Jesse Russell Flowers, who has always went by his middle name, was born in Greenville, Mississippi, is the oldest of three children. In 1937, when Flowers was born, his father worked in construction until World War II started, at which time his father joined the U.S. Navy.
When the war ended, Flowers’s parents divorced. “My father was an alcoholic, and I had very little contact with him until much later in life,” Flowers recalled. “He could be mean when he drank and was a person you just couldn’t depend on. Eventually, he overcame his alcoholism and worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After he retired, he worked in one of my businesses during the last five years of his life. By then, he was a totally different person. He was just as sweet and nice as he could be. I was thankful for those five years.”
Flowers’s mother had a high school education and worked as a bookkeeper. For a several years after the divorce, she and the three children lived with various family members. Eventually, she saved enough to purchase a small house. “My mother was a good person,” said Flowers. “She went to church and took care of us children. Keeping the family together was her primary goal. In fact, I would say she gave up her life for her children. Eventually, she remarried—but not until all us kids were grown and gone.”
An adept student, Flowers skipped the fifth and seventh grades. By the time he was 12, however, he had become a discipline problem. “Basically, I was bored,” he said. “I got into a few pranks, and my school suggested I be sent away to a military boarding school for one year. I went to Chamberlain-Hunt Military Academy. I missed home, but I liked the school. It was more challenging academically, and I learned a lot about discipline, which helped me moving forward.”
Flowers began to think about his future and how he could improve his circumstances. He was a voracious reader, and college was an obvious direction for someone of his keen intelligence, but the family never seriously considered it because they lacked the funds. He had been working since he was 11, helping his mother mow the loan, cook meals, and do other household chores. Flowers’s first paid job was working as a helper in the machine shop at his mother’s workplace. “I made only 20 cents an hour, but I was very proud of that job,” he said. “It helped me pay for my own expenses, which helped my mother.”
Graduating from high school when he was only 15, Flowers decided he wanted to learn how to fly planes, so he used his savings to pay for a few lessons. He told his instructor, Joe Call, that he would be back to finish the course after he saved more money. Call had taken a liking to Flowers and allowed him to continue with his lessons; Call said he would accept payment whenever Flowers could manage it. Flowers flew solo for the first time when he was just 16. “And, yes,” he said, “I paid for my lessons in full.”
Flowers got a private pilot license and then a commercial license, which led to flying for a Mississippi barge company at the age of 19. “I guess you could say I grew up fast,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a burden on my mother. I was on my own by the time I was 17. I married and got an apartment and had a full-time job.”
Over the next several years, Flowers moved around, doing construction jobs in Greenville and then going to Louisiana to work in a shipyard—first as a welder and later as the shipyard’s draftsman. He continued to fly full time for a company in Louisiana and then went to Houston, where he flew for a pipeline company. A year later, he returned to Greenville to fly for a barge operator—this time, however, on condition he also be named assistant to the chief financial officer.
“I wanted them to teach me the business,” said Flowers. “I became like a sponge. I asked the CFO, Gene Shannon, 500 questions a day. I shadowed him, and it was a great learning experience listening to him in meetings and when he made transactions.” That arrangement lasted for a couple of years, until Shannon contracted terminal lung cancer. The company’s partners were going to sell out, and Shannon encouraged Flowers to try and launch his own business. “He believed in me and thought I was ready to go out on my own,” said Flowers. “That meant a lot to me.”
Flowers had no money with which to launch a business, but he remembered a local doctor whom he had taught to fly. In 1962, he and the doctor formed a partnership—Security Barge Line, Inc.—with one other investor. Seven years later, he sold his share of the business to form Flowers Transportation, Inc. When he sold his company, he had 18 tow boats and 480 barges.
In 1981, he merged Flowers Transportation with The Valley Line Company. Two years later, he purchased Central States Diversified, Inc., a packaging company. Under his guidance, the company doubled in size. Until he sold Central States in 1997, he remained chairman and CEO and was the sole shareholder. During this time, Flowers also served as chairman and CEO of the marine transport division of New York–based Chromalloy American Corp.
From 1984 to 1994, Flowers was in the banking business. He was the largest shareholder in a Greenville bank that he merged into Grenada Sunburst. He served as chairman of that enterprise for two years, until it was sold in 1994. Then, Flowers became chairman, CEO, and sole shareholder of J. Russell Flowers, Inc., one of the nation’s largest independent leasing companies of marine equipment.
Looking back, Flowers said he had an unusual ability to recognize untapped business opportunities. “I don’t know if it was luck or ability that taught me when to get in and when to get out,” he said. “I sold the barge line at the peak of the market. Part of that was luck, and part of it just seemed to be the right time to get out.”
In his daily life, Flowers said it’s important to try to do the right thing every single day. “I have a strong work ethic,” he said. “I used to go to the office at 4:30 in the morning so that by the time my employees came in at eight, I had a good handle on the business. I stayed close to my customers. I think when you own a business you owe something to your employees and customers to give it all you’ve got.”
Hard work has always been a part of Flowers’s life. At 40, he had a sudden cerebral hemorrhage and spent 30 days in a coma. Upon recovery, one doctor told him he should consider retiring. “Well, I didn’t retire,” said Russell. “I am still thrilled to get up every day and go to work. My wealth said that I am a success, but for me it was always more about the deal. I love what I’m doing, and I never want to quit.”
Flowers said that if he has any regrets, it’s the fact that he never got a college degree. “Hard work served me well,” he said, “but with every job I had, I was always looking for ways that I could improve myself. I think it’s important to keep learning. Even today, I get up wondering what I will learn today. There are so many careers out there are worthwhile, if you are lucky enough to get a college education.”