Owners and/or Co-Owners Learned to Adapt in the Midst of the Pandemic
By Becky Gillette
The Mississippi Delta not only has some of the most fertile soils in the world, but it is also a rich environment for women in business and agriculture who contribute in many ways to the successes of their individual towns. Many Delta women own farm land, and are integral to the success of their agriculture operations. They serve in various high-ranking political positions and, of course, own or co-own their own businesses. They epitomize Southern hospitality and are big supporters of downtown revitalization, education, churches and non-profits. In this issue of the Delta Business Journal, we have chosen a few business owners who were willing to share their stories of success—and how much they love doing business in the Delta.
Cleveland realtor/broker Tracey Bell with Tom Smith Land and Homes, had only heard the word “pandemic” in history books and movies before March 2020.
“I think we all rushed out to stock up on food and toilet paper not knowing what to expect,” says Bell. “The start of 2020 was definitely rocky.”
But, while 2020 brought unprecedented challenges, Bell said it also gave a lot. Interest rates dropped to an all-time low.
“This opened doors for a lot of young, first-time home buyers,” says Bell. “People could buy more and pay less. Investment opportunities in real estate opened up and the investors stepped up to the plate. After the initial scare of 2020, the real estate world turned out for the better and we are hoping the trend continues for 2021, as well.”
There have been times when property owners had COVID-19 and agents were unable to show their properties for several weeks. But Bell said that, for the most part, that has not been widespread.
“I think we have all adjusted to a mutual respect of mask wearing and frequent use of hand sanitizer,” she says. “With the vaccine out this year, we are hoping to see a shift back to normal. “But, of course, this will take time.”
Bell says her first real interest in real estate was long before Joanna Gaines, host of the HGTV program Fixer Upper, came along. Bell flipped her first couple of houses in 2004 and 2005, and made enough money to move to Destin, Fla. She got her real estate license in Florida. She moved back to Cleveland in 2014.
“I helped my brother in the warehouse at Factory Direct Furniture while my father was being treated for cancer,” she says. “I got my real estate license in Mississippi in the summer of 2015 and my broker’s license in 2019.”
When she first started selling real estate in Cleveland, she can remember saying that they needed a land division. Her boss was quick to tell her that Tom Smith was the land man and to visit his website if you want to see what’s out there in terms of land, hunting club memberships, etc.
“So, I did, and it was impressive,” says Bell. “I can remember my husband and his brothers listing their land and hunting club membership with Tom Smith. And boy, I just didn’t really get it. I can remember selling a client three houses and then they would go and list their hunting club membership and cabin with Tom Smith.”
She got her first hunting club share and cabin to sell in 2018. While excited about her first “Big Listing,” her boss told her she wouldn’t be able to sell that.
“I laughed and said, ‘Watch me, I’m licensed to sell any real estate in Mississippi. If Tom Smith can sell it, then so can I’,” she said. “So, I guess you can say I’ve been watching Tom Smith for a while now and I’m sold.”
She realized that if she had half a million dollars or more invested in something, she would only want the best to market her property/investment.
“And that’s exactly what you get with Tom Smith Land and Homes,” says Bell. “They have a following like no other, they have been voted the Best Brokerage by the Land Report since 2011. They have the most land listings in Mississippi and they serve Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. They also sell homes, so it’s the best of both worlds for me. Why would I choose anything else when Tom Smith Land and Homes opens so many more doors? As managing broker, I’m more than honored to represent Tom Smith Land and Homes here in the Delta.”
Bell loves many aspects of her job, especially helping first-time buyers walk through the process of finding just the right home and all the other many steps and bumps along the way to home ownership.
“I treat every buyer the same no matter the price of their home,” says Bell. “I understand that for the majority of people, when they buy a home, it’s their most valuable asset. I also enjoy helping investors find just the right investment for their money. I sold my first farm with Tom Smith Land and Homes this past year. I learned a lot in a short period of time about farmland. We looked at farms in three states and ended up finding one here in Mississippi to suit the buyer’s needs.”
She also considers herself an ambassador for Cleveland.
“I have lived many places and there is no place that compares to Cleveland,” Bell said. “The small, hometown feel, and the comradery of the Delta is nowhere else to be found. The land speaks for itself as you look at the mighty Mississippi River in all its glory and the vast amount of rich farmland as far as the eye can see. Cleveland has the best small shops and eateries to be found. Some of my favorite hobbies are a stones’ throw away. I love to fish and hunt. There are numerous lakes and hunting land surrounding Cleveland. I love anything outdoors.”
