Horatio Alger boy meets legendary fisherman, becomes nation’s largest manufacturer of soft bait fishing lures.
Terry Spence has been all about fishing lures since he first encountered one back in the early 1960s.
For many people, the old Andy Griffith Show perfectly personified what life was like in a small Southern town in the ’50s and early ’60s. This apt depiction began with the opening credits, a famous sequence showing Andy and his son, Opie, heading off to a local fishing hole.
Terry Spence grew up in that world. As a young boy in the southeastern Alabama town of Eufaula, Spence went fishing every chance he could get. Whenever he wasn’t at school or stocking shelves at his great-grandmother’s grocery store, Spence would dig up some live worms — wigglers, as they were called — and cast away the day at Lake Eufaula or one of the many catfish ponds in the area.
Then one day in the early 1960s, a fisherman walked into the grocery store, opened up his metal tackle box and handed something to Spence that fascinated the young boy. It was a brightly colored plastic worm.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen one of those in my life, and I thought it was the neatest thing,” Spence recalls. “He gave me three or four of them. I went to the sink, cleaned them up real good and went bass fishing.”
Spence did not know it at the time, but when he looked at that worm he was gazing into his future. Because for the past 32 years, he has been the head of Eufaula-based Southern Plastics, which has grown into the nation’s largest manufacturer of soft bait fishing lures. According to Spence, Southern Plastics produces and ships approximately 1 million units of product each week, with annual gross sales in excess of $7 million.
Spence’s journey from digging up real worms to making artificial ones truly began in 1967, when legendary Alabama angler Tom Mann moved his fishing tackle manufacturing business from Enterprise to Eufaula. The 14-year-old Spence quickly decided that was the type of place he would like to work. So he called the main number at Mann’s Bait Co. and asked to speak with Mr. Mann. To Spence’s surprise, he was immediately put through.
Spence told Mann he was out of school for the summer and was hoping to get a job at his company. Mann replied that he didn’t have any openings at the moment and told Spence to “check back later.” So Spence waited all of one day and then called again. An exasperated Mann repeated what he had told Spence the first time, including the line to “check back later.” That was all the opening Spence needed to call Mann yet again the following day.
This time Mann told Spence to come to his office. So Spence jumped on his bike and made the two-mile trek. Mann gave Spence a job in the paint department, but not doing any actual painting. Instead, Spence would spend hours mundanely hanging jigs on a board that would later be dipped into the paint. Every time he filled up both sides of the board, he earned 10 cents. Spence said he made $2 to $3 each day.
“This went on for two months,” Spence says. “And every time Tom came into the paint shop, I was begging him to move me into to the main building and put me on the clock. Finally he did. He told me later, ‘I thought I’d get rid of you by putting you in the paint shop hanging jigs, but you just wouldn’t go away.’”
The job soon became one of necessity for Spence. He was basically raised by his great-grandmother, he relates, and she began having health problems. So in 1968, at the age of 15, Spence moved into a small apartment in the back of a beauty shop. He would go to school until 3 p.m., then start working at Mann’s at 3:30 and stay there until 10 or 11 p.m. He would sneak in a quick hour or so of studying, then do it all again the next day.
“I did that for three years,” Spence says. “And I was still fishing like a fool back then. I would go to farm ponds probably four days a week. Sometimes I’d get up early and fish before school. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Spence’s determination impressed Mann. So when Spence neared graduation from high school, he recalls Mann telling him, “I’m not going to try to discourage you from going to college, but you have a job here for as long as you want.” And with that, Spence’s career path was set. He worked his way up through the company, moving from the shipping department to being in charge of purchasing raw materials to overseeing the development of new products. Then in 1981, at the age of 28, he was named general manager.
In addition to owning Mann’s Bait Co., Tom Mann, along with his brother Don, opened Southern Plastics in 1971. Their primary customer was, obviously, Mann’s Bait Co., though they also produced some products for then-fledgling Bass Pro Shops. Following Don’s death in 1984, Tom Mann decided to sell Southern Plastics and approached Spence about buying it. Spence agreed, then spent the next 10 years worrying that he had made a bad decision.
“It’s by the grace of God that this company is still here,” Spence says. “It was a very sick company when I took over, with a lot of debt. It took a good 10 years to turn the corner. There were a lot of sleepless nights. But the suppliers worked with us. They didn’t cut us off. They all supported us, and the company survived.
“I especially can’t say enough about Johnny Morris (founder of Bass Pro Shops), because this company would not be here today if not for Bass Pro. We would have long since been busted. But they stuck with us during the hard times, and we weathered the storm. Bass Pro has gone from buying about $600,000 a year from us to over $3 million. We developed a strong relationship with them, and that helped get Southern Plastics’ name out there across the nation, and other people started coming to us.”
Today, Southern Plastics thrives. Over the past 10 years, the company’s facilities have grown from less than 15,000 square feet to more than 70,000, with new buildings for manufacturing and packaging. The company has more than 80 full-time employees and will expand its staff to as many as 140 during busy times of the year.
Earlier this year, Spence promoted Lisa Hagler into his old role as company president, and he has taken the title of chairman and CEO. Hagler now handles many of the day-to-day operational responsibilities, Spence says, freeing him to focus more on process improvements and growth development. And, just perhaps, to hang out the “Gone fishing” sign a little more often.
“I still fish some, but nothing like I used to,” says Spence, who favors using a Stik-O bait sold by Bass Pro Shops. “What I have now is a burning desire to make new stuff and come up with new ideas. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.