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Melvin '05, Rural King president, talks business with students

02/13/2012
Alex Melvin '05 (center) with President Mauri Ditzler and professor Ken McMillan at the 2011 President's Homecoming Gala.
When Alex Melvin graduated from Monmouth College with a degree in business in 2005, his impressive skill set and local ties enabled him to earn a position as project manager for Colcon Industries Corporation, based in his hometown of Sullivan, Ill.

Melvin said that while he enjoyed his position at Colcon, “I had my sights on the family business” – Rural King Supply.

A chain of 55 stores in six states, Rural King is similar to Tractor Supply or Farm King, which has a store in Monmouth. Founded in 1960 and billed as “America’s Farm & Home Store,” Rural King sells items as varied as feed grain, hand and power tools, work clothes and coats, birdseed, pet food, lawn mowers, gas and electric heaters, sporting goods and some groceries.

Melvin, who began working full-time at Rural King in 2008, quickly moved from store manager/owner to vice president over logistics and Internet sales and, last year, to president over all operations.

The successful young alumnus returned to campus earlier this month to speak to the Midwest Entrepreneurs class, and his meteoric ascension to the presidency of the company no doubt caught the students’ attention.

Along with other members of his family, including Kermit Speer, Bruce Speer and his father, Gary, Melvin has successfully led the expansion of Rural King, which had just 35 stores at the time of his MC graduation. He told the class he plans to open a number of new stores in 2012, with 20 deals “currently on my desk for consideration.”

“We compete directly against Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Tractor Supply,” Melvin explained. He said he continues to be impressed with Menard’s, which he believes is the preeminent competitor in his space.

Other business insights Melvin provided include:

• Rural King is vertically integrated, owning and maintaining its own fleet of 40 semis and numerous tractor trailers.

• Melvin believes in offering ownership to key employees to keep them engaged and focused. An investment of $2,500 in private Rural King stock four years ago is now worth more than $50,000.

• His Internet team has been a key partner in the company’s growth, finding new sources of quality products internationally, and helping push web sales to their highest levels in Rural King history. He believes he can develop a niche to sell outside his geographic area through the web. Such business is particularly strong in Texas, where retail prices are higher.

• Recently, Rural King has been collecting ZIP code information from customers and, through data analysis, Melvin has created Google maps that track how much money is spent by ZIP code so the company can adjust advertising expenditures accordingly in those areas.

Melvin learned about Monmouth College through his cousin, MC board member Nancy Speer Engquist ’74, and he is very appreciative of the business education he received. In particular, he said, “The group work that we did in our classes helped me quite a bit.”

He also draws on lessons taught in a human resources class and appreciates the experience he had working with numbers in Dick Johnston’s finance class. He also credits lessons learned by studying advertising and marketing with Don Capener, one of MC’s two Midwest Entrepreneurs professors.

Out of the MC classrooms, Melvin could often be found on the farm, working 15-20 hours a week at Kenneth McMillan Farms in rural Monmouth.

“Above all things, I could always count on Alex,” praised McMillan, a professor in the political economy and commerce department. “When I left things in his hands, I knew they were in good hands, that he would follow through thoroughly, and that he could handle any crisis. He was always prompt, never slacked, could fix anything and never shied away from the nasty farm jobs.”

McMillan, who served as Melvin’s presenter when he was honored by his alma mater as the Distinguished Young Alumnus at the 2011 President’s Homecoming Gala, is not surprised that he’s making big waves in the business world.

“Alex has an innate managerial sense. He knows how to WORK. It was a privilege to be his teacher and adviser, and it was a great stroke of luck to have him working for me – and with me – in my sheep operation.”