Bill and Marsha Prestage share memories of the growth of their company – and their reasons for making a historic gift to N.C. State.
On the road from Michigan to South Carolina in 1960 with their three young sons and family dog packed into the car, Bill and Marsha Prestage never imagined where their journey would lead.
They were off to start a new life in Spartanburg, where Bill had landed a job.
Today, the family owns and operates Prestage Farms Inc., a massive operation that employs nearly 2,000 people, contracts with 450 independent farms and produces more than a billion pounds of turkey and pork annually.
Success has been relatively quick, but certainly not easy.
“I can remember being in the back room of our first office, with the mice scurrying around, trying to figure out how to set up our accounting systems,” Marsha Prestage remembers with a little laugh. “We’ve worked hard, and we’re so blessed that a lot of the same people who helped the company get started are still with us today.”
The Prestage family – longtime N.C. State supporters – recently endowed the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Poultry Science Department with a $10 million gift that will fund teaching, research and Extension programs as well as establish a professorship in turkey physiology, nutrition and immunology. N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson announced the new Prestage Family Department of Poultry Science at an event in October.
“There are only six poultry science departments left in the country, and we think N.C. State is one of the best,” Bill Prestage says. “The department has been good to us, good to our state and good to our nation, and we believe it’s important to help preserve it.”
Marsha Prestage finishes her husband’s thought, saying, “We’re also hoping we can encourage people who might come from an agricultural background and can’t afford to go to school, people from the country who want to get right back out into agriculture, by creating opportunities for them to get a good education.”
Bill and Marsha met as teenagers in urban Michigan and, before long, were “young married people” with babies, according to Marsha. They decided to pick up and move south when Bill was offered a sales position with feed company Central Soya. He quickly climbed the ranks, eventually promoted to a sales territory that encompassed much of North Carolina and Virginia.
It was when Bill met Otis Carroll in 1967 that the company that would become Prestage Farms took root.
“We formed a partnership selling turkeys and hogs in North Carolina and Virginia,” Bill says. “A little while after Otis passed away in 1981, we all decided to go our separate ways, which worked out well for everyone. Then Marsha and I started this company, Prestage Farms, in 1983.”
The fledgling company had 28 employees at the time and quickly began acquiring and supplying other operations. Within a year, Prestage Farms Inc. set up corporate headquarters in Clinton.
“It was hilarious,” Marsha recalls. “We moved the computer up here in the back of the pickup truck with our CFO sitting with his arms wrapped around it.”
Bill says, “We brought hogs in at the same time with our first contract grower, Norwood Sumner Farms; then we started building our own farms.”
The contract grower relationship is a hallmark of the company’s success, Bill says. Prestage Farms furnishes the animals and supplies to its growers, most of whom are independent farmers who own their own land.
“It’s a cooperative deal,” Bill says. “At the time we got going here in Clinton, a large number of growers in this area were eager to diversify away from tobacco and raise turkeys and hogs. I bet 95 percent of those farmers are still with us today. I like to think of us as a big family.
“The people we deal with in agriculture are really the greatest people in the world,” he says. “They’re honest, hard-working, good people, and the work ethic and dedication they have to food production is just unparalleled. People don’t realize how dedicated farmers are. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, 365 days a year.”
North Carolina also is home to Prestage Foods Inc., the processing arm of the Prestage Farms of North Carolina turkey division. Alongside its corporate offices, the Prestage Farms Inc. headquarters boasts two feed mills, a warehouse, maintenance department, turkey hatchery and laboratories.
The company has four other divisions outside North Carolina: in Mississippi, South Carolina, Iowa and Oklahoma.
And it’s truly a family affair. Bill and Marsha’s son Dr. Ron Prestage, who earned a bachelor’s degree in poultry and animal science from the College in 1977, is president of the Mississippi and South Carolina divisions. His wife, Dr. Cindi Prestage, graduated from Auburn University’s Veterinary School in 1982, having been admitted there after three years of undergraduate work at N.C. State. But she also is a CALS animal science alumna, completing her degree in 2008. Their daughter, Katie, works in sales and marketing at Prestage Foods, and their son Zack (a 2011 graduate of the College’s Animal Science Department) is a turkey service person in the South Carolina turkey division.
Bill and Marsha’s son Scott is vice president of the turkey division, and their son John, a 1981 graduate of the Animal Science Department, is a senior vice president with the company.
“Bill used to take the kids out with him on Saturdays calling on his customers,” Marsha says. “This exposed them to agriculture at early ages, which we believe is so important. We need to have more people interested in agriculture and understand its impact.
“We certainly want to enhance the status and impact of agriculture through our company and through our gift to the university,” she says. “We want kids to be able to get practical degrees.”
In addition to hiring local talent, Bill points to university and community college support as a key component of the company’s growth strategy – and a big reason for its success.
“We worked with N.C. State from the get-go,” Bill says. “If we called and asked for advice, they would help with any problem we might have, from animal health to feeding systems. The Extension Service was particularly excellent.”
Marsha adds, “And the latest chapter is that the N.C. State Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences Department has been helping us with product development. It’s a whole new world. We had no experience with processing when we decided to start that side of the business in 2004, and N.C. State has been a huge help.”
While Bill and Marsha say that their sons run the company’s day-to-day operations, there is no resting on laurels for these two. They’ve worked hard to make an improbable dream come true, they say, and now they’re beyond happy to be able to give back.