VOL. 127 | NO. 174 | Thursday, September 6, 2012
Memphis Law Talk
Cherry Back to Roots at Dunavant Enterprises
By Aisling Maki
Russel Cherry, longtime general counsel at Dunavant Enterprises Inc., grew up in a family that raised sporting dogs and had originally planned to be a veterinarian.
“In my first year at UT Martin, I had a microbiology final and I had a chance to have a date with a real nice blonde,” Cherry said with a laugh. “I went for the blonde and didn’t do well on the test, and the next semester I switched over to pre-law.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin, the Missouri native relocated to the Bluff City to attend the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis.
Cherry received his first big break after a chance encounter at a library with attorney John Paul “Jack” Jones, former longtime publisher of The Daily News.
“During my last two years of law school I worked for Mr. Jones as his law clerk,” Cherry said. “Transportation was his specialty, motor carriers and railroads.”
Jones’ focus in the area of transportation law afforded Cherry the opportunity to devote much of his time to research, something he’s always enjoyed.
“I like to read and I like to write,” he said. “Those have always been my strong points, so it was a natural fit practicing law. I like research, and obviously we didn’t have the Internet when I started out. You had to go to the racks, and I liked doing that.”
After graduating from law school in 1980, Cherry moved up from serving as a clerk to Jones to being named an associate attorney, even working at The Daily News for a period of time.
Cherry went on to work for another Memphis law firm for five years until 1987, when a friend who worked at Dunavant Enterprises told Cherry the company was hiring an associate general counsel.
Cherry was hired and has remained with the company for the past 25 years, and his work has encompassed everything from preparing a wide variety of legal docs, cases, negotiating contracts, and handling the sales of businesses and properties.
“Dunavant had a lot of different types of businesses, and there were all different types of problems that would always come up in operating any day-to-day business,” Cherry said. “It was a real good fit.”
He worked for many years with general counsel Bill Stubblefield, who was licensed to practice in Mississippi, while Cherry was licensed to practice in Tennessee.
Cherry said Stubblefield became his mentor, teaching him how to navigate the corporate channels.
Originally known primarily for cotton, Dunavant Enterprises today is one of the largest global commodities distributors in the world.
It has extensive real estate and investment divisions, and a logistics operation with a database of supply chain partners that includes thousands of domestic and international logistics companies.
“In 2010, we finalized the sale of our cotton division, and that was an interesting experience,” Cherry said. “We’ve gone from that into acquiring new businesses and logistics. So I’ve gone back to my roots in transportation law. It’s been fun.”
Dunavant Enterprises has been ranked as one of the largest private companies in America by Forbes Magazine, as well as one of the largest private companies in Memphis.
When he first joined the company, Cherry said he was concerned about possible ethical issues that could arise while working as a general counsel attorney for a large company.
“My biggest concern going into in-house counsel is that lawyers can only give legal advice; businessmen can accept or reject it,” Cherry said. “I was concerned about what would happen if the business interests outweighed doing what was legally correct. And I was lucky enough that Mr. Dunavant’s rules are honesty and integrity, and whenever there were hard decisions to make his question was, ‘Is it legal?’ The Dunavant family has always been that way, and I’ve always liked never having to worry about being crossways with my principles if they didn’t like what the law said.”
In fact, Ethisphere Magazine in 2007 named Dunavant one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies – Agricultural & Food Processing.”
Cherry said his favorite aspect of his job is the variety of learning experiences it continues to offer.
“I’m not pigeon-holed into one type of law,” he said. “As a general counsel I know when I need to get a specialist involved and I hire attorneys all the time as the needs arise. I like that there’s always something different that we’re involved in. That’s a real fun thing, from litigation to warehousing to farms, there’s a little bit of something that’s always changing.”
When he’s not working, Cherry, an avid outdoorsman, enjoys quail and pheasant hunting, fishing, and raising German shorthaired pointers, and attending sporting events with his two grown daughters, who attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.