Bell grew up in Cleveland, and spent her days at PDS learning and playing. After school, she would go to her parent’s store, Garrett Furniture. It was there that she learned to talk to customers.
“I can remember taking payments, greeting customers, writing mail outs, and putting tables together,” says Bell. “In sixth grade, I switched schools to the Old Bayou Academy in Boyle. From my eighth to tenth grade year, I lived in Bastrop, La., and attended school there. It was near the end of my tenth-grade year that I returned home and attended Bayou Academy. I went on to graduate a year early. When I returned from Louisiana, we lived at my childhood lake house for a while. Most weekends and holidays growing up were spent at Benoit Outing Club. As an adult, I can honestly say that my childhood happy place was fishing off the pier at Benoit Outing Club. Many a fish were caught on that pier. Unfortunately, it was torn down this past year. I loved to fish and swim there and no one could beat Outing Club’s fried chicken.”
Her earliest mentors were her parents.
“They have always been hard workers,” says Bell. “They can probably still outwork me to this day. Not only do I have memories of helping at the store, but I can remember cleaning and painting rental houses with them, as well. Now, I would say my best friend and mentor is my husband, Warren Bell. We have a blended family so, between the two of us, we have five wonderful kids. Warren and I have some rental properties that we manage together. I often find myself trying to include the kids in any way that I can like my parents did. The girls will help clean houses and the boys help with cutting yards.”
The town of Tunica came out in support when Burch Franklin, eighteen, opened her business Tunica Nutrition. Franklin says opening during the pandemic was certainly a leap of faith, but it was also the perfect time.
“The pandemic gave me time to learn and set up my business,” says Franklin, who was attending high school in Colorado when she returned home after the epidemic started. “Without the pandemic there would be no such place as Tunica Nutrition, which sells energy drinks, meal replacement shakes, immunity booster drinks, and a lot of healthy alternatives to junk food. My reason for starting Tunica Nutrition was I was tired of driving 30-plus minutes just for a tea and shake. I knew I was tired. So, it was only reasonable of me to think that every other person in Tunica with a loaded tea passion was also tired of driving.”
Franklin says that during the pandemic, most people needed an extra boost of energy and support to get through the days of being at home. This made her business stand out. And now with the worst of the pandemic over, she still has the usual customers she did in the beginning.
“I have seen a growth of customers in the early morning hours who are getting ready for work and school,” says Franklin.
Two products she finds particularly popular for boosting the immune system include Best Defense, which provides 1,000 mg of Vitamin C—a powerful antioxidant—and 8 mg of zinc. Immunity Essentials elevates your daily wellness routine and supports immune health all year long. She said both can be added to teas or energy drinks.
Franklin says Tunica Nutrition would not be here if it wasn’t for her grandparents, and her mother and co-owner, Rhonda Chapman. Her grandparents loaned her money and her mother runs the store while Franklin is at school, and also paid for a portion of the start-up costs.
She credits success to an overwhelming amount of support from friends, family, and customers.
“Nothing makes my day more than seeing my regular customers or even new ones,” says Franklin, whose shop employs six. “I have become good friends with most of my customers and love making new connections with people just passing through.”
She plans to graduate from Tunica Academy in May and attend Mississippi State in the fall where she will be majoring in accounting while continuing to help run the store from Starkville and while at home.
Clarksdale, home of the blues, is bustling with energy, tourism, and economic development. Husband and wife team Erica Eason and Hayden Hall are great assets to the community. Erica has flair for design and passion for business. She and her artist husband, Hayden, are partners in both marriage and business. They own Oak & Ivy, LLC, which oversees operations of Hayden G. Hall Art and Hall’s floral and home decor business.
While some businesses have struggled to survive during the pandemic, the Halls saw an increase in business with more and more clients now working from home and converting sections of their homes into office spaces. Many clients decided to invest in their art collections or a renovation project, using money that otherwise would have gone to travel.
Hayden paints Delta landscapes including custom oil paintings of clients’ farmland, family land, duck holes, hunting camps, and sunsets. Erica works with clients to facilitate all of the details of these commission projects.
She loves the flexibility that their businesses provide.
“Hayden and I can both work from just about anywhere with good natural light and an internet connection,” says Hall. “We have a website complete with e-commerce that I created long before the pandemic. Clients can purchase original art and art prints directly from the website that will be delivered or shipped to their door.”
