The word “family” encompasses all that Steve and Valda Mathis have been working for and with over the years. “The sense of family seems to draw us all together,” says Steve as Valda nods along stating, “Everybody wants to see the family unit succeed. Everybody’s working for the same goal. We always used to say ‘everybody get behind and push’ and if you ain’t gonna push, you need to get out of the way cause we’re trying to get to a certain point and we’re all pushing to get there.” She says it with her signature feisty tone and matter of fact attitude – the kind where you know she means what she says.
“Pushing to get there” is what Steve and Valda have been doing within Southern Valley since 1994 and 1987, respectively. Married in 1989, with a joint family by their side, Steve and Valda have been an invaluable unit to the success and longevity of Southern Valley. As they approach retirement, I took a minute to sit down and learn more about how they got to where they are today.
“I’m coming to the end of my ride,” Valda says, “and it’s bittersweet. I don’t want to leave it. I’ve been here so long. It’s who I am. I’m Southern Valley through and through.” The sister of Southern Valley’s co-owner, Wanda Hamilton-Tyler, Valda’s work with the company commenced on the day the company was formed. She was there on day one setting up the bookkeeping, and then years down the line when software came into the picture, she set that up too. In those beginning years, Kent ran the farm. Wanda and David, one of the original four owners, oversaw the packing house and sales. At that time, Wanda did the day to day bookkeeping, while Valda had a full-time job elsewhere. That all changed in 1991 when Wanda left to stay home with her sick husband and Valda came on full-time, fulfilling a dream of Kirk’s* that one day the farm would be large enough to hire Aunt Valda on full-time.
From 1987 to 1995, the accounting system was totally manual. There were no computers at all, which meant that everything was done on ledger sheets. In 1995, software for the payroll system was purchased and in ‘98 more of the program was acquired for accounting. Valda has been there every step of the way, putting the pieces into place for the company to experience financial success.
Valda’s title as Financial Controller means she handles all the accounting, financial reporting, tax reporting, projections, and cash flows. And she handled it all by herself – through astronomical growth and changes – from 1991 until 2014 when Amber Tanner was hired as an assistant. Valda says, “It really felt good to have somebody to talk to who spoke my language as far as accounting. It was a struggle trying to keep up with everything and make sure everything was done right and not having anybody to look over it or a second opinion on anything.”
Rumors have circulated around the office regarding the hours Valda used to keep before Amber came along and she confirmed that her day at the office started somewhere between 6 and 7:30 in the morning and ended at the same time that night. Working some Saturdays was a normal part of her job as well. By her own admission, she didn’t sleep for years. “I would sleep for 30 minutes at a time and wake up for an hour or two. It was my life. I lived and breathed Southern Valley. I don’t do that as much anymore.”
Aside from working countless hours, her role as Controller required her to have people’s respect while keeping a healthy distance. Steve explains further, “She’s very direct. Very matter of fact. She will say what needs to be said and you’ve just got to accept it. When she says it, you know that she means it. When I came along, I quickly saw that Kent and Wanda did not make a move financially without running it by her and seeing what kind of impact it had on taxes. If it doesn’t pass by Valda, it ain’t gonna happen. And that’s the way it’s always been.” Valda shrugs her shoulders as she says, “I have to be the one to tell Kent, ‘Kent, that ain’t gonna work baby.’” Someone has to be able to draw the line and more often than not, that person is Valda.
Steve joined the ranks of Southern Valley in 1994 hailing from a very successful career in the athletic field business. Even before then, though, he would come home on the weekends after traveling all week with work and help Kent out on the farm. “I was involved with a lot of technological advances such as lasers. I would come and shoot grades for him,” Steve says. Burnt out on traveling, he eventually left his job and switched over full-time to Southern Valley. One of the first things the company did when Steve came to work was to buy equipment for laser leveling. From there, they ventured into GPS systems on the tractors and other progressive, technological advances. “We were on the cutting edge from a farming standpoint because I brought it from the athletic field standpoint,” he says.
Initially, Steve oversaw the running of the wells. At the time, there were four wells and Steve oversaw the expansion up to nine wells. All the fertigation* and expansions, including facilities, were handled by Steve because of his experience and background in construction. When the first excavator and backhoe were bought for the farm, Steve was the only one who could run them.
Then in 2002-2003, Jon and Kent got a wild hair and got interested in farming in Mexico. Once it was decided that Mexico was the next venture for Southern Valley, Steve, along with Wanda’s husband, Ed, went down to Mexico for a year and put the farm together. “You could not have hired someone to go down there and do that because they wouldn’t have cared. I did it because of family.”
Mexico was a risky venture for Southern Valley and it was touch and go for the guys down there trying to get the land cleaned up and ready to farm. “Getting wells operational, housing in place, hiring people, building relationships with vendors, government, neighbors. All that happened that first year in 2003,” continued Steve. They specifically had to put their foot down on how business was going to be done down there. “We took the position that we’re not gonna do when in Rome do what the Romans do. We went through a lot of vendors and suppliers before they realized if they told us they were going to be here tomorrow, they had to be here tomorrow or we wouldn’t do business with them. We ended up with some very good vendors and a very good operation as a result.”
He continues on, “We pushed really hard to get the first 800 acres done that year – get it planted, get it underway, build a packing house, get the infrastructure put in in order to harvest and pack and ship at the end of that first year. The product was ready in the field, the electricity was turned on, the packing line ran, and the refrigeration ran all on the same day for the first time. We picked, packed, and cooled the very first time all in one day. That started our success down there.”
Steve was 54 when he came back from Mexico, and as he puts it, “tired.” He returned to his day to day role over construction and expansion, but also developed the purchasing department at that point. “We were getting a lot larger, a lot more sophisticated. There needed to be guidelines, checks and balances,” he says of the need for the purchase order system. Steve now purchases almost all the farm supplies, including fertilizers and chemicals, vehicle parts and equipment, office supplies, and supplies for the packing house. The purchasing side has now become a full-time job with a new invoice to be printed off every few minutes via email, which is just another sign of the changing times. As the purchasing has increased, the construction and expansion aspects of the job have been turned over more and more to Shannon Norman.
And it hasn’t just been Valda and Steve that have been crucial to the company, but they’ve brought in some of their immediate family members as well. Valda’s sons, Jon and Dug, have worked for the company since they were in high school – working first for Valda’s brother Joe on the farm and then working at the packing shed stacking cabbage and loading trucks. After college, both Jon and Dug worked in a sales role at Southern Valley. Jon’s role eventually evolved into Director of Operations and Dug’s into Director of Sales. Steve’s son, Brad, also worked in sales for a few years before moving on to another sales job in the produce industry.
The changes at Southern Valley haven’t come easy over the years and it has truly been family pushing the whole way. “For so many years, it was like pulling teeth to get anything changed. We were an old school family farm going into a business sense and moving forward. In the last five years, [our growth] has exploded,” Valda says. Steve and Valda admit it will be hard to walk away after all this time, but they know the family farming operation is in good hands. “Family is a big deal. We’re all family,” sums up Steve. Then Valda adds, “We all expect everybody that works here to feel that sense of family, that sense of unity, and that sense of team. Everybody’s working for the same goal.”