met and married Beth, his wife of almost 30 years. She had come to work at ConAgra as the breeder clerk. Both had been previously married and each had children.
In 1982, ConAgra moved him to Ruston, La. as complex manager. The experience at ConAgra in high corporate level has been and invaluable experience to Davis. Later that year, Foster Farms of California offered Davis a position as vice president of live production for the west coast poultry company. He accepted and they moved to Turlock.
Davis says that he never really felt at home in California, even though Beth loved it. Two years later they were moving back east. This time it was to Broadway, Va., as president of Rockingham Poultry Co-op. Responsibilities were multi-plant operations and all support facilities, including feed mills, hatcheries, plants and everything else. This was the position that Davis considers his most challenging, and the only position that he was ever terminated from. Still, he considers it a real learning experience.
In 1985, he returned to Alabama as vice president of sales and marketing for Spring Valley Farms in Oxford. Shortly afterwards, the company was acquired by Tyson Foods. Davis continued to work for Tyson as regional production manager. It was about this time that Davis got active with the Alabama Poultry & Egg Association. He served on various committees, rising to the Executive Committee.
In 1992, he was elected association president, serving until July of 1993. That same year, he was moved to Springdale, Ark., as vice president of sales. It was a position that he would hold for three years.
In 1996, he was named president of Keystone Foods Poultry Division and charged with consolidating the poultry operation in the south. He located the company in Huntsville, Ala., because of the technical expertise and support infrastructure already in place. He also was impressed with Cherokee Ridge and wanted to live there, having always loved living in north Alabama.
After a three-year commitment to Keystone Foods, Davis decided to retire. But retirement did not fit well with Davis’ lifestyle. One year later, in 2000, he started AlaTrade Foods, a small trading company, now a part of Davis Lee Companies.
In 2001, he purchased a small processing plant in Boaz. It grew quickly and he built his second plant in 2004. The third plant was built in 2006, and a fourth plant was added in Phenix City in 2007. Those plants now debone 4 million chickens a week and employ 1,600 people. Approximately 85 percent of those individuals are Hispanic and speak English as a second language. Because so many of his employees were Hispanic, Davis helped found a school that teaches English to Hispanic people in the Albertville/Boaz area. In fact, the Davis Lee Foundation has pledged $600,000 to keep the school running.
Housing was another issue he took on. AlaTrade is participating in a residential construction and home buying program to assist its employees in purchasing homes. He has also started a health clinic for his employees in the Albertville industrial park.
Reacting to the increasingly high price of propane gas, in 2008, he started manufacturing pellet burning furnaces to replace those propane furnaces in poultry houses. He even built a plant to produce pellets for wood burning furnaces under the company Lee Energy.
In 2008, Davis also started a company called Liberty’s Legacy which makes replicas of the Statue of Liberty. Embedded in each statue is material from the actual Statue of Liberty that was discarded when the statue was refurbished in 2006. The vision of the company is to educate school children to the meaning of liberty and freedom in this country.
Davis has obviously taken his parents’ wisdom to heart. At an age where most men have taken to their easy chairs, Davis Lee is continuing to work and he is just as obviously having fun doing it. And, like his mother’s bread truck driver analogy, Davis is driving the bread truck that touches many lives in a positive and affirming way. Davis is no Midas. He has his share of setbacks and heartaches, but with each setback, he has come back stronger and more willing to help others do the same.
Poultryman, entrepreneur, patriot and good citizen – now add Alabama Poultry Hall of Fame member to Davis Lee’s growing list of achievements.
Davis has been a patriot since his early days in Arapahoe, N.C. His family lived near the Marine Base at Cherry Point, N.C., and though they were poor, Davis’s father would often invite young Marines whom he met on his ferry home to supper.
In 2009, after an unexpectedly large corporate income tax refund, Davis remembered something his mother told him. She said, “If you ever find money, you ought to use it to help people.” And, that’s just what he did. With the money, he funded the October 2009 Tennessee Valley Honor Flight, taking 126 World War II veterans to see the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
While at Rose Hill, he began playing golf. One day, waiting to tee off, he was approached by a gangly young black kid who asked Davis if he could caddy for him. Davis asked him if he knew anything about golf. The young fellow replied that he knew nothing about the game but figured that Davis would teach him. Davis liked his attitude, and a long-term relationship began.
That youngster was M. L. Carr. Davis would eventually adopt M. L. so that he could win a scholarship to Guilford College in North Carolina, that, in the racially charged 60s, had been reserved for children of white parents. M. L. would go on to be a star basketball player at Guilford and have an outstanding professional career with the Boston Celtics. M. L. now works with Davis in his Liberty’s Legacy company and is president of Davis’ insurance company, The Dream Company, in Huntsville.