By Toni W. Riley
Walking into the new office of the W. F. Ware Co., one will see a modern, customer-friendly office that shows off a strong business tradition. What one won’t see is anything that reminds them of the old proverb, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”
W. F. Ware Co., a successful grain elevator in Trenton, has moved into its fourth generation. What began in the early 1920s as a business that contracted popcorn from area farmers has steadily developed into a thriving, family-owned business that handles barley, canola, corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat, specializing in corn for human food products.
William Franklin Ware began the business in the ’20s. His son, Robert Franklin Ware, known as Mr. Bobby or Mr. Ware to everyone in the area, joined in the late ’40s. Mr. Bobby’s daughter, Leigh Ware Groves, and her husband, Barry Groves, were hired as employees when they graduated from Murray State and married in 1981. Their son, Keith Groves, became the fourth generation to join the family business three years ago.
Leigh was a baby when her grandfather, W. F. Ware, died in 1959, and her father took over the business. Her progression in the industry was apparent at an early age.
“I can remember coming down to the mill at night with Daddy when I was only 3 or 4 years old and watching popcorn on the ear being unloaded, then run through a sheller and cobs and shucks coming out,” she said. “I was fascinated.”
As she grew up, she took a more active roll in the business. At 10, Leigh was “pulling samples,” which involved running a long probe into a truckload of grain that came in to be sold and getting a “sample” of the grain. By age 15, she was in charge of testing the samples for moisture content, which determined the purchase price. She was also on rodent control around the warehouses, which meant eliminating rats with a .22 rifle.
Mr. Bobby expanded the business and added wheat in 1961 and soybeans in 1966. When Herman Lay (founder of Lay’s potato chips) sent out a letter wanting to buy white corn, Mr. Bobby didn’t immediately sign on, but within a year, W. F. Ware Co. was selling white corn for chips.
Leigh and Barry started dating in 1977, their senior year at Todd County Central High School, and continued as students at Murray State University. Leigh was a business administration major with the intention of coming back home to work at the mill.
Barry was an agriculture business major with a minor in accounting. He had other employment opportunities in agriculture, but he knew he “would never get Leigh out of Trenton,” so the two began working at her family’s mill.
As the business grew, everyone in the family had their roles. Leigh’s mother, Rosa Belle or as everyone knew her “Miss Pie,” kept the books. Mr. Bobby was the marketer, and Leigh and Barry ran the scales and supervised the office and the workers.
The company’s popcorn business grew with the beginning of microwave popcorn. They began selling corn kernels that would be popped in a microwave to the Orville Redenbacher Co. in the late 1970s.
Because Redenbacher had always shelled their popcorn on the ear and dried it down on the cob to get the best popping volume, the Redenbacher Company sent a fieldsman to Trenton to live with the Wares and run a combine to shell the popcorn. Redenbacher, in the early 1980s, started selling microwave popcorn and contracted with a larger acreage farm to accommodate the success of their new product.
In 1985, the W. F. Ware Co. took an unexpected turn when Miss Pie died of a heart attack. Being an astute businessman, Mr. Bobby had diversified into other projects and had bought a golf course in Florida. When Miss Pie died, he immediately put it on the market and sold it. The equity from the golf course sale allowed the company to invest in farms in Todd and Christian counties, raise their own crops through custom work and take advantage of the now-USDA Farm Service Agency’s disaster relief safety net.
At this point, Leigh and Barry moved in with Mr. Bobby at the Ware home, a stately, white house that sits prominently at the corner of U.S. 41 and Kentucky 104 in downtown Trenton.
Mr. Bobby began discussing business with her and Barry, but as with any business — especially one that is made up of all family members — there is sometimes a difference of opinion. As one would expect, Mr. Bobby was very conservative, and Leigh and Barry wanted to try new things. Leigh said she and Barry had to be patient to get new things going.
“We would just plant the idea and wait for it to grow,” she laughed. Barry added that sometimes it might mean sleeping on the couch if he were on the other side of a discussion.
As the business moved successfully through the next 25 years, they expanded to food grade corn, which currently is 25 percent of their business. They moved out of popcorn when production moved to South America.
Leigh and Barry had two children, Ramsey born in 1986 and Keith born in 1989. Leigh and Barry began a construction company that developed a subdivision in Trenton and began operating numerous rental homes in the area.
In 2010, Leigh and Barry had to overcome one of their biggest business hurdles yet, convincing Mr. Bobby to build a new office.
The small, cramped office was outdated and more importantly the scales simply would not weigh the new, larger trucks that were bringing grain to market.
“We were at a point where we had to get bigger or get out,” Barry said.
Being able to purchase 2 acres of land adjacent to the mill from Steve and David Bolinger enabled W.F. Ware to expand into a new, modern office complete with a lab, conference room and, most importantly, new scales.
In 2011, Keith took on a more active role in the business as Mr. Bobby began to slow down from the day-to-day mill operation. Mr. Bobby ultimately retired in 2013.
Keith, much like his mother, was no more out of diapers than he was at the mill cleaning out grain bins. He was there all the time, which he didn’t enjoy right off the bat. As soon as he was old enough, he knew he had no intentions of returning to the business, and his parents had never encouraged him to come back because the grain industry was stressful and highly competitive.
But as the saying goes, “Never say never.” Keith graduated from Georgetown College with a degree in business administration and planned to work in Lexington-Georgetown area. However, his wife, Kelley, who is from the Daysville area, wanted to be close to her family. So Keith decided to come back and help his parents.
“They needed help — as much as they didn’t want to admit it,” he said.
The future is looking bright for W.F. Ware Co. Ten employees are working out of the new office, which has a wall made of timbers from a warehouse that burned in the ’40s. The wall supports a TV running grain prices on it and a large fireplace with a mantle that showcases some of the products that their grain sales produce.
W.F. Ware Co. has started handling canola and owns a small part of the new Hart AgStrong canola oil processing plant that is less than a mile away from their office. This venture is one that Barry is especially proud of because he worked many hours to bring it to fruition.
They also have plans to expand the food grade corn business from Pembroke to a new, cleaning facility close to the canola oil plant. The food grade white and yellow corn business supplies corn for chips, small gristmills across the South and even for the making of moonshine.
Currently, Barry serves as president, Keith is vice president and Leigh as secretary. When Leigh was asked if Keith gave her orders since he is a high officer, she laughed and said, “No, because Momma’s always right.”
While W.F. Ware has had the chance to sell out to larger grain companies, Leigh, Barry and Keith are adamant that they would never give up complete control of the fourth-generation
Barry summed up their philosophy by saying they want everyone to make money — the farmers they buy from, the companies they sell to as well as their company. It is their hope that W. F. Ware will be a legacy they can leave for generations to come.
It is their goal to pass on to their children and grandchildren many of the qualities they learned from Leigh’s father: Be frugal, honest and fair along with the ability to be self-sufficient, tackle problems and make sound decisions.