Old friends, new beginnings

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

In the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 2019, Noel King stood across the street from MFA Agri Services in Lebanon, Mo., as sky-high flames engulfed the farm-supply store that three generations of his family had patronized.

The cattle producer and the cooperative’s board president admits he was overwhelmed by emotion as he huddled helplessly with other farmers and MFA employees, all stunned by the nightmarish scene.

“We hugged each other and watched it burn,” King said. “A hundred years of history. Gone. My family has been members here since the word go. I couldn’t help but think, ‘What’s going to happen to us now?’”

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle, said Max Stephans, Leba­non location manager. In the fall of 2020—only 18 months since the old store was reduced to smoldering rubble—MFA opened a brand-new facility in the same familiar spot on Jefferson Street, the bustling main route through town.

“Looking back at where we were then and where we are now, this is miraculous stuff,” Stephans said. “We built this store and filled it up debt-free, thanks to the diligence of the management and board over the years to make sure we were fully insured. No one lost a job. No one was laid off. We just kept operating through it all.”

More than 1,000 guests attended a two-day grand opening celebration Oct. 30-31, during which the cooperative, a local affiliate of MFA Incorporated, also commemorated its 100th anniversary. Darrell Pollock, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, led a ceremonial ribbon-cutting on Friday morning to officially welcome MFA back to the community.

“In a year of mixed-up, terrible things, this is something positive that has risen up, literally, out of the ashes,” Pollock said. “After the fire, there really was a sense of loss for us all. MFA has been a good community partner. You don’t stay in business for 100 years without being that kind of company. And if the turnout at this grand opening is any kind of idea of what the future holds, they’re going to be here for the long haul.”

On hand for the grand opening was Phyllis Bishop, wife of the late Roscoe Bishop, who served on the local MFA board for 33 years. The couple raised cattle together and were mar­ried for nearly 60 years before his death on Feb. 8, 2020.

“My husband was still living when the store burned, but he didn’t live long enough to see it built,” she said. “I think it’s marvelous, and he would, too. He’d be really proud, because his whole life was about working for the farmers. He really wanted MFA to succeed.”

General Manager John Percival, who oversees operations at the cooperative’s Lebanon, Conway, Grovespring and Richland loca­tions, said the new store’s completion felt like a “lifelong journey.”

“I’ve been with this co-op 31 years, and I never dreamed that one day we’d have everything wiped out and have to start over,” Percival said. “Our mission statement is to ‘provide our farmer-members with cost-effective goods and services.’ The old store served that purpose, but this new facility will allow us to fulfill that mission even better. The fire was a tragedy, but it’s turned out to be a tremendous blessing.”

Stephans said the cooperative’s triumph over that tragedy can be attributed to the dedication of its employees, loyalty of its customers and support from the MFA system and the Lebanon community. During the rebuilding process, the co-op conducted business from a makeshift office and storefront assembled in an adjacent vacant building owned by MFA Incorporated. Fortu­nately, the feed mill was unharmed by the fire and never ceased operation.

“The building burned Friday night, and MFA had people here on Saturday morning,” Stephans said. “They gave us the keys to that building and told us to do what we needed to do. It was a godsend. By that afternoon, MFA had an IT trailer set up with all the computers and equipment we needed to run the business. Our employees were here, figuring out what equipment we had left and calling plumbers and electricians. Vendors and other businesses in town offered their help. Everybody did what they could do to get us back in business. By Monday morning, we had our first sales ticket. It was unbe­lievable.”

Rebuilding was an opportunity for reinventing the business, Stephans said. Although the new facility generally follows the same footprint as the original, the 11,000-square-foot showroom is about 2,000 square feet larger than the old one. The expansion mostly came from incorporating space that for­merly served as a greenhouse.

“In the transition to the new facility, we really had to ask some hard questions about what we wanted to do,” Stephans said. “We had a blank slate. It’s a terrible way to get there, but it really gave us a chance to look at what’s critical and what’s just fluff. That was one of our biggest challenges. Take the greenhouse, for ex­ample. Truth is, it was only profitable a few weeks each year. We decided to let the nurseries in town have that business. We want to ‘own’ what we do and be the best at it instead of trying to be everything to everybody.”

This introspective reflection led to a renewed focus on core farm-supply areas such as feed, animal health and hardware for both full-time and part-time producers. To appeal to the growing number of rural lifestyle consumers, however, Stephans said the new store also offers expanded lines of products such as wild bird feeding and outdoor living.

“The rural lifestyle is one our biggest driving forces here,” he said. “We intentionally built the store to focus on that segment of the market. At the old store, people used to come in, pick up what they needed and take off. Now, with this new layout, people come in, get a cart and wander around. From the very beginning, we knew we wanted it to be bright, open and inviting. I feel like we got that accomplished.”

Indeed, Pollock said, the product mix inside the reimagined MFA store reflects the customer base of the Lebanon community.

“This is a place where farming and town come together,” Pol­lock said. “Lebanon is a traditional agricultural community, even though when you drive through town, it doesn’t necessarily look like that. We have a lot of trade and traffic. But, at the end of the day, we’re rural Missouri. We embrace those rural roots.”

Despite some uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the fire, a cause for which has never been determined, at no time was there a ques­tion about whether MFA would rebuild, said Board President King. Yes, there were challenges and difficulties, he said, but everyone involved learned a valuable lesson along the way—fire may destroy structures, but it can’t destroy the human spirit.

“Everything just turned out far greater than I could have ever dreamed,” King said. “MFA is everything to the ag community. It’s been serving generations of our families, and we’re all just thrilled to see the store back in business. Long live MFA.”