Wes Stowers... Leadership in Action

A walk through the buildings known as Stowers Machinery Corporation shows the growth, the hard work done daily and the future, which is a constant of innovation. Most notable is that Wes Stowers is speaking to each employee, by name and that is the definition of this man. The humble and gracious President of Stowers Machinery Corporation guides the company as a family, it’s a team of which each member has significant value.

The Stowers family opened the company doors in 1960, Harry Stowers and his two older brothers, Eugene (Bud) and Dick purchased the R.L. Harris Caterpillar dealership that had been in business since the early 30’s. The winter of that first year was tough, they were rebuilding the dealership and establishing relationships with both the customers and employees. The Interstate Highway Program got started in East Tennessee. The Stowers team worked hard to build a reputation of excellent product support to stand out from the competition already known to the contractors working the highway program. Most of those contractors were not from East Tennessee and the Stowers brothers knew their success depended on offering more than just equipment.

The Interstate Highway Program would complete in the mid 70’s and Stowers innovation in service and forward thinking placed the company in a great position as the Arab Oil Embargo made the energy source of coal reserves in East Tennessee very valuable. Stowers Machinery was able to serve the exacting demands of the coal industry, doubling the size of its Knoxville facility, providing 24 hour service and machine component exchanges. This time of growth was followed by the recession of the 80’s causing the coal industry to collapse, it was a period of transition.

The innovation of Stowers Machinery Corporation in the middle 1960’s would again positively impact as they met the needs of the industrial firms of Alcoa, Bowater, Oak Ridge National Lab, the forestry and trucking industries. Readied involvement in the changing markets would become the signature company model.

It was also at the close of the 80’s that Wes Stowers, son of Harry, would become company President. Wes joined the company following a 12-year career in the Air Force.

Wes actually began working for the company part time on Saturdays and full time in the summer, in the warehouse and shop at the young age of 16. His childhood goal was to become a fighter pilot. A dream realized after graduating from the Air Force Academy, serving as a fighter pilot in the Air Force with stationing around the globe including Spain and Germany.

While at the academy Wes met Liz and together they build a life which included the addition of daughters, Lisa and Rachel, who were born while they served overseas with the United States Air Force. Wes Stowers returned to East Tennessee in 1988, taking the lead at Stowers Machinery Corporation with the welcomed guidance of his father, Harry Stowers, serving as Chairman until the patriarchs passing in 2007. “He gave me the tools, didn’t second guess my decisions but instead would ask me questions” Wes reflected, “sometimes it would be to understand and then sometimes for me to reach a needed change of thought.” Harry was a good mentor but also utilized a former caterpillar executive manager to guide Wes on being an effective leader.

The combination of teachings would prove success as the next 20 years Wes Stowers led Stowers Machinery Corporation to becoming an industry leader in almost every market. Believing and practicing daily the action of being a good steward of his employees, Wes took care of his people and built a team for long term. Stowers remarked, “During the boom time in 2005 – 2007…we were thinking how smart we are.” Then came the recession.

The start of 2008 brought the recession, seen at the beginning as something on the horizon, not leading to much concern. “We were expecting a 15% downturn.” Wes remembered. It was believed the company was doing well enough to survive the recession and while the effects were not immediate, the hit came hard with a 45% reduction in 2009. “Everything fell out, rentals, demand for machinery, everything.” said Wes, “difficult decisions had to be made.”

As an Air Force Fighter Pilot, Wes Stowers learned the importance of team, that nothing is a solo event. He had to rely on others to do his job effectively and respecting their hard work and time was key to success. This perspective would serve him and the entire team of Stowers well in the hard times. They developed a 12-month plan, a constant balancing act between wages, debt, profit and the bank. Constant communication with his Stowers team was the life bread of the transition.

The toughest part being the effects on his team and the uncertainity in the months ahead without the ability to reassure was overwhelming. “It hurt like hell.” Wes remarked. The pain is still visible on his face as he reflected on that time. Wes Stowers is a unique leader, a fatherly guidance to his over 300 employees.

The cut of extra spending, elimination of raises and yes, some unavoidable layoffs had to be implemented. Wes managed to hold true to promises made to his team and the constant communication softened the forced transitions. The business model proved the foundation to steady the company, they survived, they didn’t fall. Wes believes the lessons learned from that time have served as positives for the future. The company experienced greater innovation, more organization and opened doors to industries that otherwise would of remained closed. 

Making our way back to the administrative offices of Stowers Machinery, the displays throughout express company history as focal points. Forgetting not how you get somewhere is the foundation of maximizing the here and now. Just as he holds tight to the guidance given from that history, so too is his guiding the next generation, adding to the history. He has built a management team on his personal culture of good stewardship. Daily they work together to maintain the standards, cultivate new ideas and innovate the industry.

Nothing is slowing down for Wes Stowers just yet, he is still the necessary element of this well run machine, however, the many other elements in place provide Wes the ability to follow his philanthropic passions. Do not look for him on the golf course, that is not a hobby, look up to the skies…Flying is where he finds personal enjoyment. In true Wes fashion, there is a purpose to his passion as he flys vintage aircraft to give others the opportunity to see a real piece of history. “Ain’t Misbehavin” is  his P-51 Mustang built in the 1940’s and used by the Air Force in World War II as its long range fighter. In 2010, the plane was restored to the exact paint specifications as the original “Ain’t’ Misbehavin” flown by Capt. Jesse Frey in World War II. In addition, Wes serves on numerous business and charitable boards.

Wes Stowers’ culture of good stewardship to others and all things is clear in every detail of his life. The quiet man whose strength of will, faith and  discipline led Stowers Machinery Corporation through the tough times of the recession, is also the core of what maintains the company as an industry leader. His greatest advice to others is always put the backbone of your business first, the employees. What you give to your team they will give to others, leadership is paying it forward. Wes Stowers is living his legacy, not just leaving it behind.

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