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Executive Profile

Family Man

Jerry Cook, who has never missed a day of work,
loves his job at Sara Lee and simply dotes on his family

By Kevin Brafford

Raised the right way. That’s a term often used to describe a son or daughter who has closely followed a traditional and moral path of living set forth by loving, caring parents. That’s the way Jerry Cook was raised. The vice president of international trade for Sara Lee Branded Apparel in Winston-Salem, Cook is as grounded as the underwear his company makes is white. He is a Christian and a devoted family man.

He also has an incredible passion for his work, generally arriving — when he’s not out of town on business — at the office no later than 6:30 in the morning and leaving no earlier than 7 at night. Cook’s superiors at Sara Lee will appreciate these words from a 42-year-old man who has never — yep, never — missed a day of work: “I love to have a long day.”

That’s good, for his responsibilities are many. Sara Lee Branded Apparel is one of three global businesses of Sara Lee Corp., among the world’s top branded consumer packaged goods companies. Its products are produced and exported in more than 130 countries, and it’s Cook’s charge to make sure that those transactions proceed smoothly.

“Some people might see my title and think it’s a boring job,” he says. “I see it as anything but. It’s hard to imagine, but every day I have so many different tasks to deal with that it’s very exciting. There are day-to-day operational issues that require my attention, and when I succeed in getting something resolved it makes me feel good.

“Right now a big focus of mine is homeland security. That’s extremely relevant for Sara Lee. And a challenge I face all the time is, how do you set up a meaningful customs process so that there are predictable ways of exporting and importing to the country?”

Cook possesses the “will” when it comes to problem solving, and if there’s a “way” he’ll find it, says Tom Travis, senior partner at Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, an international trade and customs law firm with 11 offices worldwide. “He is admired by his colleagues and by those in the Congress for the seriousness to which he addresses issues,” says Travis. “He has clearly become one of the most effective voices on trade issues in Washington.”

And Cook is heard. Appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, he serves on the Industry Sector Advisors Council-15, the textile and apparel advisory group for President Bush’s administration. “Jerry has earned the respect of his peers,” Travis says. “His ethics, his loyalty and his passion have been witnessed by others. He’s a flat-out superstar.”

James Jerry Cook was raised in Tucker, Ga., a small town just northeast of Atlanta. The youngest of three brothers born barely three years apart, the Cook boys were loyal to each other through and through.

“We didn’t have much money, but we had a great time,” he recalls. “Our parents’ focus was on us, and we were as close as close could be. We had a lot of family in Tucker — there were about 20 cousins who lived nearby.

“I remember after school or during the summer we’d all go to my grandparents’ farm to play. My brothers and I stayed together as a team. If one of us got in trouble, the first to be asked about it was always willing to say ‘I did it.’ We just never gave each other up — we didn’t have so much a rivalry as siblings as we had camaraderie. It was very special.”

The groundwork for the discipline and strong faith that Cook displays today was laid in rural Georgia in the 1960s. “There was just one elementary school in Tucker,” he says. “I had an aunt who taught there, and you have to remember that our extended family was very close. She had a rule that if you got in trouble at school you were in trouble with her, and my dad had a rule that if you got in trouble with her you were trouble with him. So we tried to stay out of trouble.”

The bond between the brothers grew even stronger when their father died before Jerry entered junior high. The funeral was held at the family’s church, First Baptist Church of Tucker, in a sanctuary that his grandfather had helped build. “I think we looked at it like, ‘OK, now it’s the three of us who’ll take care of mom.’ ”

Help came several years later when she remarried, and Cook gained another brother and two sisters — a real-life Brady Bunch. The family moved to Weston, Conn., a heavy commuter town within reasonable driving distance from New York City, two days before Jerry was to begin high school.

The experience opened everyone’s eyes. “We had a big old station wagon that we drove up in towing a red trailer,” Cook says. “We had a dog and a cat, and our other car was a Maverick. I know we looked like Jethro and his five brothers and sisters coming up the road. The real estate agent was probably wondering why he had sold a house to us.

“It was an unpleasant first six months, to say the least. I had never been in weather so cold, and I didn’t know anybody outside of my family. The high school was heavily Jewish and Catholic, which hadn’t been the case in Georgia, of course. And I found that my Southern drawl was a real negative — it was associated with being a little slow. My English teacher and my algebra teacher and I had a misunderstanding, let’s say, that whole first year.”

There were other cultural differences, including one the Cooks steadfastly refused to adhere to. “We had been raised to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ to our elders, and that was perceived as being sarcastic. I remember the first parent-teacher conference was all about how sarcastic we were. My mom told the teachers that they were going to have to live with it because we weren’t going to be allowed to change while we were living in her house.”

They discovered a church nearby that they became “intimately involved in,” Jerry says, and other adjustments began to come easier. The oldest sibling, John, scored 1,600 on his SAT and left high school early to attend Georgia Tech. Jerry excelled both in the classroom and in track, where he starred as a distance runner, setting a record in the mile that stood nearly two decades.

“Now I look back on that time in my life and see that I was very fortunate,” Cook says. “I got exposed to a lot of different things that helped me grow as a person, things I wouldn’t have seen in the South.”

Cook went to East Carolina University to pursue a specialized business degree and run track, but transferred after one year to Auburn (Ala.) University when some of the courses that had been offered in Greenville were pulled. At Auburn, he was one of the first students to pursue a new program in international business and foreign language trade, one that required studying in Spain for a semester.

