Two years ago, Don Eaton, founder of Eaton Farms, handed control of the family business to his six children, just as his father Larry had done for him decades before.
“I’m following my dad’s model. Before he passed away, he literally said, ‘Only a fool wouldn’t plan for his own death.’ He was humble, he did his job as a father and he did it well,” Don recalls.
Don started thinking about succession planning long before it would be set in place. But as the time neared to step back and let the next generation take over, Don had to deal with some tough feelings.
“As a dad, I wanted my kids to be able to experience the benefits that come with being self-employed and enjoy the seasonality of the wholesale part of the nursery. But I wanted to guard them from the burden of the business,” he explains.
Like any parent, Don knew he had to let go and give them the freedom to run the business.
“My children are talented, and each has a specific set of skills,” Don says. “I matched their interests with the different parts of the business where I thought they’d get the most satisfaction, and they naturally excelled. I tried to remove the father aspect from those decisions. As they gained skills and began to succeed, I still struggled with wanting to protect them from the burden of the business. I still struggle with it daily.”
Don’s role today is more of an encourager, he says, as well as helping with long-term strategies, but the new leaders – three daughters and three sons – handle the day-to-day operations.
“They have a better view than I do now, and some of the skillsets I have at my age are outdated – but some are not outdated,” he explains. “I think back to when I was 25 or 26 years old when I started this thing. I had the ability to handle risk and had the energy levels needed to run the business.”
It’s tough to take the “dad” out of the family business.
“It’s sometimes a battle to get them to make decisions without me, and it’s difficult for me to let go. If I don’t let go, I’ll become a failure,” Don says.
Don founded Eaton Farms in 1988 with his father. Based in Leesport, Pa., the wholesale nursery grew container trees for landscape contractors, garden centers and municipalities. Don built a successful operation alongside his father and eventually with his sister, Carrie, better known as “Sister.” After two decades of growing and selling trees, the industry was in peril, brought on by the Great Recession. Don took a glaring look at the future of his business and the market, studied each segment and identified problems industry-wide. He concluded that e-commerce was one of the paths that would carry the green industry toward success after the recession. He founded Bower & Branch in 2015, and launched it as a separate company. Bower & Branch allows consumers to research and purchase trees online. Trees are provided by licensed growers, including Eaton Farms. The purchases are shipped to a partnering independent garden center, called licensed brand members. Consumers can choose to plant the trees themselves – Bower & Branch has extensive educational materials and videos on its site – or choose to have one of its licensed brand members deliver and plant the trees. “Without Bower & Branch, our family would have chosen to exit the industry,” Don says.
The new regime
The six Eaton children have two years under their belt of leading Eaton Farms and Bower & Branch. Some were certain from a young age that they wanted to stay in the family business, while others wanted to pursue other careers.
Tom Eaton, age 35, who’s currently an inside sales manager at the wholesale nursery, says he knew all along that he’d be part of the family business.
“I didn’t know where or in what context I would find myself within the business, but I knew I loved it,” Tom says.
Tom pursued a double major in college – secondary education with a social studies option and a public policy/poly sci major. A case of college burnout and a need at the family nursery pulled him away from his studies, and he joined Eaton Farms full time after his fall semester in 2005. It was a choice he’s never regretted.
“Through this career, I have been both blessed and challenged. I have met some of the nicest and best people the Northeast has to offer. I enjoy the strategic business friendships I have been able to forge through my time at Eaton Farms,” Tom explains.
Tom adds that one of the advantages of working alongside five siblings is he knows they have just as much vested interest in the success of the company as he does.
Laurel Eaton Keppley, age 30, is the general manager of Eaton Farms.
Laurel says she didn’t necessarily have a this-is-what-I’m-going-to-do moment regarding the family business, but she always knew she wanted to be a part of it.
“As I grew up, I looked at other careers and paths, but nothing interested me as much as working at the nursery. During my high school years, I spent my summer running our summer propagation program. I loved the whole process, I loved being outside and getting dirty, and running a crew with my Aunt ‘Sister’ [Carrie] who was our production manager at the time. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else,” says Laurel.
Laurel studied business administration, and took a position in sales support at the nursery after college. Since then, she’s spent her time working in different parts of the nursery, preparing her for her time as GM. But one of her greatest lessons came from waiting tables in college.
“Everyone should spend a year waiting tables. It definitely taught me to serve others, something I still practice to this day, especially as a manager. My job is to enable my employees to do their job well and for the benefit of the business,” she says.