Hall said their primary focus remains on the client experience with thorough communication and timely delivery of products.
“Now that we’ve all lived through 2020, we have learned to adapt, be open to possibilities, and to make our businesses more virtual and accessible than walk inside only and purchase,” says Hall, who grew up near Clarksdale. “The beauty of running your own company is the power of the pivot. But it doesn’t work if you aren’t willing to try it.”
Hall says while 2020 was about adaptation and survival, 2021 is all about discipline and mastery. That means doing what they know works best for their clients and business colleagues based on their feedback, but doing it even better.
“I am always daydreaming on new business plans (for others),” says Hall, who has a B.S. in psychology from Mississippi State. “I like running scenarios on what would and wouldn’t make for good business models and why. I’m a total nerd for business.”
Hall comes from a long line of farmers, entrepreneurs, and creatives. “I got it honestly,” she says.
For recreation, she loves nature and being outdoors including riding Delta backroads, boat cruising Moon Lake, long walks, and horseback riding.
Indianola native Tonia L. Sims was proud to launch her business in the town she loves. Sims is a 2001 graduate of Delta State University and served as a professional educator from 2002 to 2015. After 2015, Sims decided to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time, professional event planner when she launched TLS Weddings and Special Events, LLC.
“Planning events and helping clients create memories was something I loved to do,” says Sims. “Early on, I did a huge event for two young ladies who remain clients.
That early feedback piqued my interest and validated my decision to plan events exclusively. People have consistently attested that I do all things pretty. At TLS, weddings are our primary focus, but we also do a wide range of social and corporate events. As of this year, we are expanding our offerings to include personalized interior decorating and design.”
Sims says clients customarily have high expectations for weddings. She specializes in taking the anxiety and uncertainty out of the process.
“As time has passed, coordinating a wedding has become less stressful because we incorporate our experiences, enjoy excellent relationships with our vendors, and rely on a small group of counselors to keep us on course,” says Sims. “In sum, organization coupled with understanding a client’s expectations, knowing colors and designs, and being confident can get the job done.”
Sims says it is no surprise COVID-19 has changed the landscape of weddings. Events are smaller and more individualized. Ordinarily, they offer buffets and stations. But now ceremonies are more individualized for each client. Although food trends have not changed, food presentation has. For instance, clients opt for more individualized and touch-free options for serving food.
“The trend these days are non-traditional events,” says Sims. “For instance, I recently did a wedding in a beer garden, and I also did one in a park under a tree. Many of the COVID-mandated changes to public gatherings seem like they may become the norm. People are doing whatever makes them happy and whatever is intimate and memorable for them. The idea of a typical or traditional wedding is changing. I like it.”
Her business also includes wedding furniture rentals. TLS has an event center in downtown Indianola—Venue on the Bayou—and they have an up-and-coming venue in Leland, The Randolph.
Larnell Bush, Tonia’s fiancé, helps her in the business’ operations. The couple has three children: Kylon, Kaci, and Kelby.
Brantley Snipes, who resides in Greenwood and serves as the Executive Director of Main Street Greenwood, likes to refer to herself as “an eternal entrepreneur.” She has been largely self-employed since she started dog sitting in elementary school.
“I worked for floral designers throughout high school and college, which pushed me into landscape design because I wanted to create lasting designs for clients,” says Snipes. “We joke that the reason I’m a landscape architect is that my dad is a plant physiologist and my mom is an art teacher, so DNA drove my career choice. I also always knew I had to be able to do something outside for a career because of my immense love of the outdoors. Landscape architecture is just a natural fit. I’m fortunate that my career is my passion and my passion is my career.”
Snipes offers design services for residential, small commercial, church and hunting lodge plans. Designs can include everything from flower bed and shrub placement to outdoor kitchens, pools and patios. She has clients from Hernando to Jackson.
“I love the design process watching plans move from my brain to paper to real life,” she says. “It’s an incredible experience…watching designs come to life.”
Her business has not been impacted much by the pandemic. While the pricing for projects has increased and material supply chains have been interrupted, they’ve managed to make do and have had one of their best years yet.
Some of her pandemic lessons are to slow down, prioritize, and appreciate so much what her life and career offer in the Delta.
“There have been many times of thinking how fortunate I am to live in Greenwood in spite of the chaos in the world these days,” says Snipes.