“I made a deal with my parents,” he recalls. “If I’d go to college, work, carry a heavy classload and graduate early — all while keeping my grades up — they’d pay for that semester overseas.”

Each side held up its end of the bargain, and in the fall of 1980 Cook left for Madrid, albeit with a little excess baggage. “I had a fear of heights, things like going up on a roof and cleaning out a gutter, so some buddies and I decided to take up skydiving,” he says. “On my last scheduled jump before the trip, I broke my ankle. That’s how I went to Spain — in a cast. I ended up having the cast removed by a doctor who I couldn’t hardly understand in an office I’d never seen before.”

Cook lived in a dorm at the University of Madrid and labels the experience as one in a lifetime. “It was the year the Summer Olympics were canceled for the U.S. because of the race riots,” he says. “It was also when the movie ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ came out, and it was the first year that the word ‘divorce’ had been used in Spain. Until that point it had been taboo. It was a very reflective period to look at the U.S. vs. the world.”

 After graduating, Cook went to work for Regal Textiles in Anderson, S.C. Not surprisingly, he immediately sought a church home and found one in Boulevard Baptist, a church that attracted many of the young singles in the small town. Among them was Laurie Gentry, an elementary school librarian. “We had been on a couple of bike rides and other activities within the church and she seemed like a neat person, someone I wanted to get to know better,” he says.

Their first date — a bike ride, dinner and a movie — was memorable, to be sure. “I had changed clothes really fast before we left that day,” she says, “and when we got back to my duplex, I discovered that I had left my keys inside. So Jerry was going to impress me and get me into my house. He got a big screwdriver out of his car to tap on a window just enough to break it, but he didn’t hit it hard enough and the screwdriver bounced back and hit him upside the head. I couldn’t decide when I stopped laughing whether to be impressed or horrified.”

Regardless, the chivalrous act was duly noted. That, plus a strong sense of morals and family values, helped win her heart, and Jerry and Laurie Cook will celebrate 20 years of wedded bliss this Dec. 23. “I think I knew he was the one for me when I met his very huge family,” she says. “It was a big crowd of his brothers and sisters, with lots of conversations going on across the table. And yet he made me feel special.”

The two spent a year in York, Pa., when Cook took a job with the Danskin Group, then returned south to Noonan, Ga., when an opening became available at Playtex, which was soon to be acquired by Sara Lee. It was there that Laurie gave birth to Julia. A second daughter, Anna Laura, was born four years later after the Cooks had moved to Statesville and Jerry had gone to work for Sara Lee as manager of industrial engineering for Bali Intimates.

“We went through a lot of changes during those years,” Laurie says, “and Jerry went through several job losses with plant closings — things completely out of his control. But he never wavered — he has a strong faith to trust that things are going to work out.”

Time away from his family didn’t make things easier. “When I was with Bali in Statesville, I started traveling offshore to work on different engineering issues,” he says. The job resulted in regular trips through the years to Mexico, Haiti, Costa Rica, the Caribbean and the Honduras. “I’d be gone for a week to 10 days, be home for a week, then gone again for another week to 10 days.”

Cook became manager of strategic planning for Sara Lee Sportswear in 1993 and director of customs and trade in 1996. He assumed the reins of his current position the following year and while he continues to travel, most of the trips are shorter and often involve only one night away from home.

“He does a very good job of leaving work at work,” Laurie says. “Occasionally he has to go to the office for a couple of hours on Saturday, but that’s about it. As a rule, when he’s home he’s home.”

The crack of dawn was made for roosters and Jerry Cook. Most days, he’s up cooking what the family affectionately refers to as a “big breakfast.” Testament to the bond between father and daughters is that the two teenagers — now 17 and 13 — still come to the table each morning.

“He cannot start the day without the big breakfast,” says Laurie. “My take is that if there’s an Eggo in the freezer, we’re doing well. Not Jerry. He’s just not that way.”

Laurie marvels at her husband’s efficiency and time management skills, as well as his persuasiveness. “He’s talked people into cutting his hair at 5:30 in the morning,” she says. “He’s met the dentist to get his teeth cleaned before 6 a.m. He likes knowing what he’s doing at all times, and he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of work.”

Including vacation. Cook can’t remember the last time he used all of his available time off in a year, and an ongoing family joke is that he’s allergic to vacation. “We went back to Williamsburg (Va.) for our 10-year wedding anniversary,” Laurie recalls. “And he absolutely couldn’t handle it. Here’s this man — a picture of health — getting physically sick, all because he had nothing to do. When he has no plans and no agenda … well, his body can’t adjust that fast.”

Cook admits that relaxing “is probably my biggest challenge.” He enjoys walking with his wife and says that a great family getaway is a day of canoeing or whitewater rafting. “Laurie and I used to go a lot, and we’ve taken our daughters many times. My perfect day would be in a canoe on a river, not a slow river but something that’s got a good bit of challenge to it.”

Sunday isn’t the only day you’ll find the Cook family at College Park Baptist Church. “It truly is a special place,” he says. “It’s got a great youth program — on any Friday night we’ll have 15 to 20 kids from the youth group that just want to spend time together. That was very common when I was growing up, but I think it’s very unusual today.

“I’m very blessed,” he adds. “I love my work and our church, I’ve got a great wife who’s a wonderful mom, and I’ve got two daughters who are really good kids. I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

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