Laurel offers this nugget of advice to other millennials preparing to either enter or take over the family business: “Sometimes people don’t realize that it takes effort to succeed in life, and you can’t just show up and expect a pay check. You have to invest in yourself. You need to show up, put yourself out there, make mistakes and have confrontations. All of these things may make you uncomfortable, but this is how you’re going to grow and succeed – not just financially, but as a person, too.
Wendi-Jo Fick, age 28, transitioned into a new position this year. For the first five years, she served as an inside sales/customer service representative for Eaton Farms. She’s now the manager of online support/customer service team for Bower & Branch. She manages the Live Chat system for the website, and she’s one of the first people that customers speak to when they contact Bower & Branch.
But being a part of the family business wasn’t always in her plans. Growing up, she viewed it as a summer job, and sometimes begrudgingly, she admits. She graduated in 2010 with a degree in psychology and plans to go to grad school. But she took a break for a year.
“I could only handle the complacency for so long. I was itching to do more with myself, but not ready to continue with school. In 2011, my dad (sensing I was ready for a change) asked if I would move home to help fill in at the office for a few months.”
Those few months became a permanent position.
As I grew up, I looked at other careers and paths, but nothing interested me as much as working at the nursery.”
Growing up in a technology-filled world helped prepare her for the work she’s doing with Bower & Branch.
“We live online, we shop online. I have dog food shipped to my house each month because it’s easy. Online is a language we speak, as do our peers. Peers who will be buying homes and landscaping their properties in the near future. Before someone our age will purchase a tree, they’ll go to our trusted friend Google, who will lead them to a garden center via Bower & Branch, not to a box store,” she says.
She helped add the communication tools to the website such as live chat to engage the consumer. And she’s discussing the idea of video chat in the future. She also texts customers directly – they send her pictures of the landscape and she sends them suggestions and ideas.
“It’s live, hands-on assistance from an experienced, trusted source. I guide them in making long-term decisions that they can enjoy for years to come, and they’re thankful for it,” she explains.
Gary D. Eaton, age 28, is part of the in-house Eaton Farms customer service team. He’s focused on staying relevant through the use of technology and approaching sales as a partnership.
“I like to think the way we sell trees is not just about selling anything to anyone, but becoming a business partner with our customers. We help control inventory and become a trusted source of material, not just a nursery that sells just to get the sale. We’re about building long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships,” he explains.
As a child, Gary loved being at the nursery.
“I was always at the nursery, from begging my dad to take me in so I could play Hot Wheels in the dirt to working there during my summer vacations. I always thought I’d be on the nursery, but I did look to branch out,” he says.
He went to school to study marketing, graphic design and art. But when the recession hit, the family business felt the sting.
“I knew the farm needed help, so I decided to leave college and come work as the dock manager. It was around 2009 or 2010 that I decided to stay on and put all my efforts into the family business,” he recalls.
Working with family members is a built-in support system, he says.
“You know that there is always someone there to help you when everyone else has gone home for the day. We all understand each other and respect the roles we have in the nursery, and we’re able to make the long days enjoyable because you know what you’re working for – not just a job but a legacy.”
As a millennial, Gary says attracting young people to the industry is not impossible. He suggests being involved in communities, increasing compensation at all levels, and communicating how plants improve people’s lifestyles.
Colby Eaton Frongillo, age 26, did not have plans to pursue a career in the family business.
“My family saw me as the ‘girlie-girl’ who didn’t want to work outside because I hated the smell of the outside,” she recalls.
It’s laughable now because Colby is the chief marketing officer for Bower & Branch. And it was her dad’s intuition in part that got her interested in joining the family business.
“I went to school for public relations, advertising and psychology. I left school not knowing what I really wanted to do. When my dad saw that I was struggling to make a decision, he offered me a job. But when I heard about what was about to take place [the launching of Bower & Branch], I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.
Seth Eaton, age 24, is the production manager at the nursery. He had the proverbial light-bulb moment when he was about 15 years old. After working summers at the nursery, he realized he’d found his calling. Unlike most teens, he was taking business seriously, and was involved in some of the behind-the-scenes work at the nursery.
While he may not have other jobs or career paths to take lessons from, he found mentors in his father, his aunt and a few other people who worked at the nursery.
“All the time spent working alongside of them and getting my hands dirty in the process, let me get perspective of things that continue to help the family business to this day,” he says.
Another benefit of youth: he’s not stuck in his ways. Seth says he’s open to adapting to more modern ways of working and producing plants, staying open to opportunities and ideas.