2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I try to do the right thing every single day."
Jesse Russell Flowers, who has always gone by his middle name, was born in Greenville, Mississippi, where he still maintains a residence and the corporate office of J. Russell Flowers, Inc. Russell is the oldest of three children. In 1937, at the time of Russell's birth, his father worked in construction until World War II started, at which time he joined the Navy. At the end of the war, Russell’s parents divorced. “My father was an alcoholic,” says Russell, “and I had very little contact with him until much later in life. He could be mean when he drank and was a person you just couldn’t depend on. Eventually, he overcame his alcoholism and worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. After he retired, he worked in one of my businesses during the last five years of his life. By then, he was a totally different person. He was just as sweet and nice as he could be. I was thankful for those five years.”
Russell’s mother had a high school education and worked as a bookkeeper. For a few years after the divorce, she and the three children lived with her father and then they moved in with her aunt and uncle for three years. Eventually, she saved enough to get a small house. “My mother was a good person,” says Russell. “She went to church and took care of us children. Keeping the family together was her primary goal. In fact, I would say she gave up her life for her children. Eventually, she remarried. But not until all us kids were grown and gone.”
Russell was an adept student and skipped the fifth and seventh grades. By the time he was 12, however, he had become a discipline problem in school. “Basically, I was bored,” says Russell. “I got into a few pranks, and my school suggested I be sent away to a military boarding school for one year. I went to Chamberlain-Hunt Military Academy. I missed home, but I liked the school. It was more challenging academically, and I learned a lot about discipline, which helped me moving forward.”
Russell began to think about his future and how he could improve his circumstances. He was a voracious reader, and college was an obvious direction for someone of Russell’s keen intelligence, but it was never seriously considered due to lack of funds. He had been working since he was 11. He helped his mother with household chores, including mowing the lawn and cooking meals. Russell’s first paid job was working as a helper in the machine shop at his mother’s workplace. “I only made 20 cents an hour,” he says, “but I was very proud of that job. It helped me pay for my own expenses, which helped my mother.”
Russell graduated high school when he was only 15. He decided he wanted to learn how to fly planes and used his savings to pay for a few lessons. He told his instructor, Joe Call, that he would be back to finish the course after he saved more money. Mr. Call had taken a liking to Russell and told him that he could continue wth his lessons; Mr. Call would accept payment whenever Russell could manage it. Russell soloed when he was just 16. “And yes,” he says, “I paid for my lessons in full.”
Russell got a private pilot license and then a commercial license, which led to flying for a barge company in Mississippi when he was 19. By then he had been married for two years. “I guess you could say I grew up fast,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a burden on my mother. I was on my own by the time I was 17. I married and got an apartment and had a full-time job.”
Over the next several years, Russell moved around in different jobs. He worked construction in Greenville and then went to Louisiana to work in a shipyard. While there, he worked first as a welder and then took advantage of the mechanical drawing classes he took in high school to get a job as the shipyard’s draftsman. He continued to fly full time for a company in Louisiana and then went to Houston, where he flew for a pipeline company. A year later, he returned to Greenville to work for a barge company. This time, however, he agreed to fly for them on the condition that he also be appointed assistant to the chief financial officer. “I wanted them to teach me the business,” says Russell. “I became like a sponge. I asked the CFO, Gene Shannon, 500 questions a day. I shadowed him and it was a great learning experience, listening to him in meetings and when he made transactions.” That arrangement lasted for a couple of years, until Gene Shannon became fatally ill with lung cancer. The company’s partners were going to sell out and Mr. Shannon encouraged
Russell to try and launch his own business. “He believed in me and thought I was ready to go out, on my own,” says Russell. “That meant a lot to me.”
Russell had no money with which to launch a business, but he remembered a local doctor whom he had taught to fly. He approached the doctor about his idea for a barge business, and in 1962 they formed a partnership along with one other investor and started Security Barge Line, Inc. Seven years later, Russell pulled out his portion of the partnership to form Flowers Transportation, Inc. When he sold his company, he had 18 tow boats and 480 barges.
In 1981, Russell merged Flowers Transportation with The Valley Line Company. Two years later, he purchased Central States Diversified, Inc., a packaging company. Under his guidance, the company doubled in size. Until he sold Central States in 1997, he remained chairman and CEO and was the sole shareholder. During this period of time, he was also employed in various capacities, including serving as chairman and CEO of the Marine Transportation Group of Chromalloy American Corporation of New York. He was in the banking business from 1984 to 1994. He was the largest shareholder of a bank in Greenville, which he merged into Grenada Sunburst. He served as chairman of that enterprise for two years, until it was sold in 1994. At the present time, he is chairman, CEO, and sole shareholder of J. Russell Flowers, Inc., one of the largest independent leasing companies of marine equipment in the United States.
Looking back over his long and varied career, Russell says that one of his major accomplishments worth noting was his ability to recognize opportunities that existed in businesses. “I don’t know if it was luck or ability that taught me when to get in and when to get out. I sold the barge line at the peak of the market. Part of that was luck, and part of it just seemed to be the right time to get out.”
In living his daily life, Russell believes it’s important to “try to do the right thing every single day. I have a strong work ethic. I used to go to the office at 4:30 in the morning so that by the time my employees came in at eight, I had a good handle on the business. I stayed close to my customers. I think when you own a business you owe something to your employees and customers to give it all you’ve got.”
Hard work has always been a part of Russell’s life. When he was 40, he had a sudden cerebral hemorrhage and was in a coma for 30 days. When he recovered, one doctor told him he should consider retiring. “Well,” says Russell, “I didn’t retire. In fact, I am now 76, and I am still thrilled to get up every day and go to work. My wealth says that I am a success, but for me it was always more about the deal. I love what I’m doing, and I never want to quit.”
If Russell has any regrets, it’s the fact that he never got a college degree. “Hard work served me well,” he says. “But with every job I had, I was always looking for ways that I could improve myself. I think it’s important to keep learning. Even today, I get up wondering what I will learn today. There are so many careers out there that are worthwhile if you are lucky enough to get a college education.”