Before he returned to build one of the largest poultry empires in the nation, Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim first answered the call of duty as an Army soldier stationed in Alaska later serving during the Korean War. Ironically, his travels, while in the military, planted just the right “seed” for future success.
Entering the world on May 8, 1928, Pilgrim was the fourth of seven children (two died as infants) born to Alonzo and Gertrude Pilgrim. In fact, the name Lonnie is in honor of his father and the nickname “Bo” came from family members when he was a young boy.
His father owned and operated Pine Grocery and Post Office, one of only two stores in the small community just outside of Pittsburg. When Bo was only 11 years old, tragedy struck the family when his father died of a heart attack in 1939. His mother continued to manage the store for another two decades. Bo later went to live nearby with his father’s mother and sister after his mother remarried.
In 1946, Aubrey Pilgrim and Pat Johns partnered together to purchase a small feed and seed store, now the Anvil Brewery, in Pittsburg. The two men bought the building from W.W. Weems for $3,500. Soon after, Aubrey asked his younger brother Bo to join him.
The brothers’ partnership was briefly interrupted when Bo went to serve in the Army. During his military travels, he had a chance to see large feed operations in action and returned home to share those ideas with his brother. Soon after, the Pilgrim brothers started expanding and fine tuning the process and began processing and preparing chicken products.
“There was nothing remotely close to a long-range plan, a strategic plan, or a business plan associated with Farmer’s Feed and Seed,” Bo Pilgrim once said. “I doubt if there was even very much time for daydreaming about a future. We were working long hours, sometimes hauling a load of peas over to the Cass County Canning Co. in Atlanta, Texas, not getting home until three o’clock in the morning, then getting to the store to open it at seven o’clock. The fact is, it was all about survival. Survival meant meeting a customer’s expectations so the customer would become a return customer.”
Customers did continue to return so the Pilgrim brothers continued to expand.
“We began to grow in a way that, looking back, was a set of small but integrated steps,” Bo Pilgrim once said. “We didn’t know it at the time, of course, that our steps were linked in some way. We were simply responding to one opportunity after the next. In retrospect, the pieces of a fairly elaborate puzzle were beginning to fall into place.”
But just as things were really falling into place, tragedy struck the Pilgrim family again when Aubrey Pilgrim suffered a heart attack, just as his father had 27 years earlier, and died. Bo Pilgrim, 38 at the time, had to take over the reins of the business.
Enjoying tremendous growth for the next three decades, the Pilgrim empire acquired a series of companies thus further expanding the brand. But in the final days of 2008, the company was forced to file bankruptcy.
The story, however, doesn’t end there. Just as Bo Pilgrim had weathered tremendous storms both personally and professionally in the past, he helped lead the company back from disaster yet again. Since emerging from reorganization, the company has made two successful acquisition purchases. Today, Bill Lovette serves as CEO of the company, a position he has held since 2011. He recently reflected on the life and legacy of Pilgrim who died July 21, 2017.
“The East Texas legend is gone, but his legacy will continue to impact our lives for years to come,” Lovette wrote shortly after Pilgrim’s death. “The fortunate thing for most of us who follow him is that his light shines ever so bright and his legacy retains its saltiness. Bo, we miss you but count on us to carry your light for all to see.”
By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS