For Olivia Wong, being a key player in the family agriculture business wasn’t always part of the plan – well, her plan anyway.
When she chose her double majors at the University of Miami – motion picture production and history – it was about as far away from produce and agriculture as you can get. And her first job was in the production industry as a location scout.
But after she was laid off during the recession, she decided in 2010 to join the family business, Fullei Fresh, which hydroponically grows and sells 20 varieties of healthy sprouts.
“If it weren’t for the recession, I wouldn’t be here. But now I plan to stay. There is a lot that still needs to be done and there is a lot of potential in this,” said Olivia, who is now 36.
The roots of Fullei Fresh go back three generations to 1938 in Cuba, where Olivia’s grandfather started a business of growing sprouts. Her parents, of Chinese descent but born in Cuba, started Fullei Fresh (then called Fully) in the U.S. in 1978.
Today her father, Manny Wong, is still the President of the business; her mother, Silvia Wong, handles HR. Olivia oversees accounting, sales and marketing. Olivia has two younger sisters who aren’t involved in the family business.
Training Began Early
Olivia’s on-the-job training started young – very young.
“As a kid I used to get into the production areas. I remember being in the room when they were processing the tofu. I learned to drive a fork lift before I learned to drive a car. We were so hands-on from taking orders to doing all the paperwork in the office, making the orders happen, pulling them and sticking them on the truck. You wouldn’t get that in a corporate business, but in a family business everyone gets involved.”
Today Fullei Fresh has about 50 employees. The company sells to distributors, wholesalers and retail chains (including Whole Foods, Lucky’s Market, Milam’s Markets and The Fresh Market) in all of Florida. In 2017, the company sold over 2 million pounds of bean sprouts and over 200,000 pounds of alfalfa sprouts, plus wheat grass and other sprouts, all raised in its state-of-the-art processing facility, according to an article in the Miami Herald.
Tariffs Impact the Business
Olivia says that the new Chinese tariffs are a huge challenge; the company buys Mung Bean sprouting seeds by the container load. “If our competitors don’t do a [price] increase, we can’t do an increase. So what do we do but eat those costs,” said Olivia. “Sprouts are so highly nutritious but not everyone eats them or knows about them. And if you are penny pinching, are you going to go for sprouts or your staples?”
As the family business debates the tariff issue and other challenges of running the business, everyone is invited to the table. “You get to be more involved than in a corporate business, you have more input, they listen to you more, vs I have to follow protocol or go through this red tape. A lot of that is avoided in a family business,” says Olivia.
As Fullei Fresh has grown, it has had to work through some issues, such as establishing and enforcing a chain of command. “Even though an employee may come straight to us, we say no, you have to go through your supervisor.” They’ve also been putting in processes, but Olivia admits: “When it’s family, sometimes it isn’t executed as well as in a corporate structure.”
Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center within FIU’s College of Business, has helped the company better organize itself. Consultant Ricardo Newark, for instance, helped the company realize that even though they had been at this for 40 years, there was a lack of structure.
“We had an employee manual but the manual wasn’t as in-depth as we liked, and there wasn’t clear-cut rules for people and instructions on how to do things,” Olivia said. So consultant Kiomara Hidalgo helped with developing and finessing job descriptions and suggested effective ways to communicate with employees.
The Wongs are clearly on the right path. Successful family businesses need to put emotions aside in order to make decisions that are best for the business, not necessarily the most comfortable for the family, Hidalgo said.
Olivia has been exploring ways to better promote the safety of its products – her father holds more food safety certifications than any other sprout grower and sits on the FDA’s Sprout Safety Alliance, she said – as well as the health benefits of sprouts. She is also looking more into automation, and determining at what point a machine is a worthwhile investment.
It’s often the younger generation that brings in the fresh ideas about technology, new business strategies and innovative thinking, said Jerry Haar, an FIU business professor who has studied family businesses.
For instance, Olivia recently co-founded with two other women another company, BoxGreens, that will grow hydroponic leafy greens in shipping containers. The containers will be stationed on Fullei Fresh’s Miami property and will be using some of Fullei Fresh’s services. Manny Wong has consulted for the new company.
For Olivia, who loves to eat healthy and goes to farmers markets and supermarkets while on vacation just for fun, the two companies will have a symbiotic relationship. “Fullei Fresh will continue to focus on sprouts as we have been doing and Box Greens will focus on the leafy greens. We will do co-branding and cross-promoting. We will do community events together and invite chefs to come and do community outreach. It made so much sense.”
And it sounds like Olivia, who reluctantly joined the family business when another career path dried up, has found her calling, too.
“With a family owned business, it’s not just the accounts payable, receivables and the bottom line. There’s also emotional capital, family, and that equation is not cut and dry,” said Haar. “It’s a business that is supposed to be there for generations. There’s a whole notion of legacy.”
In coming posts, we’ll explore the challenges of running a family business more deeply. Stay tuned.
Pictured: Olivia, Manny and Silvia Wong
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