The trip from Bolton, Ga., where Hiram Folds was born, to Atlanta is only a dozen or so miles.
The Bolton, Ga., of Folds’ birth, however, is worlds apart from today’s General Produce Inc., the company he would build into the largest independent wholesale produce supplier in the Southeast.
In many respects, Hiram Folds is one of Georgia’s great rags-to-riches stories. It was not always an easy journey.
The death of his father came as the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Folds was 13 years old. His older siblings having struck out on their own, he and his mother were forced to scratch out a living on a 12-acre farm near Conyers.
It was an older brother, Jim Folds, who introduced Hiram to the fresh produce industry at Atlanta’s old Farmers Market, Folds said.
“I think he was one of the smartest produce people around,” Hiram Folds said.
In the postwar years, Jim was Atlanta manager for the Georgia-Tennessee Produce Co. Hiram first worked weekends while still in high school. Upon graduating at the age of 16, he went full time joining another older brother, Charles, at Georgia-Tennessee Produce.
Years later, Hiram returned the favor bringing his brothers into General Produce where they worked until their deaths 10 days apart, he said.
General Produce was incorporated in 1960, four years before Hiram Folds would join a sister company as a salesman.
Over the next 16 years, General Produce battled nonstop financial problems until Hiram Folds purchased the company.
At the time, the firm’s fixed assets were two cars, a truck, a forklift, some pallet jacks and refrigeration equipment, according to “Hiram Folds and General Produce Inc.,” a book by Bradley R. Rice.
“I did the buying, the selling and even checked the trucks on and did a lot of the accounting work,” Hiram Folds said.
The dedication paid off. The fiscal health of General Produce brightened.
“Sales grew from $1 million in 1974 to more than $100 million in 2008,” said Andrew Scott, sales and procurement manager.
Still family-owned and -operated, General Produce, one of more than 40 firms in the Atlanta State Farmers Market, sells 20% of the market’s fresh produce, Scott said. The company’s success came in spite of some of the market’s other tenants.
When he bought the company, it sold only citrus, potatoes and onions, Hiram Folds said. Other brokers refused to do business with General Produce, preferring to sell to other customers.
Enter Lloyd Heeler, an old friend from the banana industry who had launched a brokerage business in California.
“He became our buying broker for everything from the West Coast,” Hiram Folds said.
Today, General Produce sources fruits and vegetables from a wide spectrum of domestic and offshore growers.
“We’re a full-line distributor. We carry everything,” Scott said.
The company’s inventory price list runs to more than five pages, he said.
General Produce now has four divisions: wholesale, retail, a full-service repacking operation and GenPro, a trucking and logistics division.
The supermarket division serves more than 200 retailers in 11 states, ranging from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas, Scott said.
About 80 tractor-trailer rigs make up the GenPro Trucking fleet, he said, and all of them are linked by satellite to the company’s headquarters. Scattered through the Southeast are five cross-dock facilities.
Another General Produce feature is a staff of in-store merchandisers based throughout the Southeast, Scott said.
“It’s another service or tool that we offer our retail customers,” he said.
Keeping tabs in retirement
Hiram Folds is retired. His son, Calvin Folds, is the company’s president. General Produce is headquartered on the Atlanta State Farmers Market. Its four warehouses cover about 180,000 square feet, including 22 banana rooms, Scott said.
Bananas remain the company’s No. 1 commodity, Scott said, and continue to beckon to Hiram Folds, who visits the complex a few times every week — especially on Sundays.
“That’s one of our busier days,” Springfield said. “He just loves that hustle and bustle.”
Hiram Folds remembers the days when bananas arrived on stems. He’d go to work in the evening, cut the bananas off the stems, pack them in boxes and then help load the fruit on trucks when the customers arrived the next morning, he said. The industry changed, and exporters began shipping boxed bananas to the U.S.
“We have sold as high as four and five trailer loads of bananas in one day,” Hiram Folds said. “In the old days, if you did 500 or 1,000 boxes in 24 hours you were doing pretty good.”
Hiram Folds was a mentor to his family and others, Springfield said. The mentoring helped her and her brother to embrace their father’s commitment to the fresh produce industry.
The commitment extends to the company’s more than 225 employees. The brother-sister executives continue to maintain a profit-sharing program Folds began when he bought the company, and a matching 401k program that followed.
Over the years, Hiram Folds has gone above and beyond for employees who have encountered financial hardship.
“He genuinely has a big heart,” Springfield said. “I’ve seen him co-sign loans for employees in trouble.”
In contrast, Hiram Folds and Susie, his wife of nearly 57 years, live modestly. Perhaps it’s an approach to life that is rooted on that 12-acre farm for Folds is a complex produce industry legend with down-home values — values he seems to have passed on to his children.