goBeyondProfit CEO Interviews: Alex Willson, CEO of Sunnyland Farms


Friday, September 22nd, 2023

In part 2 of our conversation with goBeyondProfit Champion Alex Willson, CEO of Sunnyland Farms, we discussed expanded definitions of flexibility – both in leadership and in manufacturing – and how flexibility in mindset and practice positioned Sunnyland Farms for greater success.

An Expanded Definition of Flexibility

Flexibility in Leadership

I’m pretty flexible in my personal life, but when I come to work, I tend to have a very structured way I like to do things. For better or worse, between Hurricane Michael, then COVID, then a kitchen fire I’ve found that flexibility as a leader is critical. Things simply don’t always go as planned. You must pivot to plan B, or frankly often it’s plan C, or D, and be able to do that while also maintaining a calm demeanor.

People who report to you feed off of you. And one thing we talk about in our manager meetings constantly is that it’s okay to freak out when things are going bad. We’ve got a 1,700-acre pecan grove that, if you need to go freak out, take a little walk, freak out, then come back in, and it’s time to lead. When we’re inside the gate, people are feeding off your energy, and so you’ve got to go ahead, levelheaded, make a tough call, and don’t get bogged down with overanalyzing.

For better or worse, some of these crises have shaped my leadership style, but I think it’s helped me become more flexible and able to react quicker and better when certain situations present themselves.

Implementing the Request for Flexibility in Manufacturing

Workplace flexibility has been different for us because we have so many unique environments. We have an office where it is easier to be flexible, you have a laptop, you have internet and can work from anywhere.

But a large portion of what we do is manufacturing and if you need ten people to run a production line, you need all ten people to run a production line. If two of them have a kids’ play at 9:00 and one of them has kids play at 10:00, that makes scheduling very difficult.

We asked our managers for their input on how to solve the request for flexibility. We started by asking questions, trying to find out what people really want and need. Our work can be seasonal with a high concentration of time in the fall. We challenged ourselves to figure out how we can give our employees time back with their families during the rest of the year.

We started with the idea of summer hours. A lot of offices do summer hours, so we offered our teams the option of a 36-hour work week. But they didn’t like that solution because they know what it takes to get the job done and they were concerned about the impact on the production lines. So we all decided we would simply start by trying a modified 40-hour schedule working slightly longer for four days and getting off at noon on Fridays.

When that worked well, we brought the teams the idea of accomplishing the forty hours needed in four days versus five. We piloted the idea for a month and got their feedback. As a result, since 2022, everybody gets a three-day weekend every single week for about four to five months out of the year. It’s been hugely successful. Together we figured out a way for people to stretch their time. Now, they can go on long weekend vacations without having to burn PTO.

Is Generosity a fad or essential to business?

It may be a fad, and it may be something that the millennials or Gen Z care about, and something that people are just checking a box. But it’s also probably the right thing to do.

For instance, we’re not trying to hook up our new kitchen with solar panels because I can put it on our marketing materials, but because it’s a little more sustainable for the environment. There’s already a lot of people in the world, and we’re just trying to do our little part and maybe leave it a little better than we found it.

I don’t really think it’s a fad. I feel like if you’re not being generous, it’s going to be tougher for you to get employees because I think employees aren’t solely interested in pay.

Everybody wants to make money, but everybody also wants to feel part of something. That’s the biggest issue that we’ve seen. If people don’t buy into what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you pay. They need to feel like they’re part of something.

I don’t think generosity is going to be a fad, I think it’s going to be here to stay.