One of the country’s top poultry producers, Tuscaloosa-based Peco Foods, has a proud history of philanthropic giving in the communities where its facilities are located.
Mark Hickman, the company’s chairman of the board, chief executive officer and president, believes that charitable history is tied to the success of his family-owned company. Peco Foods employs 7,000 workers in 12 locations across Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. It supplies chicken both nationally and internationally.
“At Peco, we take pride in becoming active members of the communities where we live, work and conduct business,” Hickman says. “This commitment has held true since our founding in Gordo, Alabama, 85 years ago, where we relied on community support to successfully start this company and remain one of the country’s largest poultry employers today. Our success wouldn’t be possible without the support of each of the communities that we’ve grown to be a part of.”
The fourth-generation company got its start in 1937 when John Herman Hickman, Mark Hickman’s grandfather, agreed to raise 75 chickens for his brother-in-law, who was leaving for college. Soon the budding poultry producer was not only raising chickens but selling chickens and eggs locally.
Since then, John Herman Hickman’s small-town enterprise has expanded from a modest hatchery and feed mill to the nation’s 8th-largest poultry producer. Operations currently include multiple feed mills, hatcheries, live operations and processing plants. Interestingly, the original wooden hatchery John Herman Hickman used still stands across from the company’s current Gordo Hatchery.
Mark Hickman is pleased that as Peco’s operations and staff have grown over the years, so has charitable giving. “We are proud to see the passion and generosity that our teammates have for their communities,” he says. “Doing the right thing is part of our DNA and maintaining a community focus is a common thread throughout the organization that helps team members feel proud of where they work.”
Because every Peco Foods community is a little different, local employees help determine what charitable efforts are most needed in their area, says Verna Matthews, Peco Foods director of human resources.
In addition to general initiatives such as highway cleanups, educational support, food kitchen volunteering and holiday gift packaging are more community specific efforts such as maintaining cemeteries where loved ones are buried, planting trees for Earth Day, and honoring military veterans with hot meals and gift cards.
Peco employees gave more than 18,000 canned goods to food banks in 2021, according company records. In addition, more than $4,500 in toys and 350 backpacks were donated to children in need.
“Our team members lead volunteer and giving efforts with each plant focusing on causes or organizations specific to their communities,” Matthews says. “The ideas are typically organized by each plant’s HR managers who are attuned to what organizations have direct impacts on our communities and team members.”
Alabama is home to three Peco sites with a total of about 650 employees at the corporate office and processing plant in Tuscaloosa and Gordo live operations. During the past few years Peco has donated thousands of pounds of chicken to the West Alabama Food Bank, Tuscaloosa Soup Kitchen and Gordo Rotary Club.
This year Alabama employees participated in a variety of philanthropic initiatives including Autism Awareness Month, Relay for Life, the American Heart Association Walk, Tuscaloosa’s Tinsel Trail and Gordo’s Mule Day. Alabama operations hosted a blood drive, communitywide egg hunt, and back-to-school drive this year. In addition, local 4th graders were educated on the poultry business.
Peco team members in Alabama and other states enjoy participating in volunteer programs, Matthews says. “Doing the right thing is a core value of ours at Peco and each of our team members understands and believes in this being foundational to who we are as a company,” she says.
The company’s leadership lets employees know their efforts are appreciated. “We are passionate about helping the communities in which we live and work and we encourage this philanthropic work through highlighting our efforts on digital boards throughout our facilities,” Matthews says. “The digital boards allow us to showcase how involved our team members are in the communities.”
Peco also gives back through The John Herman Hickman Foundation, named for the company’s founder. The foundation provides scholarships to the children of employees and producers, actively serves victims of catastrophic natural disasters in its regions and donates to local charities. During 2021 and 2022, the foundation awarded 90 scholarships, totaling $450,000, Matthews says.
She and Hickman believe 2023 will be another big year for Peco philanthropy. “We look forward to continuing our community efforts into next year,” Hickman says.
Kathy Hagood is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Business Alabama.