These Memphis-based firms were among the world leaders in cotton merchandising at the end of the twentieth century. Cotton marketing has been an important commercial activity in Memphis since the 1840s, thanks to the city's location on the Mississippi River and its proximity to the fertile cotton-growing territories of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Where numerous Memphis firms once bought and sold cotton, only a handful carry on the trade today. Aggressive and innovative business strategies employed by the Dunavant and Hohenberg companies during recent decades have made them two of the largest cotton dealers in the world, even though the center of American cotton growing has moved to the Southwest and foreign countries have increased their fiber production.
The Dunavant cotton company traces its beginnings to the 1929 partnership of T. J. White Sr. and William Buchanan “Buck” Dunavant. T. J. White and Company had its offices on Front Street, the center of the Memphis cotton trade. William Buchanan “Billy” Dunavant, Buck's son, became a junior partner in 1952, learning the business from the ground up. Following White's 1960 retirement, the firm was renamed W. B. Dunavant and Company. A year later the death of W. B. Dunavant Sr. brought Billy to the helm. Dunavant Enterprises, organized in 1971, embraces a wide range of business interests in addition to cotton merchandising.
In the immediate post-World War II years the firm handled approximately 75,000 to 80,000 bales of cotton annually, with 85 to 90 percent sold to American customers. By the time Billy Dunavant assumed control in 1961, annual sales had grown to between 150,000 and 175,000 bales. Under his direction, the yearly total reached the million mark in the early 1970s and soon soared to a record 3 million bales. As volume increased, profit margins could be reduced, thereby increasing overall company competitiveness.
Dunavant Cotton Company buys and sells cotton all over the world. Dunavant participated in the first sale of American cotton to China. In order to solicit business from Japan, South Korea, and China, the company opened offices in Osaka, Hong Kong, and Singapore in 1978. A Geneva office established in the same year merchandised cotton grown in the Middle East and Russia and served as Dunavant's European headquarters. With the purchase of the McFadden Cotton Company of Memphis in 1985, Dunavant Enterprises acquired a profitable international operation with offices in Australia, South and Central America, and Asia.
The Hohenberg cotton company evolved from a country store. In 1879 two immigrant brothers, Morris and Adolphe Hohenberg, organized M. Hohenberg & Co. in Wetumpka, Alabama. Southern country stores in the postbellum period not only sold groceries and supplies but financed farmers in return for mortgages or liens on their cotton crops. The Hohenberg brothers became so successful at marketing cotton that they made M. Hohenberg & Co. solely responsible for cotton trading and organized additional companies for their other business activities. Morris opened an office in Selma, while Adolphe managed the Wetumpka operation.
As the next generation of Hohenbergs came of age, they opened offices in cotton towns throughout Alabama and in other parts of the South. With the westward shift in cotton production, the Hohenbergs moved the company headquarters to Memphis in 1933. A decade later, following the dissolution of M. Hohenberg & Co., Elkan Hohenberg of Memphis and Charles M. Hohenberg of Selma became partners in Hohenberg Bros. Company while both were serving in the armed forces.
After World War II Hohenberg Bros. expanded into all parts of the world to wherever cotton was grown. Elkan Hohenberg's son Julien played an active role in making Hohenberg Bros. an international company. Rudi Scheidt, Julien's brother-in-law, also fostered the company's international connections, going wherever opportunities arose in the expectation that opportunities will follow the crop.
In 1975 Cargill, a large grain company, acquired Hohenberg Bros.; Julien Hohenberg and Rudi Scheidt continued to manage the firm. In 1985 Julien Hohenberg left the firm to found the Julien Company, which experienced spectacular growth before being forced into bankruptcy in 1990.
Although cotton no longer dominates the local economy as it once did, Memphis companies such as Dunavant and Hohenberg remain preeminent in the global business of cotton merchandising.
John E. Harkins, Metropolis of the American Nile (1982)