When ginner Raymond Miller passed away in 2005, stockholders in the gin had little doubt about who would fill his shoes – his daughter, MaLeisa Finch.
After all, she had worked for the gin, Kiech-Shauver-Miller Gin, in Monette, Ark., most of her adult life and was married to a cotton producer, Allen Finch. When she was as young as16, her father would pick her up after school during ginning season to work in the gin.
During those years, she learned the office from front to back, kept up with class cards, ran cotton settlements and invoiced. In college, she arranged her classes so that she could work during ginning season. After graduating from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro with a degree in accounting, she returned to work at the gin full time.
In the late 1980s, Finch started doing bookkeeping for the gin. “When we built the first bale warehouse in 1992, Dad told me to figure out how to ship the cotton,” she said. “As years went on, my dad was the big boss, but all the while I was listening.”
After her father died, Finch received a strong swell of support from the stockholders. “As sad and shocking as everything was, when we buried my dad, the stockholders asked me to take over the gin. It was scary because there were some big shoes to fill. Then again, we didn’t have any choice.”
Gin employees also offered encouragement. “They all came into the gin office and told me that they would take care of the gin if I took care of the office.”
Over the next five years, Finch settled more comfortably into the job. But there remained one more piece of business left to tend to – the matter of her father’s dream of a new gin.
Raymond Miller had run the gin Kiech-Shauver Gin (the name Miller was added after his death) since it was built in 1965. Improvements had been made through the years, but at best, the old gin could manage only about 28 bales per hour.
As Raymond’s health began to decline, he mulled over plans for a newer, faster, facility, all the while keeping his daughter and gin manager Dewayne Couch in the loop. Looking back, both of them realized that Raymond was grooming the two for taking over long-term leadership and management of the gin.
Raymond’s dream came back into focus five years after his death, as Finch and Couch were shopping around for a new press for the old gin.
After speaking with Cherokee Fabrication’s Paul Owens and Jonas Noe about purchasing a new press, they toured a couple of gins running Cherokee gin equipment. They were soon convinced of Raymond’s vision – a new gin was the way to go.
“It would have cost at least $750,000 to replace the press, and we were still looking at running an old gin,” Finch said. “We wouldn’t have improved anything, but we would have kept running. So Dewayne and I decided that if we were going to keep running, we needed to move forward.”
There were some doubts given the state of the cotton market at the time.
“When you think about stepping off and doing something like this, especially not feeling secure about the cotton market, and so much grain coming in the last few years, I did a lot of soul searching,” Finch said.
But she also felt that the tight circle of loyal, cotton producers-customers needed a modern gin. Cherokee gave Finch a quote, which she took to the stockholders. They received a unanimous vote to go ahead with it.
Cherokee broke ground on the new gin on Dec. 10, 2010. It rained during much of the following spring, “but Cherokee told us they would have us up and going by the time cotton harvest hit,” Finch said. “There was no backing up. This gin was going to run, and it did. We started ginning Oct. 5, 2011.
“Cherokee did an outstanding job,” Couch said. “They treated us and the new gin just like it was their own gin.”
Cherokee 174 gins stands
The gin started out with two Cherokee 174 gin stands. In late October, a Cherokee Magnum 244 was added to the configuration. They liked the Magnum 244 so much they decided to replace one of the 174s with another Magnum 244, which will be available for the 2012 cotton harvest.
“There was nothing wrong with the 174s, let me make that clear,” Finch said. “But the Magnum 244s were really nice.”
“It’s just smooth,” Couch said. “It’s the volume that it will handle. It never changes, even when we get into wet cotton. Within an hour of cranking it up for the first time, everybody knew what kind of a job it was going to do.”
The new gin upped the speed from 28 bales an hour to 55 bales an hour, which has had numerous advantages for the gin’s customers. “Instead of being finished in December, we can finish up in November. Our customers can make better marketing decisions and do a better job of planning for the next crop,” Finch said.”
Despite the higher speed, there was no dropoff in quality with the new gin. “You hear so much about quality in high speed gins,” Finch said. “But we were able to maintain it. In fact, we ended up with a premium of almost $20 a bale across the board. Allenberg Cotton Co., who we’ve dealt with exclusively since 1992, had always told us then that they loved the cotton that came out of the old gin. They were impressed with the grades of the new gin too.”
In 2011, the new gin ginned 42,158 bales, a slight increase over the year before. The gin facility also has two seed houses, with 12,000 tons of capacity and cotton bale warehouses which hold 53,000 bales. The entire facility sits on about 38 acres.
Finch maintains a number of female friends outside the ginning industry, who while supportive, remain perplexed as to how a southern lady falls in love with a cotton gin. Her explanation does little to clear up any confusion.
“This is really something for a woman to say, but when the cotton gin starts up, and I start hearing the motors lining up, it gets me going. To stand behind that console and see cotton coming down the slides, I can’t describe it, it does something to you. It’s a whole lot better than shopping for diamonds, I can tell you that.”
Lest any husbands suddenly get the urge to send their wives to ginner’s school, Finch points out that there is a much more serious side to the business. “A lot of people depend on the decisions I make. I want to take care of the people working here, my farmers and our stockholders. It’s scary, but I love it so much that I’m willing to stay awake at night thinking of what I can do to make it better.”
She knows the comparisons with her father will come and go as well. “There will never be another Raymond Miller. He knew this gin. He could tear it apart and put it back together. He knew the farmland. He knew it all. But I’ve been around him so much that when something comes up, I can always ask myself what Dad would do, and usually I know the answer.”
When asked what it was like working for Finch, Couch leaned forward in his chair to make his point. “How many ginners do you know who can start in that office behind that desk and take it all the way to when the bales go overseas. I’m not disrespecting Raymond, but she knows a lot more about what goes on after the cotton is ginned. She is still learning the machinery part of it. But by building this gin, she has learned a lot.”
“I’m not mechanical and sometimes I feel I have to work harder to be taken seriously,” Finch said. “You either love this business, or you have no business being in it. But I’m having the time of my life.”