$150 Million Sale Brings an End To Wilson Empire

by George Waldon  on Monday, Jul. 11, 2011 12:00 am  

"My dad encouraged me to cut my own swath in life, which I did," Perry Wilson said. "He inadvertently prepared me for [taking over his role and overseeing the sale]. The family was pleased with the continuity.

"I drew a fine balance between letting the managers continue to do their job while I scurried around to learn about everyone else's jobs. They respected me, and I respected them."

Only two Wilsons, Steve and his stepmother, Mildred, will remain in the town that bears the family name. The sale of Lee Wilson & Co. doesn't affect her plans for the future either.

"I am staying here," Mildred Wilson said. "At my age I don't want to go anywhere. I've lived here 50 years and loved every minute of it."

She has called Wilson home since marrying Bob Wilson in 1961 and served on the board of directors after his death in 1987. When the family board members gathered late last year to approve sale negotiations, they did so without realizing that it would be the board's final meeting. The main action of the group was to authorize Perry Wilson to handle the sale of Lee Wilson & Co. to the Lawrence family.

"We weren't emotional about it," Mildred Wilson said. "It was just a business meeting. [The sale] was finalized before the next meeting, and that was it."

Bobby Wilson credits the family's willingness and ability to invest in land improvements that began in 1974 for continuing family ownership, despite two decades dominated by weak crop prices.

"It's so difficult to hold your property together because the return isn't there, and you have all these people," he said. "We survived when a lot of family farms went out of business.

"The two things that allowed our family to extend our ownership of the land were irrigation and leasing. If we hadn't irrigated it, we wouldn't have found the tenants, and if we didn't have the tenants, we couldn't have farmed. It was just getting too large and unwieldy."

Wilson, a senior vice president and commodities futures specialist with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, worked at Lee Wilson & Co. after college until 1988. He remembers his decision to leave the day-to-day affairs of the business to his brothers and dad.

"There was just a few too many of us, and I was interested in the futures business," Bobby Wilson said. "I really enjoyed it. I approached Mike and Stephen and said you guys don't need me."

During his time with the company, Bobby served as the president of the Bank of Wilson, chartered by his great-grandfather in 1908. The bank later branched into Osceola and was renamed Arkansas State Bank.



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