Running a family business can be the same roller coaster ride as any small business. Yet there are different challenges too, much more personal ones.
“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,” Florida International University business professor Jerry Haar, an expert on family businesses, told me in an earlier interview. “It’s a business that is supposed to be there for generations. There’s a whole notion of legacy.”
The roots of Fullei Fresh, a Miami-based hydroponic sprouts grower, go back three generations to 1938 in Cuba. Olivia Wong’s grandfather started a business of growing sprouts. Her parents Manny and Silvia, of Chinese descent but born in Cuba, started Fullei Fresh (then called Fully) in the U.S. in 1978. (Olivia, Silvia and Manny Wong are shown above)
The company is now a category leader and one of the largest hydroponic sprout growers in the U.S. with 20 varieties of sprouts and shoots and nearly 3 million pounds sold per year. The company sells to distributors, wholesalers and retail chains throughout Florida. It develops new healthy food products, such as sprout powders. Fullei Fresh employs nearly 50.
We last checked in with Fullei Fresh nearly a year ago, when Olivia revealed being part of the family agriculture business wasn’t part of her plan when she started her career, even though she grew up in the business. The recession and a layoff in her chosen field at the time, film production, led her to the family business in 2010 but she embraced the challenge of learning a very different industry and on-the-job management training. She said she was at Fullei Fresh to stay. [Read the first installment, “Growth sprouts at this family business, here]
“They can come back home, be close to family, have a smaller world to work in with all the good things that a family is, and the potential to make quick and impactful decisions,” Haar said in the earlier interview.
HUGE YEAR OF CHANGE
We’re checking in with Fullei Fresh again and hope telling these stories will shed light on how family-owned small businesses can navigate and embrace change while keeping their family legacy going – and growing.
And what a year it has been.
Fullei Fresh recently announced that Manny and Silvia will be retiring. Manny will be handing over the reins of the business, his CEO role, to Olivia, their oldest daughter. Silvia, who ran HR for the company, will also be stepping down. Manny will continue to retain ownership of the company.
“The transition isn’t complete yet. I call myself CEO elect,” Olivia said. “My dad is still very involved showing me the ropes and teaching me things I know that I am lacking in still that I know will be needed in the future.”
It’s a huge change for her father as well. He founded the business right after college and to say he is hands-on owner is an understatement.
“He is slowly fazing himself out. He’s cut down from 6 days to 5 days a week so it is not a huge change yet. That’s just the way he is,” she said, noting that her hard-working father even as a kid worked in his parents’ restaurant after school and on weekends too.
The phase-out approach to CEO succession – a best practice for any family business so that the new CEO can learn all aspects of the business – will give Olivia more time with her father to learn more about the technical aspects of growing. That’s an expertise she will need as the face of the company. “It’s not as easy as adding water and turning on the lights. There are a lot of little intricacies. We are controlling the entire environment in which the plant grows – water quality, how its purified, temperature, lights, humidity level levels, moisture content,” she said.
LEARNING ALL ASPECTS OF THE BUSINESS
But training on the business side has been ongoing. Since 2010, Olivia has been managing the company finances, sales and marketing. She led a large rebranding effort and saw sales steadily grow while learning various aspects of the business. While working for Fullei Fresh, Olivia owned sister company, Fullei Specialty, a distributor of Asian specialty produce. That business closed in late 2018 when the Wongs focused solely on growing sprouts. And in early 2019 Olivia co-founded the startup Box Greens, but is no longer part of that venture and is focused entirely on Fullei Fresh.
Olivia, who is 37, admits it has been a long journey of learning and soul searching.
“It was a struggle in the beginning. This wasn’t my industry. I saw all the headaches [my father] dealt with and I didn’t want that. But now I have seen more and more the potential that the brand and the product have – it’s exciting. So over the past year I have been giving a lot of thought to ‘do I want to do this’, because the opening was there.”
Helping to tip the balance, she said, is that she has a great team behind her.
Notably, none of her management team are family members, a change now without her and her mother doing some of the roles. A best-practice that family business experts often cite is to have your second in command, usually the COO, be a non-family family for a fresh eye on the business. Olivia has that in that her Director of Operations, who has been with the business for a few years now and has been doing a great job, she said. Her new Marketing Manager was a consultant for Fullei Fresh for over a year and before that was a past marketing executive at Estee Lauder, Colgate-Palmolive, Gillette and Nestle. She also hired a Sales and Marketing Associate, who worked at Bravo / Young & Rubicam Group and Mass Hispanic Marketing. As a part of the new structure, the company plans to hire a new Accounting Manager and Food Safety Coordinator.
PUTTING SYSTEMS IN PLACE
An ongoing challenge has been restructuring and putting systems and processes in place and getting employees accustomed to operating a certain way. These efforts have included enforcing a clear chain of command, updating the employee handbook, looking hard at job descriptions and standardizing SOPs, Olivia said. “It’s a lot of having to train and train and train, because they are very used to the mom and pop way.”
SBDC at FIU consultants Ricardo Newark and Kiomara Hidalgo helped her with implementing structure, developing and finessing job descriptions and suggested effective ways to communicate with employees. 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 says.
Hiring has been an ongoing challenge because the job market is thin, the farming work is labor intensive and the profit margins in the food industry are small. But the opportunity for expansion beckons because so far the company operates only in Florida.
Says Olivia: “We are optimistic and looking forward to the next stage and really pushing the company to new levels. There are areas we can expand into where we are not currently in. I see a lot of potential and with our sales team we really think it could happen. We just need to work together to make it happen.”
We’ll keep following Fullei Fresh and its transition from time to time. Do you have a family business and would like to share your experiences and best practices? We’d love to hear from you.
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