Left to Right: Will Ford, Scott, Ford, Joe T. Ford, Sam Ford, Joseph Ford. Photo by Chris Davis
Through the wall of windows flanking one side of his modest office at Westrock Coffee headquarters in Little Rock, Joe T. Ford glanced out at a commotion coming down the hall. His great-granddaughter, a toddler on tiptoe, had just come around the corner to spy her grandad, Joe’s son Scott, who’d darted out of an office, hunkered down like a major league catcher, and invited her to run into his arms.
Ford leaned back in his chair to watch, as if floating on the child’s peals of laughter.
“There’s little Turner,” he said, not taking his eyes off the scene. “Now I’ll tell you a little story about Turner. She’s named after my brother. My brother’s name was Justin Turner; died young.”
Then, to no one in particular, he added softly, “And she happened to be born on my birthday. I can’t explain that.”
Such scenes, impromptu and momentary though they may be, summarize the life and true loves of Joe T. Ford, a name synonymous with business and leadership that ranks among the titans of Arkansas entrepreneurs. Best-known for growing telecommunications company Alltel, Ford’s guidance took the company from a modest-but-aspiring landline company to a national contender, at one time the fifth-largest wireless provider in the country.
Alltel’s ascent confounded critics and made Ford a wealthy man, but it is the people he’s encountered – both on the job and after hours at home – that he considers of most value and the secret to every success and happiness he’s enjoyed.
“Any company is only as good as its people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, if you don’t have good people, you won’t have a good company. You just have to treat people the way you’d like to be treated, and it works.”
If it seems a remarkably simple philosophy, it is, by design. It’s the simple principles that best stand the test of time and change, after all. Even when the telecommunications industry took off spinning in a hundred different directions and merger mania was at its highest and billions in borrowed capital hung in the balance, the calmest channel has always been that navigated not by complacency nor compulsion, but in consistency of ethic, effort and expertise.
“Complacency is when you’ve got something and you’re happy. You’re content,” Ford said. “I’ve seen people that are content, and they make a nice living. I was never content. I always wanted us to do more. I always felt that the more we did, that gave somebody another opportunity. There’s somebody out here that’s better than you think he is, if he can just get exposed to the right opportunity. That’s often the case.
“As we built companies, we tried to get people with their heads above water and move them up. I always wanted them tilting their head up. I didn’t want them to get their nose underwater, but I wanted to challenge everybody so that they’d have to tilt up just a little bit to keep their head above water. And when you do that, it’s amazing what people will accomplish.”
Joe T. Ford was born in Conway, June 24, 1937, to Archie and Ruby Lee (Watson) Ford. His father worked for the state department of education and was constantly campaigning for the betterment of education in Arkansas. Among his achievements, to provide kindergarten throughout the state’s public school system, free textbooks in high schools and the education of disabled children in the public schools. Known for his penchant for visiting primary and secondary schools personally, he kept his finger on the pulse of what was happening in classrooms statewide and what was needed.
Named state commissioner of education in 1953, Archie Ford would serve five governors and come out on the right side of history when it mattered most. The Central High School crisis in 1957, widely regarded as an important flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement, saw Gov. Orval Faubus attempt to defy federal integration mandates. Ford did not support the governor’s actions, which earned him enemies within the administration and the state legislature, who attempted to oust him from his post. But the outcry from school administrators and teachers statewide saved the day, and the elder Ford retired in 1978 as the longest-serving commissioner in Arkansas history.
Ford took several lessons from his father’s experience to heart, including the sanctity of one’s word, of standing up for what’s right and of courage under fire. Combining these with the square dealing and work ethic imbued by his cotton-farming grandparents — and the deep and abiding faith that nourished them all — helped shape him from a very early age.
His natural intellect got him in the solid “B” strata, though looking back he admits he could have done better in the classroom. He was a three-sport athlete for Conway High School, playing football, basketball and running track for the Wampus Cats while honing a competitive streak that stoked his later ambitions.
He also gained early the primary ingredient for all of his future happiness, a sparkling blonde named Jo Ellen Wilbourn. The two became a couple senior year of high school and stayed that way — through college, through the high stakes of his business ventures, through his years in the Arkansas Senate (1967 to 1982) and, beginning with their marriage in 1959, through the ups and downs of family life.
Initially enrolling at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro on a basketball scholarship, Ford transferred to the University of Arkansas his sophomore year. He graduated in 1959 with a degree in business and having discovered a penchant for economics. He got a job with Allied Telephone Company as a Yellow Pages ad salesman as he worked off his Army ROTC commitment, six months at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and seven and a half years in the Arkansas National Guard.
Ford’s natural skills as a salesman, combined with a knack for seeing the big picture, helped him scale the ladder at Allied Telephone and Electric, one of hundreds of mom-and-pop companies offering telephone service. In the years that followed, Ford would broker deals that grew Allied and eventually birthed Alltel, following purchase of Ohio-based Mid Continent in 1983, just in time for the dismantling of the Bell System a year later.
Shepherding the company through more than 250 mergers and acquisitions and fending off competition from much larger players, Ford guided Alltel expertly in the coming decades. He retired as Alltel chairman in 2002, at which time the company boasted millions of wireless subscribers, thousands of employees and billions in annual sales.
