"We're All Human"
William ‘Bill’ Dunavant III on the lessons learned from his father, Billy, as he guides the family’s international company into a new age.
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Uzbekistan became an independent nation after more than six decades of control by Moscow. For Memphis-based cotton merchant Dunavant Enterprises, this signaled a major opportunity. Uzbekistan could now trade freely; and during Soviet rule, it had become one of the largest producers of cotton in the world. The New York Times referred to the nation as a “virtual cotton plantation.” Some in the country called the crop “white gold.”
But while Dunavant managed to complete legitimate transactions with Uzbekistan, doing so was challenging. Corruption was rampant there, and many government officials wanted bribes — which Dunavant wouldn’t give.
“We ran into a lot of problems with some of the people underneath the president who wanted to do unscrupulous things,” remembered William Dunavant III, who was the company’s SVP of International Operations at the time. “I don’t want to say it was a lawless country, but it was the wild, wild west.”
Then-head of European Operations Rickard Laurin, however, believed there was one way the company could end the bribe requests and do more business within Uzbekistan. William “Billy” Dunavant Jr. — the company’s CEO, an industry titan, and Dunavant III’s father — could fly to the nation and meet with its autocratic president, Islam Karimov.
“Our strategy was, if we could introduce my dad — as dynamic as he was — it would put us on a better footing to really get a good business model started,” Dunavant III recalled.
So, in 1995, Dunavant Jr. flew to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. And with Dunavant III, Laurin, Asian operations head David Hardoon, and a translator by his side, they met with Karimov. Dunavant Jr. and Karimov were roughly the same age, and for the bulk of the meeting, they talked business. But around the 50-minute mark — to the surprise of both his son and Karimov — Dunavant Jr. shifted gears.
“President Karimov, I have one more comment,” he said. “I understand you and I share a passion in life.”
Karimov looked at his advisors, unsure of what was about to come.
“I understand,” Dunavant Jr. continued, “that you like to play tennis. … I also am a very avid tennis player.”
The Dunavant side had known beforehand that both liked tennis but hadn’t made plans to discuss it. This was Dunavant Jr.’s attempt to make a personal connection with the president, and it worked. Karimov’s face lit up. The two discussed the sport, with Dunavant Jr. noting the work he did for youth tennis players. Then he made Karimov an offer.
“President Karimov,” he said, “Nothing would make me happier than to donate money to youth tennis in Uzbekistan.”
It was one of the most brilliant statements Dunavant III ever heard his father make. The rapport established between the two enabled the company to do more business in Uzbekistan, and requests for bribes ceased.
“After that meeting, there wasn’t a person in the country who would ask us for anything,” Dunavant III said. “Because my dad had the connection with the president of the country. … Dad had a way of doing that. He had such an incredible personality. He connected with people.”
Decades have passed since that meeting, and these days, Dunavant Enterprises is a drastically different company. It doesn’t trade cotton anymore; it focuses primarily on logistics.
And Dunavant Jr., after building a huge legacy, died in September 2021. The memories of him, however, are enshrined forever in Dunavant III, who is today the company president, CEO, and chairman. These are the lessons he learned from his father — and how they guide him as he leads Dunavant Enterprises into a new age.
Photo by Brandon Dill for Memphis Business Journal