- ROLLING OUT ITS LAST BARRELS: Dudley Swann Jr. is shutting down Little Rock Crate & Basket.
If you are in the
Little Rock Crate and Basket (LRC&B) has gone by a few different names since owner Dudley Swann Sr. started managing the business in 1957. Swann Sr. was
The company, then called Cummer Graham, had five owners at the time, none of whom knew anything about making baskets. "They needed somebody that had been in the business for a while," Dudley Swann Jr., who now owns LRC&B, said. Swann Sr. began managing the business, and by 1965 he had bought out all of the owners and gained controlling interest in the company. He changed the name to Little Rock Containers, then later renamed it Little Rock Crate & Basket.
Swann Sr. wanted to expand operations, and he needed a million-dollar loan to do so. He was laughed out of the first bank, Swann said. "So he went out of the bank, walked across the street to another bank, walked in, sat down with the teller, and told him what he was wanting to do and how he wanted to do it," Swann said. "The banker leaned across the desk, extended his hand out, and said, 'Do you have an account with us yet?' He goes, 'Not yet,' and the teller said, 'We'll start you an account, and we'll just put the money in your account.' And they shook hands. And that was the deal."
"On a handshake," Kathy Swann, Swann's wife, said. "A million dollars on a handshake. But that's the charisma your dad had."
Within 10 years, Swann Sr. had paid that note off.
Swann Sr.'s father, Dudley Douglas Swann, developed the
"RPCs came, and within one season's time it went from 40 truckloads of spinach baskets to nothing," Swann said. "So we developed a different kind of basket to sell to fishermen on the East Coast. That's when we started the crab basket." The crab baskets are designed with space between each stave — the individual narrow lengths of wood that make up the basket — that allow the crabs to breathe.
Swann Jr. began working at LRC&B full time in 1976, at age 21. His father had just had a heart attack at age 39, and his mother asked her son to put
"Nobody respected me because I was a little snot-nosed kid, but I could run the machines better than anybody else out there," Swann said. "I knew how to do it all. I started working when I was 8 years old, sweeping the shop, cutting off parts with a hacksaw. Man, I thought I was really something. Everybody realized, 'He does know what he's doing,' so I started getting everything up and going."
While Swann never did become a psychiatrist, Kathy Swann said it's his empathetic temperament that makes him suited to manage the factory. "He's in the perfect place to be dealing with people," she said. "He knows how to talk to people, how to solve problems. You've got to be naturally good at it."
While Swann helped manage the factory, his younger brother, Doug Swann, also assumed a leadership role. He had grown up
At its peak during the '80s and '90s, LRC&B employed 130 people and operated five days a week. It produced 10,000 baskets per day. In an eight-hour workday, that's 1,250 baskets an hour, almost 21 baskets a minute. It shipped baskets by rail car and by
The Swann family also owned a mill in Nashville (Howard County), called Nashville Crate. Doug Swann worked there for a period, but after being shot at by an employee, his uncle, Henry Swann, brother of Swann Sr., ran it. The mill supplied crates and covers — lids for the baskets that are included in the merchandise shipment, so customers can seal up the contents after filling them — and employed 50 people. The Swann family ran
The business had some really good years, Swann said. "We made good money and everything was going smooth," he said. Then, fighting among his employees caused Swann to begin requiring drug testing, and he lost about a quarter of his workforce. He spent a few years building it back up. In 2011, Swann Sr. died.
Just as they were preparing to implement those changes in March 2015, Doug stopped to help a driver whose car was stuck on a hill in his
"It was pretty devastating," Swann said. "He just bought a new truck, a new bass boat. He was still really excited for things to come."
In the years since Doug Swann's death, the business hasn't made much money, but it hasn't lost any, either. Swann has cut his employees from around 90 to fewer than 50 people. And as soon as the last of the logs in the lumber yard runs out, LRC&B is shutting down.
The family is in the process of trying to sell the factory, and they've had some interest. Swann said they would love to have the business continue operations in Arkansas.
After running the factory for his entire adult life, Swann is ready to rest. "I've been doing it pretty much on my own and I'm tired," he said. "It's taken its toll on me."
Swann Jr. and Kathy have been married for 40 years, and for all those years, Swann Jr. was on call for the factory all day, every day.
"I've known a lot of hard-working men, but nobody like this man," Kathy said. "He never gets angry, unless he really needs to. He deserves this break. I think it's wonderful. I can't wait. ...
*A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Dudley Swann Jr. in the photo caption above.