Alabama Turfgrass Association – Jimmy Pursell: Achieving a Lasting Legacy Through Obedience to God’s Call
Alabama Turf Times – Melanie Bonds, sourced from Finding the Ultimate Multiplier: The Story of Jimmy Pursell by Harold Fickett
Mr. James Taylor Pursell, Sr., “Jimmy,” was born in 1930 in Talladega, Alabama to a family of educators. His father was principal at a local school and his mother a teacher. From these humble beginnings Jimmy began a journey that ultimately ended with success on the widest scale. He and his family have made invaluable contributions to the turfgrass industry in our state, the nation and the world.
Jimmy attended Talladega High School where his athletic record was impressive. He could run the 100-yard dash in under ten seconds. Unfortunately, playing football in a game against the Sylacauga Aggies in 1947, Jimmy broke his leg. Jimmy’s injury made him a local celebrity. Many well-wishers came to see him in the hospital, and the Sylacauga High School contingent was led by Jim Nabors. Nabors and Jimmy became fast friends.
Nabors introduced Jimmy to Chris Parker. Jimmy had enrolled in Auburn University and was majoring in business when they met. They quickly became serious. Jimmy began to think about his future career since he planned to marry Chris. However, the outbreak of the Korean War sealed his immediate plans with a stint in the military. As a college graduate, Jimmy enrolled in the Air Force Cadet Program. Receiving his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1953, he and Chris were finally able to marry. Their first son, James Taylor, Jr., was born while Jimmy was serving his country.
Toward the end of his years of military service, Chris’s father, Howard, asked Jimmy to go to work for Parker Fertilizer Company. Started by Howard Parker Senior’s father, the company was formed when cotton was king. Parker was a successful man who led his company to success in volatile times. What set him apart from many others, and a trait that his son-in-law Jimmy Pursell shared, was his foresight. He recognized that the days of cotton’s dominance were coming to an end.
Jimmy was given the option of taking over sales for a new line of lawn and garden fertilizers called Sta-Green. Sta-Green marketed a slow-release, nitrogen-based product. The margins were huge in lawn and garden as compared to agriculture. Jimmy opened up substantial markets throughout the Southeast.
Jimmy and Chris had settled well in Sylacauga and began to grow their family. A daughter named Chris was born and their younger son, David, was born in 1959. Sadly, Mr. Parker, Sr. passed away in 1964.
In a time when many young people were leaving their hometowns for better opportunities in the city, the Parker and Pursell families were coalescing around the family business in Sylacauga. Mr. Parker directed that Jimmy Pursell was made President of Parker Fertilizer Company. Howard, Jr. was made President of the Sylacauga Bonded Warehouse. Unfortunately, Mr. Parker’s well-thought-out plans came to a tragic end when Howard Parker, Jr. passed away unexpectedly with an aneurysm in the spring of 1966.
At this time, Jimmy bought out the company, saying, “If I was going to devote my life to the company, I wanted to be my own boss and do my own thing.” The loss of the Howards, Senior and Junior, was felt deeply, but Jimmy Pursell steadily grew the company while Chris maintained the home front. The Pursell children began working with the company when they were old enough, starting from the “ground up,” literally.
In 1973 Jimmy learned about the Tennessee Valley Authority experimenting with a new type of fertilizer, Sulphur Coated Urea (SCU). The opportunity to be one of the first suppliers of the product would catapult the company to a national market share. Testing was successful and when TVA went into production in 1974, Parker Fertilizer bought the first rail car of it.
While Parker Fertilizer began its adventure with SCU, Taylor Pursell started school at Auburn University. Influenced by John “Rat” Riley, Taylor underwent a conversion to Christianity that would direct the future of the family and the company. In 1976 Jimmy assembled his company and told his employees that he was dedicating the company to Christ. Everything within the company was to be run with Christian principles. This path did not fail them as the company continued to grow. Chris and David each completed their degrees at Auburn and went into the family business.
Crucial decisions were made during this time in the eighties—decisions that would turn the family-owned company into a national powerhouse. Jimmy hired the Auburn Technical Assistance Center to overhaul and streamline the company. Jimmy wanted his company to be a “basic” manufacturer of their products. He thought there might be a better way to deliver the time-release fertilizer. He hired Ray Shirley, who had experience with manufacturing, to help implement this plan. Jimmy soon had his fertilizer plant up and running.
When the new sulfur-coated urea plant came online in 1985 it was only the fourth such plant built in the U.S. The Pursells began to look at a marketing technique of personal demonstrations developed by Lowe’s. Why not use this idea in the Sylacauga countryside? Small parties of key people were invited to visit Sylacauga for tours of the fertilizer plant and an educational presentation. The “Experience” was born.
While SCU fertilizers were superior to the nitrogen-based mixes, they could not be engineered to serve the different growth cycles of different plants. Jimmy’s company transformed this system with technological innovation. Through a trade journal, Jimmy was introduced to John Detrick, who was developing a polymer (plastic) coating for fertilizer granules. The thickness could be varied to exact tolerances and gradually released. Jimmy bought the patent rights. Parker Fertilizer Company became Pursell Industries and the company broke ground on a multimillion-dollar production facility in 1991. The brand name Polyon® was born.
From 1992 — 1997 Pursell Industries Polyon® enjoyed incredible success. The company grew to around $90 million in sales and was operating in two distinctive divisions: consumer and technology. In 1996 a public company approached the company with an offer to purchase the consumer group. Eventually, Taylor Pursell partnered with Citicorp Venture Capital and purchased the consumer company with Jimmy renaming the remaining company, Pursell Technologies, Inc.
With the division of the company, new office space was needed. The Pursells were in possession of around 3,500 acres of some of the most beautiful country in the state and utilized this property to build a headquarters and construct FarmLinks Golf Club.
David Pursell saw the utility of the golf course as a marketing vehicle. FarmLinks opened as the world’s first—and only—research-and-demonstration golf course in 2003. The governor of Alabama and old friend, Jim Nabors, were in attendance.
In 2012 Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences presented Jimmy and Chris Pursell with its Lifetime Achievement Award, saying:
Success is measured by embodying the values of hard work, education, love of country, obedience to law and soundness of mind, body and spirit…Jimmy and Chris Pursell, as individuals and as a couple are the gold standard for what it truly means to live the exemplary life…
Perhaps the best testament to Mr. Jimmy Pursell are the words from his son, David, published in Finding the Ultimate Multiplier, The Story of Jimmy Pursell by Harold Fickett:
My dad is one of the most outgoing people I have ever met. If a picture were to appear in the Webster’s Dictionary by the word extrovert, it would be of my dad. To this day he never meets a stranger…He was and is a steady, committed family man and one of the most generous people I’ve ever met…My dad is also a straight-up honest man. He would always do the right thing.
The Board of Directors of the Alabama Turfgrass Association can think of no more fitting candidate to receive its Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Jimmy Pursell has been a steadfast and staunch supporter of our Industry. It was with honor that we dedicated this award to him in 2019.READ THE ISSUE