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On the Job with Howard Corbett

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

"On the Job With..." is a weekly feature of Sunday Inc. Today's feature is on Howard Corbett, president of Chem Nut Inc. in Lee County.

Q. If you were a young adult fresh out of college, what would you do first in searching for a job?

A. My advice to young graduates today (and I would do the same thing) is to determine over the first few working years exactly what it is they have a passion for. Through my closest friends, and a few others, I would want an honest assessment of my attitude and whether it needed adjusting. People with passion for what they are doing, commitment and a good attitude not only will get a job, they also offer the best opportunity to keep one.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first-ever paycheck?

A. No matter what, my mother made me give 10 percent to the church. Then I put a little money aside out of each check until I saved $900. It has been a long time ago and I don't remember all the details. However, I bought a slightly used 1963 Chevy SS. It was burgundy with "four in the floor", bucket front seats, 327 cubic inches bored and stroked to 300 horse power. It had a Holly four barrel carburetor with dual glass pack mufflers with chrome tips and a raised front end. Wow, it was hot.

Q. What's the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. When you have the right people it is not so difficult. We try to give our employees the tools and help them develop the skills they need to perform their jobs successfully. When an employee takes ownership and proves to be responsible, you have to turn them loose. We are fortunate to have a lot of people like that at Chem Nut, Inc.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I grew up on a farm and don't remember my first job. There were animals to take care of and many other duties that had to be done every day. We grew cotton, soybeans, wheat and other crops. As I recall, I did not get paid much money for the duties around the farm. My first official job was bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. I was 16 and made 50 cents an hour plus a little tip now and then. It was enough to buy one tank of gas each week, take my girl to the movie and buy one Coca-Cola each day at school. Actually, I was on top of the world and felt like I had everything I needed.

Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your own business?

A. My predecessor and a founding father of Chem Nut, Carroll Harpole, offered me the opportunity. Chem Nut was a valuable customer of mine for 15 years prior to me coming. I knew most of the owners and hundreds of agricultural retailers associated with Chem Nut. I was very much aware that those stores were a valuable asset to the local farmers in their marketing areas and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, the opportunity to live in South Georgia was appealing. I love the people in South Georgia. For me they have the perfect balance of humor, sincerity and values.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. It seems that I have always had the right people to come along in my life at exactly the right time. I am most appreciative for my vocational agriculture teacher in high school. His name is Spencer Smith and he spent his entire career teaching at Wagener High School in Wagener, S.C. He recognized something in me that even I did not realize about me and it truly changed my direction. He challenged me to go to college. To appreciate this story you have to understand that college was not my interest and my grades reflected my lack of effort. Also, I was already a senior in school and it seemed too late to think about college. Mr. Smith personally drove me to Spartanburg Junior College (SJC) and, somehow, talked the dean of admissions into accepting me. School was not easy. However, I finished SJC and transferred to Clemson University where I got BS and MS degrees. God often puts very special people on earth. Mr. Smith is special.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?

A. Basics, basics, basics! Understand and embrace your core strengths and the things you do better than anyone else. Also, whether it is a family, small business or a large business, you have to manage your debt and stay within your means. We have done a good job managing our debt.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology - examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. - what would you most like to see go away?

A. The technological advances have been superb. It is the way some people use the technology that I would like to see go away. It would be nice to see things like poor cell phone etiquette, spam and hackers disappear.

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. I remember saying that cell phones were too intrusive. Now I must admit that I cannot live without my Blackberry. The predictions of what future gadgets will do for us are astonishing.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. "Shadow Warriors" by Tom Clancy. I have read most of his books. The best was "The Hunt for Red October." I read many of the monthly agricultural magazines and journals regularly to keep up with changes in our industry. Every day I read The Albany Herald. The Squawkbox is a real hoot.

Q. You're up and going by? And what is your morning routine?

A. I am up and going by 6:30 each morning. It does not take me long to get ready so I am at work from 7 to 7:15. We have several people that arrive before I do and they usually have the coffee ready.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. Golf, fishing and hunting are my regular hobbies. I don't have much to cheer about this year but I am also an avid Clemson football fan. There is always next year. One of my most enjoyable hobbies these days is playing with my grandchildren. I have three, ages 2, 7 and 19. The two youngest require a lot of energy, but all of them bring a lot of joy in our lives.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. I have made my share of mistakes and bad decisions. For the most part I have been fortunate to have enough good people around me not to have made career-ending mistakes. I missed hiring several people that turned out to be outstanding at their jobs with other people. I will admit to other mistakes I have made but I don't particularly like talking about them.

Q. Best thing about your job?

A. It does not take long to think about this one. Every day I look forward to being around the Chem Nut people. Any way you measure it we have experienced a lot of success even through the recent recession. The reason is because we have really good people.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. You have heard it said there is a fine line between your weaknesses and strengths. This question can be answered the same way. The travel required in my job is hard. Agriculture, like so many industries, has become a global business. We have been on flights 18 - 20 hours. That is tough. But, I have also enjoyed every place we have been.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. I have given this question a great deal of thought because I have taken quite a few very good courses. However, I use the typing skills I learned in high school every day.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. I would love to be able to sing and entertain people like Jimmy Buffett. Of course, I must first dream that I can sing.

Q. Finish this thought; "on the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself...

A. A lot more involved in my community and family. As I have already stated, my job requires a lot of travel. I am not complaining because I have enjoyed every moment of it. I will be available when I retire. I can also see myself with an eight-pound bass in the live well.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. I have heard business people answer this question many different ways. And it is true that it requires many skills to be an effective leader. For me it is making sure that everyone is treated fairly. I have learned that people will do extraordinary things as long as expectations are the same for everyone.

Q. Crystal ball time: What's your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?

A. The recovery of the local economy will be in step with recovery for the U.S. as a whole. I think our recovery will be slower than a lot of people are hoping for. Even with the stimulus package and financial institutional bailouts the jobless rate remains very high and our national debt is concerning. For our economy to be in full swing a lot more people will have to be employed in meaningful and productive jobs. Some economists believe that it may take 5 years or longer and I agree. We continue to be in challenging economic times.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. You will find just about everything but opera on my iPod. I prefer music that I can tap my foot to like country and southern gospel. I use music to lift my spirits, not lower them.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change the Albany area will see in the next 10 years?

A. Talking about sensitive subjects can be risky. I have three comments concerning this question. Everyone must be involved for the good of the area. The educational issues in this area have to be acknowledged and addressed. The racial divide must get better. Local politics must work for the good of everyone. I really don't know what to expect over the next 10 years. If we don't make progress in these areas we will likely be right where we are today or worse. Let us all hope that we all work together. I believe that we can make great progress in these three areas. If we do, Albany will be a much better place to live and work.

Q. What was the best vacation you've ever taken? Why?

A. Three years ago my wife, Jackie, and I went to South Africa with a large group of other Chem Nut associates. We stayed in Lions Sand, Ivory Lodge in Sabi Sabi. There were two driving safaris and one walking safari each day. Riding over each hill and around each corner was remarkable views of landscapes and animals. Every minute was a surprise.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. The technology in agriculture today and coming in the future is amazing. Genetically modified plants can be made to have higher yields, reduce crop vulnerabilities to stress such as drought, increased nutritional qualities, improve taste, texture and appearance of food, and reduce dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. Tractors can be managed with little or no assistance of a driver. These new techniques are making our existing farm land more productive and manageable. And it has to. The world has to prepare for an additional three to four billion people over the next 20 years. It is all very exciting.