It ain't easy being king. But if the smile on Noal Lawhon's face these days is any indication, it does have its moments.

King, of course, is Delta King Seed Co., the soybean seed company based in McCrory, Ark., which Lawhon launched in 1992. At the time “we thought there was an opportunity for a small seed company that understood farming a little better than some of the bigger companies,” Lawhon said. “We decided there was a place for somebody like us.”

Apparently, there was. According to a company analysis across all Mid-South university testing sites, Delta King seed began to rise in popularity after 1997.

That year, Delta King soybean varieties finished as a top-five-yielder 2.4 percent of the time across all sites tested. The percentage more than doubled the next year, to 6 percent, rose to 10.8 percent in 1999, 17.1 percent in 2000 (which topped the market), and 23.8 percent in 2001. The latter was good enough for second place behind Asgrow soybean varieties.

“I think we hear the heartbeat of agriculture,” said Lawhon, when asked to explain the company's success. “I go to the coffee shop (Jo Jo's in McCrory) every morning and drink coffee with farmers. I hear when things are going right and when things are going wrong.”

The connection with the farmer gives Lawhon a sense of direction for his company. For example, shortly after Delta King released its first conventional soybean variety, Delta King 5850, Lawhon spent a day looking at 80-acre test fields comparing Roundup Ready soybeans and conventional soybeans. The Roundup fields were clean as a pin while the conventional fields were grown up with weeds.

“I was a doubting Thomas, but at the last field we went to that day, I sidled up to the farmer who had that farm. We went to the backside of the truck and I asked him, ‘What's the difference here?’

“The farmer said, ‘I spent $54 an acre on the conventional field, and you can see the problems I had. Plus I'll probably make 5 bushels less. I spent $14 an acre on the Roundup beans.’

“That was $40 an acre difference in weed control costs. Then you add 5 bushels. At that time, soybeans were a little over $6, that was $30. It added up to $70 an acre. The farmer said that the next year he was going to try to plant every acre in Roundup Ready soybeans.”

Lawhon spent the next year trying to gain approval to be a Monsanto licensee. The effort was successful, and in 1994 “we licensed a variety, which became Delta King 5961 RR.”

What happened next might not have been the smartest thing to do. Lawhon placed the variety in university tests, all the while knowing that some yield drag might be expected in new Roundup Ready varieties.

“I guess I didn't know any better. But I thought if it's not as good as a conventional variety, then I'm not sure that I want it because I would have a hard time selling it to a farmer.”

But the variety surprised everyone and came in eighth in the University of Arkansas variety trials. Lawhon recalls, “Once again, I wasn't as smart as I should have been, but I lucked up. Sometimes, you gotta be lucky.”

That started a flood of phone calls about the variety and Delta King Seed Co. “We started producing as much of it as we could.”

Staying on top

The words “It ain't easy being king” are embroidered on a small pillow in Lawhon's office. The words were never more appropriate for the upstart company.

“We want to stay up there,” Lawhon said of Delta King Seed. “But if your product doesn't perform, it's like anything else. You can have the best advertising campaign in the world, and it won't make much difference. Performance has been most of the reason for our success.”

Today the company has 18 soybean varieties (15 Roundup Ready and three conventional varieties) and seven wheat varieties. Delta King Seed has opened markets all across the South, as far east as the Carolinas. Ninety percent of the company's soybean sales are Roundup Ready varieties.

The company has stepped up its variety testing program, hiring Monty Malone, who formerly tested soybean varieties for the University of Arkansas.

The company recently hired Rick Rice, who had worked with Monsanto and Aventis, as the company's marketing director. “He had watched us the past few years and liked what he saw with the way we ran our business,” Lawhon said.

This year, the company is offering 100 percent inventory protection to its dealers. (The company will buy back any leftover seed at no cost to the distributor.)

The move makes things easier for the dealer, but is risky for Delta King Seed. Lawhon felt it was something the company needed to do.

“If a dealer is willing to put our soybean seed on his floor, then we shouldn't penalize him if something happens and farmers are planting more cotton or rice and he has a bunch of soybean seed left over.

“We want to pat him on the back, tell him he did a good job with what he did and maybe next year, he'll do more.”

Lawhon has turned the future of Delta King Seed over to a management team consisting of himself, Randy Currier (Lawhon's right hand man on the seed side), Tony Holder (manager of all retail locations), Mike Osier (plant manager for all seed operations) and Mark Holland (director of communications and financial advisor). Lawhon's son, T.J., became a member of the management team this past January.

“The team concept is kind of like Congress,” Lawhon said. “We work through problems, make concessions and negotiate until we're all on the same page.”

That leaves Lawhon to worry about other things. Like a new technology or transgenic trait suddenly changing the way farmers farm. He spends hours thinking about the company's future focus and wants Delta King Seed to be there when soybeans with genetically enhanced yield and drought resistance become available.

Sometimes, keeping a business on top means spending hours away from family. Lawhon, an admitted workaholic, was headed that way, too, until his life changed about 14 years ago.

“Nobody knows it, but I have two lives,” he said. “I have a home in north Little Rock where I spend the weekends. That's another part of my life.”

The division was necessary. In the mid-1980s, his marriage to his wife, Joanna, was starting to stress due to the time Lawhon spent away from home. “Finally, I realized that the only way I was going to ever quit being a workaholic was to get out of here every now and then.

“We talked about moving to north Little Rock to get away from the business. The idea was that I would delegate and turn loose some of the decision-making.”

But the plan really didn't come together until one weekend. At the time, Lawhon and Joanna wanted to rent a house in north Little Rock and put their children into a Catholic school there. But the house they wanted to rent was being sold and they were told that the waiting list for the school was three years long.

But one afternoon, there were two messages waiting on their answering machine in McCrory. One was that the deal had fallen through on the house and it was now for rent again. The very next message was from the Catholic school informing them that they had openings for their children.

“If there was ever a vision telling me that this was what I needed to do, this was it. So I made the decision to try it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. It was one of the best decisions in my life.”

And so Lawhon tends to business during the week in McCrory, maintaining a home there, and the rest of the time in north Little Rock, tending to family needs.

“It made me change the way I do things,” Lawhon said. “I'm still a workaholic, but I'm not as bad as I used to be. I started learning how to delegate, where before I wanted my hand on everything. But now, seeing our people excel is as enjoyable as making a sale myself.

“I think we finally learned to accept each other's faults,” Noal said of the maturing relationship with Joanna. “When I'm home, she treats me like a king.”

Indeed, being king does have its moments. The Lawhons will celebrate 35 years of marriage in August.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.