George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, NC, is known to say, “Sweet potatoes have been around since the dawn of man, and Wayne E. Bailey has been in existence since 1935.”
The company’s success in its comparatively short history is owed to a bit of being in the right place at the right time and the forward-thinking leadership of several generations.
Today, the family-run operation is recognized as a leading sweet potato producer, processor and shipper to customers in the United States and abroad.
The company began in the 1920s, when Elroy Byron Bailey, the father of company namesake Wayne E. Bailey, was handling strawberries.
“We’re pretty vague on exactly what that first generation did, but North Carolina was the Klondike strawberry capital of the world at the time, and it’s clear that Elroy had experience in the produce industry,” said Mr. Wooten. “It’s likely that he was also growing pine trees for commercial use. In the 1930s and 1940s, his son, Wayne E. Bailey, and his partner, Bernard Peal, managed the company. They were known in the strawberry market as savvy and aggressive businessmen, and as a result were coined playboys, which at the time was used to refer to a person who was smart and outgoing. They turned the name into a label for their strawberries, and today it is used for our sweet potatoes.”
During this period of time, the partners started the Chadbourn Potato Storage Co., which would later evolve into Wayne E. Bailey Co. They instituted many changes that would put the company on the path to becoming a major sweet potato producer.
“Wayne E. Bailey had three children: William, Elroy and Margie,” said Mr. Wooten. “When the boys became adults, the company was renamed Wayne E. Bailey & Sons.”
Mr. Bailey also owned an oil company that he started in 1954, supplying fuel oil to homes, gas stations and other businesses, especially those related to the tobacco industry, which dominated the region at the time.
Mr. Wooten’s father died in 1961. In 1967, his mother, Margaret Gore, was remarried to Elroy Bailey, who took over the leadership of the company in 1970, when Mr. Wooten was 13 years old.
“My stepfather was highly educated and very smart,” said Mr. Wooten. “He graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, in 1945. He was working in pharmaceuticals in California when his brother, William, died of a heart attack in 1965. Wayne Bailey asked Elroy to come home to help him run the business. He did, and the company name was again changed, this time to Wayne E. Bailey & Son.”
Mr. Wooten worked at the company in the summers during school break, mostly in the company’s oil division, moving tanks, installing burners and selling equipment. The company continued to handle a small amount of sweet potatoes. It handled strawberries until 1970, following the seasonal movements from Florida to the north each year.
Mr. Wooten remembers that his step-grandfather had little faith in his ability to become successful.
“He told my supervisor that I would never amount to anything,” said Mr. Wooten. “One particular Friday, Mr. Bailey gave my supervisor a very long list of chores for us to complete that day. I had made a commitment to attend a personal affair and wanted to leave work early, so I asked if we could get an early start. We worked hard and fast that day, and by 11:30 in the morning we had completed everything on the list. My supervisor was on the porch of our building when Mr. Bailey noticed him standing there. He asked him why we weren’t out working to get the jobs on the list done, and my supervisor told him that he and I had completed all of the jobs.”
Mr. Bailey was quick to change his tune. He said to the supervisor, “I told you I’d make something out of that boy one day.”
At the time, sweet potatoes were harvested in round baskets, then handled again in the warehouse and again when packed. The company handled only about 2.5 million pounds each year. It could store only 50,000 bushels, and its packout was 85-90 percent. It was a very labor-intensive operation.
“During Elroy’s tenure — from 1970 until his death in 1991 — things were changing quickly in the sweet potato business,” said Mr. Wooten. “Producers were moving away from round baskets and switching to field crates and pallets. But Wayne E. Bailey & Son was still using the same hand-labor method it had used for years. We couldn’t even use hand-trucks in the facility because they wouldn’t roll over the old wooden floors.”
Mr. Wooten started working full time for the company in 1975. He drove a truck for the oil division and, when needed, he worked as a potato grader. He was especially enthusiastic about the sweet potato business. He asked his stepfather if he could try his hand at selling some product.
“He said I could take the Blue Book and start making calls,” said Mr. Wooten. “But I wasn’t allowed to drop the price. I made a lot of calls for a couple of years but without much success because sweet potatoes were predominantly a holiday-only item.”
In 1978, a fire destroyed the company’s warehouse and packing facility. Mr. Wooten said that the accountant suggested that the family get out of the sweet potato industry completely, but Mr. Bailey was adamant about rebuilding. A local competitor helped the company by storing its sweet potatoes, which kept it in business until the new facility was completed.
“The new building was completed the following year and had storage for double that of the old one,” said Mr. Wooten. “My stepfather then let me be a bit more aggressive with sales because we could handle the extra supplies.”
Mr. Wooten attended his first Produce Marketing Association convention that year, which was a major turning point for the company.
“I learned a lot by attending that show, and I also realized the importance of helping to educate the industry about sweet potatoes,” he said. “The following year, we exhibited, and we’ve only missed one show since that time. Over time, our sales became greater than the facility could handle, so besides growing our own, we also source from growing partners today.
“In 2007, we moved into a brand-new 229,000-square-foot facility that featured the most modern equipment in the industry to accommodate the growing demand from our customers,” Mr. Wooten continued. “Today, sweet potatoes are a year-round product that has become a staple vegetable in many American kitchens. Research has shown that sweet potatoes are a super food, and the media attention has helped to draw massive attention to and increase the demand for the product.”
In 1989, Wayne E. Bailey bought Sampson Produce Co. in Clinton, NC, and changed the name to Pride of Sampson. It has approximately 70,000 square feet of storage. In 2006, Wayne E. Bailey Co. began George Foods, a value-added processing entity.
Today, George Foods offers an extensive line of processed sweet potato products for both the retail and foodservice sectors. Since 1990, it has been the exclusive sweet potato supplier for the “Green Giant Fresh” label.
Mr. Wooten’s sons, Adam and George III, have joined their father in overseeing the company’s operations. Adam’s wife, Megan, works in administration. The office is frequently graced with the presence of the next generation, Mr. Wooten’s grandchildren, preschooler Grace Anne, and toddler Augustus.
The Wooten family and their companies are strongly involved in the community and in their church. They support America’s Second Harvest, Feed the Children, the Society of St. Andrew, Operation Blessing, Columbus Christian Academy of Whiteville, NC, and several others.
“We have been blessed and feel a real need to give back,” said Mr. Wooten.