Memphis cotton broker William Buchanan “Billy” Dunavant Jr. shaped the Bluff City’s commerce and the world cotton futures market during the late twentieth century. Dunavant was born on December 19, 1932, to William and Dorothy Dunavant. He was educated first at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, then at Vanderbilt University, and finally received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Memphis State University in 1953. His maternal grandfather, T. J. White, was a cotton farmer from Tunica, Mississippi. His paternal grandfather, Colonel William P. Dunavant, was in the railroad business and created one of the main cotton transporting railroads of the time, a railroad that grew into the southern leg of the famous Frisco Railroad. Billy’s father, William Dunavant, began working for T. J. White and Company at the age of twenty-one. After White retired, the company was passed to William Dunavant; however, because of the untimely death of his father in 1961, Billy Dunavant took over the company at the age of twenty-nine.
When Dunavant took over the company in 1961, it handled around 100,000 bales of cotton a year, and 90 percent of its sales were in the United States. The Memphis Commercial Appeal of March 15, 1981, noted that Dunavant “partly attributes his success to a ‘God-given’ talent for proper timing.” In his case, Dunavant assumed control of the family business as it was poised to enter new international markets. He took advantage of the opportunity; in the twenty-first century, Dunavant Enterprises sells over 4 million bales of cotton to more than eighty countries around the world. Dunavant Enterprises is on the Forbes 400 list of largest private companies, and according to the Memphis Business Journal, it is the largest private company in Memphis.
Dunavant’s innovative business techniques are at the root of his success. An article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal of March 28, 1976, discusses his strategy: “Dunavant’s company was one of the first to go into ‘future contracting,’ whereby a farmer agrees to a price before he plants. It’s a risky venture speculating on future cotton prices but Dunavant prospered while others floundered.” While speculating in futures is risky for the firm, it allows farmers to reduce their risk. On March 13, 2007, Billy Dunavant was inducted into the Futures Industry Association’s Hall of Fame for his work in the cotton futures business.
Dunavant prides himself on being a man of his word, especially in the business transactions that he makes. Much of the business that he did was done over the telephone. “If a cottonman doesn’t keep his word, ‘he is through,’” Dunavant told the Memphis Press-Scimitar on January 8, 1977. The culture of cotton brokering relies on honesty from its industry’s members and one’s reputation and character is a key to business success.
After a very fruitful career in the cotton industry, Dunavant stepped down as chief executive officer in 2005. Before his retirement Dunavant completed the second largest cotton sale in history: a gross sale to China of $225 million. Although Dunavant is no longer the CEO, he says that he will remain chairman of the board forever. Dunavant Enterprises and the cotton industry have been such vital and integral parts of his life that he is not willing to let it go altogether.
Dunavant has always been extremely involved in the Memphis community, working with institutions such as Rhodes College, Memphis University School, and Boy Scouts of America. His love of tennis inspired him to build the Memphis Racquet Club in 1972. His aspirations for a professional football team resulted in his selling the Racquet Club in 1992. The USFL football team, the Memphis Showboats, was not a success due to the failure of the USFL, but the venture showed Dunavant’s hope to improve the Memphis community.
Ironically, Dunavant is allergic to cotton. In his early years, when he spent hours in a room with cotton, he would have to give himself an allergy shot three times a day. This is one of the many examples of his dedication to his work. Billy Dunavant’s contributions to the futures market and the world economy for cotton have made a lasting impression that will impact the cotton industry for decades to come.
Laura Coleman, “Dunavant now king in cotton,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, 21 November 1987; “Dunavant steps down in June–Innovative cotton merchant opened markets around globe,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, 6 January 2005