THOMASVILLE — The chairman of the Flowers Foods Board of Directors counted down strikes of the Thomas County Courthouse clock.

At 9 a.m. sharp Friday, George E. Deese said, "Flowers always starts on time."

Deese then addressed a group gathered for opening of the Flowers Foods Heritage Center in a renovated 104-year-old building at 135 N. Broad St. 

"History in the Baking"' is an exhibit celebrating Flowers' first 100 years of operation.

"We've always been good corporate citizens. We believe in that," Deese said. 

Flowers' facilities in other locations also are good corporate citizens, and the characteristic especially applies in the company's hometown of Thomasville, he added.

Flowers' first business was ice cream in 1915 — the same year the exhibit building was constructed.

The structure was a post office, public library and genealogy library, Deese said, describing the building as "a downtown treasure." The structure has strength and character, and so does Flowers, he said.

Effective Friday, Ryals McMullian became the company's president and seventh chief executive officer in Flowers' 100-year history.

Deese said Flowers CEOs possesses a continuity in Flowers' philosophy and leadership.

Saying he is honored to follow in the footsteps of former Flowers leaders, McMullian said the company has had "an amazing run" in the past century.

The exhibit, he said, brings to life the history of the Flowers family and families of employees.

The Langdon S. Flowers Spirit Award, Flowers' highest employee honor, was awarded posthumously to John Hester, the first employee hired when the bakery opened in November 1919. Hester installed and learned how to operate the first bakery equipment. He trained many employees, including four of his children who joined Flowers.

Among family members accepting the award was Hester's daughter, Annie Hester Walden, and a grandson, who recently retired from Flowers.

Jay Flowers, grandson of company founder Joseph Hampton Flowers and son of Langdon Flowers, expressed pride in the company's legacy.

"My father and uncle always placed the greatest emphasis on the integrity of the people of Flowers," he said after the dedication ceremony. "I often heard that your reputation is your most valuable asset. A business that reaches its 100-year anniversary must hold onto its core strengths while evolving with the market and community as a whole.

"I believe the most enduring legacy of Flowers Foods is the quality of the people the company has developed locally and brought in from across the country," he added. "Many Thomasville institutions are supported by Flowers people. The moves downtown brought a more obvious benefit, reinvigorating historic buildings and highly-paid workers supporting our restaurants and merchants."

The History in the Baking exhibit will be open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and the first Saturday of the month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1820