In more recent years, Ford joined Scott in launching Westrock Coffee on the same principles that guided his steps in the telecommunications business. That is, lead with a servant mentality, pursue a noble cause and work harder than the next guy, principles that have leached into all who have served alongside of him
“Let’s talk about how we got into the coffee business,” Ford said. “Scott and his wife had been on mission trips, helping orphans in Rwanda. Went down there to see them, and I think they assigned a fourth grader to kind of speak for the orphans. The kid asked him, ‘Why did you come halfway around the world to see us?’ [Scott] said, ‘Because I’m going to make your life better than your parents’ lives.’
“Scott met with the [Rwandan] president who asked him, ‘I can give political freedom, religious freedom, I can’t give economic freedom. It takes someone to be a mentor to teach capitalism.’ And then he says, ‘Will you help me?’ Scott said yes. Well, he didn’t know if coffee grew like pineapples or peanuts.
“Yet, here it is. We’ve got a multimillion-dollar business; we’re going to have a worldwide business here in short order. I think within five years, we’ll have the biggest company in the world that does what we do. And if you get back to the real basics of it, it’s because the man said, ‘Will you help me?’ And by ‘helping me,’ he meant hundreds of thousands of farmers that he’s responsible for. That’s how [Westrock] got started, and it’s an amazing story.”
Though Ford enjoys a role far more consultative than his day-to-day duties of the Alltel days, there’s still no denying the influence of his long-held leadership principles, alive and well at Westrock Coffee.
“I believe in three basic things we should have in business,” he said. “One is a quality product. If you don’t have quality, it’s hard to sell. Two is competitive pricing; you’ve got to be competitive in what you’re doing. And three is outstanding service. And I really believe in service. Service is key.
“My guess is you’re going to go to a clothing store or you’re going to go buy a car where you’re comfortable dealing. I want that in everything that we do. I want that with every customer. I want the ability to take care of them.”
Such fundamentals have made the Ford Way nearly impervious to the vagaries of industry or era. Asked if Alltel could have been built in today’s world, he nodded thoughtfully.
“What is different than in times past is the product; back then, we didn’t have a phone that could get you an airline ticket or hotel room or whatever you wanted to do. But the basics of integrity and treating people right, motivating people and all those types of things haven’t changed. It’s just how you tweak it and what you do with it.”
Such is the apt mantra of a life well-lived, where the inevitable setbacks in life pale next to the extraordinary human drive to rise and come ahead. Nurture that in others, Ford said, and the most audacious dreams and lofty goals can be achieved.
“I never would have dreamed how my life turned out,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would have been really content to be an 18-wheel truck driver. I had no idea my life would take the path it took. No idea. Never dreamed it. And if you’d asked me to write down what I’d like it to be, I never would have thought to write any of this down. No concept.
“I just tell people, ‘I’m a peddler.’ But I also felt building a business was more important than just running a business. I believed in trying to expand as we could, hoping to build something we could make a comfortable living off of and where the people who worked with us could do well in life. I didn’t expect anybody to get rich, I just wanted us all to do well.”
FORD ON MOTIVATING PEOPLE:
If you can motivate people as opposed to browbeating them, you get more out of them. If people think they’ve got an opportunity, they’re going to do their best and that’s all you want. And you get people to do their best through motivation, encouragement and incentive as opposed to knowing there’s a tongue lashing coming if they drop a bolt or something.
FORD ON MAINTAINING INTEGRITY:
Too many people face issues and won’t come to a conclusion. I can name individuals I respect because they always did what they thought was right. They made decisions based on what they thought was the right thing to do as opposed to what they themselves might like to do, and there’s a difference in all that. People who stay with their real beliefs are the people that you can count on.
FORD ON LOYALTY:
I met Jack Stephens in 1958, and he’d helped us along through the years. I went to see him in 2005, and the last conversation I had with him, I walked in, and he said, “I’ve had a lot of fun with you.” I said, “Jack, I’ve had a lot of fun with you.” Then he said, “Joe, most of the money that I’ve made in life, I’ve made by betting on people. I bet on you the first day we met.” Jack was being a friend to me, he was always a friend to me. It reminds me of when I was a kid about 10 or 12, my dad told me, ‘Never trade an old friend for a new one. You can make new friends, but never trade a friend.’ I’ve tried to keep that as a principle in all that I’ve done.
FORD ON SERVANT LEADERSHIP:
In business, when you talk about, ‘It’s not personal,’ you’re forgetting the entire package, which is the people. It’s their lives, it’s their families, it’s their livelihood, it’s the community. If all you say is, by all accounts, “Did I make these numbers?” without caring about what happens to the people who helped you get there, that’s not how you lead. Leading means including everybody. People work with us; they don’t work for us.
FORD ON WHY ARKANSAS:
People say, “Why are there so many successful companies in Arkansas?” I always said because people here are determined to get ahead. They’re motivated and they’re determined to be successful, and they are successful.
We kept Alltel in Arkansas because I really thought we could have more of an impact here than we could in Cleveland, for instance. We’d be more important to the people here trying to get ahead as opposed to being a small fish in a big pond. Helping a lot of people, that’s what I’d hoped for, and I think we did.