Snipes grew up in Greenville and attended Washington School. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Auburn University, she went on to get dual master’s degrees in landscape architecture and horticulture from North Carolina State University. She returned to the Delta in 2011 with no real intention to stay, but then fell back in love with the Delta, the people and the opportunities it provided her.
She loves to travel, turkey hunt, kayak, see live music, and fly fish. Her sidekick is a 12-year-old beagle, Jack.
The Country Gentleman has been a part of the business community in the town of Greenville since 1978. Tina Terracina Morris and her husband, Don, started The Country Gentleman strictly as a men’s store. They were located at the Greenville Mall for 16 years before moving to their current location at 1644 Highway 1 South.
“We married in 1980 and decided to put a small corner of the store in ladies’ apparel to try it out,” says Morris, who grew up in Greenville. “Over the years, we expanded the ladies’ department, and it has been a huge success. We have found that carrying both men’s and women’s clothes has been an asset for the consumer, as well as the community. We also sell children’s clothing and shoes. We have been able to outfit the entire family, and have watched generations of families from all over the Ark-La-Miss come to us for their clothing and shoes needs.”
The name of the store has never changed despite that being a bit of a challenge for people who are new to the area. And it can be hard to answer the question, “Who is your customer?”
“We now carry everything from athletic shoes and yoga wear to cocktail dresses,” says Morris. “Current lifestyles have changed since the pandemic and people are certainly dressing more casually. Changing with the times has been integral in our success.”
The early stages of the pandemic were scary, especially being forced to close for twenty-four days in April. They relied heavily on social media to create sales.
“We did home delivery, shipping, and curb service, and it worked!” says Morris.
Morris worked at McRae’s department store in high school, and obtained a bachelor’s of business administration degree in marketing from Ole Miss in 1979. After graduation, she moved to Birmingham to pursue a career with Pizitz Department store as an assistant buyer. But her stint there was short as she and Don got engaged shortly thereafter.
“Don is the patient one, and is always ready to have a long conversation with each and every customer,” she says. “He can remember what you bought from us 25-plus years ago. I am very energetic, and can multi-task quite well. Owning a small business involves everything from sweeping the floors to making all purchases, paying the bills, and servicing the customer.”
The role of women in the workplace has changed since she began her career. There used to be very few women’s buyers at the wholesale markets. She now attends six markets a year to stay abreast of the fashion industry.
Their son, Christopher, has been involved in the business for five years and has helped bring a younger perspective to the men’s department. Their two other children, Anthony and Anna, have all worked at the store over the years.
Main Street in Yazoo City is known for its vibrantly painted buildings. The Downtown Marketplace at 231 S. Main Street is part of that landscape for over ten years. Owners Vernette and Jet Griffin have not only created a business for themselves, but created a store that helps more than eighty different vendors have a convenient place to sell their wares.
“My store is a vendor mall,” says Vernette. “Vendors bring their goods to the space and we sell them. They don’t have to be there. We have awesome vendors. If you came every day, you would always see new things. Our store is kind of one-stop shopping. We have handicrafts, antiques, food, furniture, clothes, jewelry and more. It is just a really cool store. And we are just people-people. We love visiting with the customers and helping the vendors sell their goods.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Griffin graduated from Bayou Academy and went to work for the Mississippi Highway Patrol after college. They transferred her to Yazoo City where she met her husband. They have two children and three grandchildren who all live in Yazoo City.
Griffin says they pay the sales tax so vendors don’t have to worry about that. Vendors include mothers with children at home and people who have wanted to go into business themselves, but were intimidated by all the startup costs such as rent, utilities, payroll and insurance.
“So, they can start with us first,” she says. “They learn a little about the market and business before they dive off in it. We have had several to go on to their own businesses.”
The Griffins celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the 12,000-square-foot Downtown Marketplace in January. They have had a retail business in the same building on Main Street for thirty years and earlier Jet’s family had a retail business on Main Street for twenty years.
“My husband was raised on Main Street, my kids were raised on Main Street, and now my grandchildren are coming to our store on Main Street,” she says.
Griffin thinks it is really important to be a welcoming place.
“People come in all the time and tell us it is because we have a happy and positive vibe in the store,” she says. “I believe the craziness of 2020 made people realize the importance of shopping local and we are so grateful. Supporting where you live puts all of the money you spend back into the local economy. Our little Main Street is thriving in spite of COVID-19 and being a small town.”