Lonny Joe Underwood, a man who rose from a small town in southern Alabama to head Holesome Donuts, one of the country’s largest baked goods companies, credits the values he took from his storekeeper parents for much of his success – especially the importance of showing respect to everyone.
Reminiscing about their childhood, his sister Mary, who still runs the family store in Evergreen, Alabama, tells this story:
“You know, [Lonny Joe] and I worked in the store after school every day, and we saw how they -our parents- spoke to people, black and white. You know this was back in the 1950s and 1960s when segregation was still legal. This might not seem like a big thing to you because you’re young, but it was a big deal to call a black customer Mr. or Mrs. in those days, but our parents always did.
“One time, they actually got into trouble and nearly lost the business because of how they treated black folks,” she recalled. “There was a woman named Clara Smith who was telling mama how much she was looking forward to seeing her oldest daughter, Lucille, when she came home from college for Christmas. She was at Alabama A & M, and she was the first in the family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college.
“My parents ended up hiring Lucille to be a clerk in the store while she was home for the holidays so she could make money for school,” she continued. “Well, you would have thought the world was coming to an end. They got threatening notes from the White Citizens Council, and some of the folks from church stopped speaking to them. Business fell off so much they thought they might have to close, but they didn’t fire Lucille.
“Lonny Joe and I learned what it meant to stand up, and we have never forgotten,” she concluded.
Now married with a wife of 34 years, two kids and three grandchildren of his own, the young boy who saw discrimination first hand never wavered and grew up to become the CEO of Holesome Donuts. Under his leadership, the company will be expanding into the South to build a $100 million, 300,000 square-foot plant in Repton, Alabama, a town just down the road from Evergreen where he grew up.
Sixty five-year-old Underwood has come a long way from the little boy who once worked in the family grocery store. He now stands tall at 6 feet 3 inches and always remains well groomed in a pressed suit and freshly shined shoes.
Watching his parents demonstrate the same level of respect to African-Americans as they did their white counterparts has influenced his values on workplace diversity.
“As a black man, I appreciate Lonny Joe’s approach to race,” Malcolm Vinson, Holesome’s chief financial officer, said. “He’s not one of these guys who will swear up and down that he’s color-blind and then the brothers never seem to get the same opportunities. Lonny Joe knows about race; he just doesn’t let it get in the way of deciding who’s best to do the job.”
The company that Underwood heads is infused with his sensibility of leadership, fair play, and equality not only for his employees, but also for those who invest in his business. Underwood is noted as a fair but stern leader of Holesome Donuts.
“Lonny Joe will listen to everybody’s opinions before he makes a decision, but once he makes the decision, that’s it,” John Josephs, Vice President and Director of Transportation Systems, said.
With over 20 years of experience in management, marketing, and wholesale distribution, Underwood is committed to take the small, one-stop doughnut shop that started 84 years ago in Paterson, New Jersey to new heights. Holesome Donuts is confident that his goal oriented, collaborative, and decisive characteristics will benefit the company.
“I’ve never seen anyone work harder,” Maria Lopez, Senior Vice President of Research and Marketing at Holesome Donuts, said. “He wants to know how every decision will affect every aspect of the operation, from manufacturing to distribution. He’s smart enough to know that he can’t be involved in all the details, but he isn’t comfortable unless he knows he could do it if he had to.”
Under Underwood’s leadership, Holesome Donuts will open a new facility in Repton, Alabama, just a 20-minute drive on U.S.84 from his hometown Evergreen. The expansion is the cornerstone of Holesome’s strategy to enter southern markets; it is expected to create a huge growth opportunity for both the company and the city of Repton.
“We’ve been talking about this expansion into the Sun Belt for three years now,” Harry Taylor, executive vice present and second in command at Holesome, said. “It was the next logical step in our business. We’re strong in the Northeast and the Midwest, but the South represents an opportunity for growth. As you know, Lonny Joe has a strong financial background, and he’s made us run the numbers backward and forward. It makes powerfully good sense, and the revenue projections back it up.”
The new facility will have a positive impact on Repton’s 28.2 percent unemployment rate reported in last year’s U.S. Census report, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent. The facility will create 350 permanent jobs locally.
“The construction of the plant will be a boon to our economy,” Repton Mayor Terri Carter said, “and we are looking forward to working with Holesome Donuts toward a successful launch of its southern initiative.”
Underwood is not only respectful, respected and unbiased, but he also makes it a priority to give back to the community. He cares about the surrounding communities that his business will affect. Underwood volunteers at the local food back, and he serves on the board for two nonprofits that provide services to under-employed or unemployed female heads of households. He is also involved with the local chamber of commerce and serves as a generous contributor to organizations that support educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is not unusual for Underwood to roll up the sleeves on his Favors Brooks Brothers suit to serve the community, and he urges his employees to participate as well. Underwood insists that his employees with the title of Director or higher participate in community outreach just as he does. As an incentive, Underwood ties 10 percent of their annual bonus to their community service.
Lonny Joe Underwood has earned the support of not only his colleagues, but his family as well.
“Lonny Joe is such a fine man. Even if he wasn’t my little brother I’d be proud of what he has accomplished, and I’d be glad to see him bringing his business back home,” Underwood’s sister, Mary, said. “My kids adored him when they were growing up. They thought their Uncle Lonny Joe was just the best, and they still do now that they’re adults with kids of their own.”