Defining Success…An Interview with Heeth Varnedoe

by Jonathan Simpson
Publication: One-to-One, Winter 2008

Heeth VarnadoeHeeth Varneedoe began his career at Flowers Industries (a leading producer of packaged bakery foods) as route salesman. In 1997, Heeth retired as President and Chief Operating Officer. Under his management, Flowers grew to become a publicly traded Fortune 500 company. Today Flowers has bakeries throughout the southeastern and southwestern United States that bake breads likely to be on your grocer y list, including Nature’s own, Cobblestone Mill, BlueBird, sunbeam, and Bunny to name a few.

Mr. Varnedoe says in his new book, Called To Excellence, that at age 34, he seemed successful. He had a healthy family, a beautiful home, and was headed to the top at work; however, “all was not well behind the facade”. His relationship with his wife and family were suffering. He had become a taskmaster at work where employees responded to him out of fear. It was all about to fall apart, he says, and that’s when he opened himself up for introspection, sought out a trusted friend and minister, and began a “new climb.”

Heeth’s retirement did not mean an end to his adventures. Today, Heeth owns a pecan and pine tree operation, serves on the board for Integrity Media and is a sought after speaker. On a personal note, I have the utmost respect for Mr. Varnedoe and his wife, Jacqueline. At age 17, I had the opportunity to live in his home and work at his pecan tree farm in southern Georgia. From that vantage point, I saw a man who truly is a demonstration of integrity. It was my privilege to catch up with Mr.Varnedoe and get the following interview.

Jonathan Simpson

121: Recently, you wrote a book, Called To Excellence, where you define success as “Wholeheartedly pursuing God’s call to excellence in whatever situation He has placed us, using whatever means and talents He gives us.” What are some differing results you see in people who follow this definition versus those who subscribe to a secular definition?

HV: Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” That puts us in a new realm of Godly values. You represent the Lord in all of your work. You are the son of a King. God says, “You work for Me.” As a Christian, you understand priorities: God, Family, Work. You have to walk it out in that order. It will work, but it is an issue of the heart. When we approach it that way, the time will be there for what God has called us to. You may have to give up other things, but they are replaced by greater things.

Remember, we are not measured in a day but over a lifetime. Peace comes as we try to walk right before a God that is Sovereign. With true success comes the peace we have when we know we are in harmony with the purposes that God created for us.

121: You mention that “business leaders by their very nature are ‘fixit’ people.” You address our attempts to “fix” things in our lives but say that you reached a point in your life when you couldn’t “fix” something on your own. What should our response be when we are struggling to fix something?

HV: When people are struggling, there is a pride factor that often prevents them from asking for help. God puts people in our lives, but it’s up to us to pursue that relationship. This is God’s system, we help one another. I’m reminded of the Frank Sinatra song “My Way “. This is really the wrong approach. We try to fix things rather than have our hearts changed. I remember a young person came to me for advice one time and said “God told me this and God told me that,” so I asked, “Then what do you need me for?” When I went for help, it was very humbling for me. Romans 8:28 says: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to His purpose.”

Heeth also recalled a time when one of his grandsons was injured in a very serious accident. As Heeth waited in the hospital, his daughter-in-Jaw said “Big Heeth, you cannot fix this.” He tells in his book of how he prayed later that night “Lord, I just really want him to live, but he’s in Your hands, I trust you.” His grandson is now “back to his old self” but Heeth says, “as ‘type A’s’ its important for us to know that there are some things we just can’t fix.”

121: During your time of service at Flowers, the company grew tremendously. How did that growth affect the culture of the company? How do you advocate managing it?

HV: The culture starts at the top with the leadership. Do people really know what you stand for? They should not have to guess. Nothing speaks louder than an individual’s actions, their consistency. At Flowers I was fortunate to work with many Christians. Our mentality needs to be that we are servants of people, in that we need to help them develop their gifts and talents. I was a servant to the employees no matter where they appeared on the organizational chart. I learned that it was important to call them by their first name immediately.

Heeth mentioned times that he spent on the floor with employees visiting the company’s various locations. He often took the time talk with employees on a personal level and follow up with them with letters and phone calls. Years later he found that one of his employees had actually framed a letter that Heeth sent and hung it in his living room. Heeth also notes in his book, ”As I changed, the whole atmosphere of our meetings changed.”

121: We’ve had some dialogue on CSM’s website discussion forum board about words of wisdom for young workers just entering the workforce. Thinking back to your beginnings at Flowers, what would you say to our younger readers just entering the marketplace?

HV: You need to understand that not everyone you work for will be a Christian. Your boss may say many things you don’t want to hear. Have a servant’s attitude towards the one you work for. Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve. Read about Daniel and Joseph. Daniel learned the ways of Babylon, then he was promoted. Wherever Joseph landed, he was successful. Joseph wasn’t impatient. Don’t you be impatient and don’t let the marketplace compromise your value system. You might get into your first job and realize it is not for you-it doesn’t match your gifts. It’s ok to change.

121: You stated: “When we are in a position of authority, we have a tremendous responsibility, both at home and in the workplace, to do the right thing-always.” How does that affect fruitfulness?

HV: People watch what you do. The fruit of humility is completely different from the fruit of pride. Work is God’s design. It was God’s plan for Adam from the start even before he fell-to work The Garden. God will honor hard work and humility and bring fruit.

121: What is retirement?

HV: I don’t like the word “retirement”. Retirement means you go and put your feet up. I prefer “refocus”. It is a time of getting after what God is calling you to.

121: You’ve described your decision to retire from Flowers as a very difficult one that didn’t come overnight; it was like a “River Jordan” that had to be crossed.

HV: I had worked there over 40 years. We had many good people but God was saying I’ve got something else for you to do.”

121: Why did you write the book?

HV: When I left Flowers, I had accumulated many notes of things I’d learned and had saved various speeches I had given. I wanted to preserve these. Writing the book was much more difficult than I anticipated. I put it down for a while then heard “you started, you should finish.” It took me five years to complete it.

Scripture Reference: Colossians 3:23; Romans 8:28

About the Author:

Jonathan Simpson

JONATHAN SIMPSON is a frequent contributing writer to CSM’s Marketplace Exchange.