Don Lake, vice president of international operations for Dunavant Logistics Group, will add another accomplishment to an already impressive and diverse logistics resume.
Lake has been named 2014 president for the Memphis World Trade Club, a group of professionals – whether they be shippers, bankers, lawyers or brokers – connected with the distribution and logistics industries.
“It’s a really neat mix of people,” Lake said. “It’s a means for the industry within Memphis to get together and listen to a good speaker talk about whatever the hot topic is at the time.”
Lake began on his career path nearly a quarter of a century ago quite by accident. The lifelong Memphian attended the University of Mississippi for a general business degree.
He had worked with a small cotton merchant in Memphis during the summers and holiday breaks and harbored dreams of trading the commodity. Upon his graduation in 1990, he went to work for the cotton merchandising firm DECA International and was immediately pulled into logistics to fill a need in that department.
“It was a smaller cotton company and I really got to have my hands in on everything,” Lake says about his time with DECA. “I did a little bit of trading, I bought some cotton and sold some cotton, but my main job was to get it from point A to point B, whether that was from Clarksdale, Miss., at the warehouse it was stored in to Belmont, N.C., to a domestic mill, or from Clarksdale to Bangladesh. I was the guy that had to figure out how to get it there efficiently and get it there on time.”
After nine years with DECA, the firm was closing down and, in need of a job, Lake called on longtime friends, the Dunavants, whose cotton trading company stretched back to 1928 and would become the first seller of U.S.-grown cotton to China in 1972.
With annual cotton sales of more than a billion dollars, Dunavant sold that portion of its business in 2010, yet retained its logistics operations. While they entered the cotton business in the 1920s, Col. William Pemberton Dunavant began in logistics just after the Civil War by building short-line railroads in Mississippi.
From its home office in the Ridgeway Loop today, Dunavant Enterprises runs many factions of a global shipping and real estate development company. The Logistics Group, in part, services smaller international shippers who may not have the leverage for competitive market rates from carriers.
In this case, Dunavant will group many shippers together and consolidate them into a package for the steamship lines, using the aggregated volume to negotiate a better price with a steamship line. They also work in freight forwarding and beneficial cargo owners who may have their own contract with the larger steamship lines but need help with documentation and logistics within the U.S.
Though the scope has changed, Lake’s days now are as varied as they were with DECA, staying in the mix in an effort to best serve clients.
“It’s never the same thing every day … ,” he said. “One minute I may be wearing my sales hat, the next minute I may be wearing my operational hat and the next minute I may be wearing my financial hat.”
When Lake first entered the business, individual sales receipts for bales of cotton were on paper and stored in a nearby bank. When a few hundred bales were to be shipped, Lake’s job was to retrieve them from the bank. As those receipts went to being electronically stored, and sales jumped to 3,000 bales in a day, he thought, “My God, the world has changed.”
And indeed it had, but much has stayed the same, he said, and part of Dunavant’s advantage isn’t necessarily in pricing but in customer service. The company went from the top of the cotton world to a much smaller fish in the logistics ocean, yet it’s still that small Southern company that knows how to analyze a client’s needs and address them in the best way they know how.
“The buyers and sellers have become more sophisticated,” Lake said. “We have a lot of competition out there. … What I really want to do is to figure out how to help a customer diagnose where his pain points are and try to help him work through those points and try to drive business more on customer service. I want to be able to make sure that customer knows that we’re going to be proactive about his account rather than reactive.”