Legacy Machine Maker
One of the largest employers in Dale County is a manufacturer that sprouted from the area’s rural roots and continues to flourish, cutting trees and clearing land.
Brown Manufacturing Corp.’s reputation is known in and outside of the farm and tree-cutting industry. “Oh yes, that’s the place in Ozark, down a country road,” a java patron of Dakota Coffee Works, in the adjacent town of Dothan, says, while giving directions. “The Browns are fine people, hardworking, and make great products — but their plant site is down a country road, somewhere around Ozark.”
Indeed, first impressions of the “Somewhere around Ozark” address of 6001 AL-27 highway, seem smaller than its 58,000-square-foot production space reveals. But inside are products in various states of assembly by workers of many crafts. Owner Ricky Brown is not concerned about outward appearances.
“People see the front of our factory and kind of turn their lips down,” he says. “I tell them Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor. The birth place is not the final decision.”
The first decision was made by the owner’s parents, Paul and Sara Brown, who founded the company in 1944. They started by making a mule-driven log hauling cart, popular with Dale County’s 127 sawmills from back in the day. Paul worked at a sawmill by day, and the couple built machinery by night. Distribution was a learning process.
Sara delivered finished products to customers. “She could pull a trailer but she could not back it up,” recalls son Ricky. “Once mom reached the dealership, someone had to back it in the receiving area and then turn the trailer rig around for the return trip home.”
In addition, most of 1944 rural Ozark had no electricity, including Brown Manufacturing. Not a problem. The Brown’s business had its own in-house dynamo — power generated by a Ford Model T engine connected to a pulley system. Some of the pulleys still hang from the factory’s rafters as an impromptu shrine to proud beginnings.
But under those rafters today are computers, robotics, 400-ton press machines and fabrication equipment. Finished products are shipped to customers throughout the Southeastern U.S., Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas and beyond. The Browns no longer worry about turning the truck around.
In its first years of operation, the company saw a future for products that did not include mules. “Farms were mechanizing and tractors were coming to the country,” says Ricky, about his parent’s vision. “People would buy just about any product that could hook to a tractor to enable more production and less labor.”
The product line grew from a 1944 log cart, powered by beasts of burden, to today’s 40-page product catalog, powered by the internet. Rotary cutters, disc harrows, pasture aerators, tree cutters and hydraulic tree saws grace Brown’s website pages. And as the company grew, so did Ricky.
In 1974 he had just started Wallace Community College when an older brother decided to leave the company. The father asked sons Ricky and Billy to come home and help with the business. “I knew that one day this would be my career,” says Ricky, who started working summers and part time for Brown at age 13. “But I had planned on attending two years at Wallace and finish with two years at Auburn, and then come here.”
In the fall of 1974, the Brown brothers reported to Ozark headquarters. “After the siblings’ three-decade partnership, Billy left in 2007 to start Brown Products, a separate company that features outdoor power equipment.
At about age 21, Ricky moved into Brown Manufacturing’s sales division. At age 61 he is still there. The company’s heritage is everywhere. Brown lives across the street from the current factory, on the site of the first factory. Another family house, next to the main facility, serves as sales and engineering offices.
And overseeing it all is a CEO who runs the company, according to customers, rarely from a desk. Lasseter Tractor Co., of Moultrie, Georgia, met Ricky about 20 years ago, when he dropped by in a cold call, offering his products. The relationship developed.
“He is a hands-on guy in a world of rapidly dwindling hands-on guys,” says Bryan McDonald, Lasseter’s sales manager. “Ricky owns the company, but if there is a problem in anything — parts, sales, anywhere needed, he is there and he gets in front of it. He’s just a good fella.”
Ag Pro Companies, in Thomasville, Georgia, met Brown about 25 years ago when a customer requested the company’s iconic tree cutter. “We had never sold one up to that point,” Ag Pro’s sales spokesman Chad Jones recalls. “So we contacted Ricky by phone.” It created a favorable impression that’s lasted to this day.
“When you call Brown Manufacturing you don’t get an automated voice and 30-minute phone menu to decipher before reaching who you want,” says Jones. “If you want him, you get Ricky. You don’t go through a chain of command to the top. You start with the top.”
Jones adds, “Brown makes a very good product. It’s not the cheapest but it’s the most affordable bang for your buck out there. They are not super big but are well managed and run well.”
Running well includes many of Brown’s family. Wife Erika is executive vice president. Daughters Summer Elkins and Paige Brown are office manager and purchasing manager respectively. Son-in-law Ryan Elkins is national sales manager and soon to be son-in-law Gil O’Brien will soon assume Ricky’s sales territory.
They are a team of about 40 employees in a thriving business but not without challenges. Currently, Brown Manufacturing does not have significant foreign competition in whole goods and completed products. However, component products from Mexico and elsewhere are increasingly showing presence in the market.
Mainly, they face domestic giants. Competitors include Bush Hog, Rhino, Land Pride and other industry strongholds. But when you face Goliath, bring a slingshot. Brown’s competitive slingshot is the CEO’s straightforward philosophy.
He advises for any business: “Find your niche. Make that niche be something others can’t do as good as you can. Our niche includes our tree cutter products and heavy-duty rotary cutters. We can make small quantities of products for our customers where the larger companies can’t. You order it today; we build it tomorrow.”
He also advises, “Watch your margins. They are always tight and usually tighter than you think.” And he stresses customer relations. “Build bonds with your customers — not just accounts. We have good relations with customers dating back 50 years.”
But business friendships are forged from good products. “Everything we sell, we make,” says Ricky. “We are not a dealer of other people’s brands. And I refuse to make or sell a bad product.”
And of course, work. When Ricky Brown was asked, “What do you do when not working?” his answer was immediate: “There is never a time when I am not working.”
Emmett Burnett and Tim Skipper are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Skipper in Dothan.