Flashback: Alabama’s King Cotton Merchants

The Weils in the cotton sampling room, from left: Bucks and Bobby with sons Adolph III and Bobby II.

In the March issue of our first year of publication, 1986, staff writer Bessie Ford took us on a tour of the rarely seen offices of one of the oldest, most veiled businesses in the state.

“There is no street sign to advertise the location of the business,” Ford wrote, describing the headquarters as a “deserted looking gray building in downtown Montgomery.”

“Walking in the door at 311 Montgomery St., an antique nameplate of polished brass and a portrait of the founding grandfather provide a museum atmosphere to the otherwise barren entranceway. The chatter of a commodities teletype is a tipoff that big business is conducted in these understated quarters.”

These Dickensian digs were home to one of the top five cotton merchants in the country, Weil Brothers Cotton Inc., a family-owned company 107 years old that year.

Four principals — overseeing 100 employee agents around the world in the buying and reselling of an annual $100 million worth of cotton — faced each other across anachronistic partners’ desks. Senior partner Bucks Weil, 71 years old, faces brother Bobby, and at the other partner desk Bobby’s son, Bobby II, faces Bucks’ son, Adolph “Andy” Weil III.

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When not at their paired desks, Ford wrote, they can be observed in the sample room pouring over coded boxes of cotton swatches labeled by country of origin, like a roll call of the United Nations.

Each partner has spent time, in his generational progression, as a “squidge,” an apprentice “cotton classer,” becoming skilled in valuing cotton by its staple, grade and micronaire, a gauge of the fiber’s thickness.

But it was the intangibles that made for risk and finally brought the company to announce, in November 2008, “Losses resulting from market gyration in early March were significant and the risks of trading cotton have become much greater.” And, as also announced, following a period of reconciliation, the company closed in 2010.

Weil Brothers merged with U.K.-based Stern Ltd. in 1991, but unpredictability of prices following the recession proved too much. Weil had been in the business for 130 years and Stern 156 years.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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