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Brandon: Balancing agriculture, industry

Unless you’ve been marooned on a desert island or traveling the outer reaches of the galaxy, you’ve heard the Viking Range story:

Twenty years ago, building contractor Fred Carl’s wife, Margaret, wanted a heavy duty, high performance, commercial-type range for their new home; he found no such appliance was available and set out to build one himself, ending up creating a global empire that now not only includes the world’s premier range, but refrigerators and other high-end kitchen appliances, not to mention a spiffy boutique hotel, an advertising agency, and other enterprises.

All centered not in New York or L.A. or some other major metropolitan area, but in Delta small-city Greenwood, Miss.

The Viking story also offers a case history of how, despite drawbacks that exist in much of the Delta — educationally, economically, culturally, work-ethically — success can be attained with the proper mix of determination, training, and recognition of the needs of the available workforce.

It’s no secret that good jobs are scarce over much of the Mississippi Delta, which for many reasons missed out on much of the migration of northern industries to the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

So, operations like Viking are doubly treasured. The company employs 1,300 people at Greenwood, 51 at its Jackson, Miss., ad agency, and another 100 or so in the U.S. and around the world.

“We get 6,000 job applications a year,” said Bill Crump, Viking vice president and director of governmental affairs, who spoke at the recent board meeting of Mississippi’s Delta Council. “Of those, we hire about 5 percent.”

For those who land the coveted jobs, there are attractive salaries, plus benefits worth 40 percent of salary, including continuing education.

In a region where employee attendance can be somewhat lackadaisical and retention somewhat iffy, Viking’s story is different: “Our worker attendance rate averages 99 percent, among the highest in U.S. manufacturing,” Crump said. “Our employee retention rate is in the high 90 percent range.”

While good pay/benefits and good working conditions are drawing cards, he said, “Work force training is the key to getting and keeping good employees.”

Through cooperative efforts with the Delta Council and state and local agencies, employees are thoroughly trained in the skills needed to manufacture the company’s top quality products. Adult literacy courses are also available.

With all the money he’s made, Fred Carl could’ve picked up and moved anywhere. Instead, he’s plowed a lot of money into his hometown, creating more jobs and business.

Many Delta downtowns have withered. Greenwood’s hasn’t. Viking has renovated an entire city block of historic Cotton Row buildings for its offices; an old railroad hotel, the Alluvian, has been turned into luxury digs rivaling New York or San Francisco. Other downtown properties have been renovated for retail, and businesses have located there. Viking encourages its people to be involved in community projects.

StaplCotn, the huge cotton marketing cooperative, remains downtown, and major banks have retained their downtown operations. Sales taxes are increasing yearly; tourism taxes have seen a big jump. “Good things are happening,” Crump said.

Agriculture still is the backbone of the Delta’s economy, but businesses like Viking help to flesh it out.


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