Alvin Partlo started a small farm supply store in Garner, N.C., in 1962 which was built on customer service and knowledgeable employees. Forty years later, Agri Supply has seven stores in four Southeastern states.

“If there's ever been a true example of what the American dream is, Agri Supply is,” says Barry Partlo, the son of the company's founder.

Agri Supply operates on conservative principles, Partlo says. Growing little by little as money permitted, Agri Supply has built a network of seven stores and a burgeoning mail order business over the past 40 years. Even their employees are homegrown, some with as much as 32 years experience with the farm supply company. The up and coming employees are involved in a management-training program.

It's a strategy that pays off in the long run, and one he owes to his deceased father.

The elder Partlo, who was born in 1922 to share-cropping parents, came to North Carolina to work with FCX in the late 1950s from his native Michigan. He had worked with the Michigan Farm Bureau before being lured to the South for the job with FCX in Raleigh. He set up the distribution warehouses for the farm supply chain.

An astute man who noted trends, the elder Partlo essentially talked himself out of his job and into ownership of a small farm supply store when he explained to FCX that the farming and machinery business was changing. FCX was a distributor for the Canadian Cockshutt Tractor Company.

“He saw that the manufacturers who made and sold directly to their dealers had an advantage over tractor companies who didn't sell directly to dealers,” Partlo says. The elder Partlo's proposition to FCX was to become a parts distributor. “After World War II, farming and the machinery business had evolved.”

So, with $5,000 he had saved, the elder Partlo bought a 20,000 square foot warehouse with a small parts counter. He started with three employees, among them Bill Clay and tractor mechanic Billy Johnson.

The younger Partlo remembers playing in the parts bins as a youngster. He started work for his father at age 8 for 25 cents an hour. “I thought I was taking him,” Partlo says.

After graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in engineering, “my father told me, ‘good, you've got your first degree, now you need something in business,’” Partlo says. He completed an MBA from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1984 and returned to the family business. His mother Nathalie, 76, still works at the company.

It wasn't long after the opening of the first store in 1962 that folks from “Down East” North Carolina were making trips to Garner to load up trucks with disk harrow blades and other farming parts. “Little by little, we got bigger,” Partlo recalls.

By the mid-1970s, another trend in North Carolina had emerged. “So much of the farming in North Carolina is Down East (toward the coast),” Partlo says. “A group of farmers would get a farm truck and come up here and spend the day, load up the truck and go back home.” It's still not unusual for a farmer's wife to drop him off at the store while she goes shopping for a couple of hours.

In 1978, Agri Supply opened a store on the outskirts of Greenville, N.C. Despite a downturn in the ag economy, growth continued. They acquired a farm supply store in Tifton, Ga., in 1981. In 1985, Agri Supply followed with a store opening in Florence, S.C. Then came Lumberton, N.C., in 1986. Then came Petersburg, Va., and Statesboro, Ga. The stores' motto is “Over 20,000 products for farm, shop and home.”

Partlo anticipates a new store in the next three to five years. Each new store represents a commitment to the elder Partlo's business principles: “Consistent low prices, adequate inventory and, more than anything else, serving the customer. Agri Supply started a highly successful mail order business in 1989 and also is a distributor for an Italian farm implement manufacturer.

“The secret to our business is customer service,” Partlo says. “That goes back to our people. Other places have employees who may not be able to answer questions. Our people have the knowledge and the expertise to answer customer questions. My father always said, ‘Never let a customer leave disappointed.’”

Partlo refers to the employees at Agri-Supply as part of the family. There are several second-generation workers at the company. At least three have more than 25 years service: Rodney Barbour has 33 years, Waverly Barnes has 25 years and Elsworth Lee has 32 years.

“I have to give all the credit for our success to our customers and our employees,” Partlo says. “My dad was a firm believer in surrounding himself with great people.”

In the mid-1980s, Agri Supply instituted a management-training program in order to build for the future. “I like bringing up people from within the system. I don't want to build a store unless I've got the right people in the right place. I've got good people.”