People - March 2006

She runs a couple of shell companies
By Joe Rauch

Houston Peanuts, the salted-in-the-shell goobers bagged by Dublin-based Peanut Processors Inc., have been sold in nearly every Major League ballpark sometime or another the past 30 years. But in the middle of the 2001 season, they were dropped from the most famous of all — Yankee Stadium.

It wasn’t shocking, says Rhee Sutton, who had taken over the year before as president of Peanut Processors and another family business, Southern Peanut Co. “They’re not into salted peanuts in the Northeast. They prefer roasted.” That preference didn’t extend, however, to one high-profile Yankee fan: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Sutton found out about it one day when she returned to her office from lunch. “His office was on the line and wanted seven cases of peanuts. I sold them to him.”

He’s not the only fan. Sutton’s peanuts are sold, under its Houston or private labels, in about 40% of Major League Baseball and National Football League stadiums and about half of the basketball and football venues of Atlantic Coast Conference schools, including UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Her father, Houston Brisson, preceded her as president and got the sports sales started.

Southern Peanut was founded in 1946 by her grandfather, Daniel Brisson. It buys peanuts from farmers and sells them to processors to turn into peanut butter, roasted nuts and ballpark peanuts. It sells 96% of what it buys to Peanut Processors, which her father began in 1961. Together, the companies employ about 100 and generate more than $40 million a year in revenue.

Sutton, 55, didn’t start out planning to work for the family business. In 1970, she earned her associate degree at Peace College in Raleigh and transferred to Carolina, where she planned to become a pharmacist. After three years, she lost interest and quit college.

She moved to Wilmington and wed. When the marriage ended in 1986, she moved back to Dublin and started working for the family business. It will remain family-operated at least one more generation, Sutton says. Son Hunter, 27, who earned a bachelor’s in business in 2001 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is being groomed for the top job. “He does everything right now. He’s learning the business, too.”