From 'the Dads' to 'the Moms'

By Deanne Stone

The Ramsey and Nucci families have worked together to run Mann Packing Co. through three generations. The partnership survived two sudden deaths in the Nucci family in the mid-2000s; today, the company is certified as a women's business enterprise.

During their 30-year partnership, Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci were the public faces of Mann Packing Co. Inc., a grower and shipper of fresh-cut vegetable products headquartered in Salinas, Calif. Bill, in charge of growing and harvesting, was known as “the outside guy” and Don, in sales and marketing, as “the inside guy.’” Over the years their official titles changed, but when it came to running the company they were always equal partners. Their identification as co-leaders was so strong that even their children referred to them collectively as “the Dads” when talking about the business.

While drawing on their complementary talents to grow Mann Packing, Bill and Don simultaneously navigated the obstacle course that a two-family partnership can present. Each had four children, and all have worked in the business.

But their plan for a smooth transition to the second generation was tragically upended by two sudden deaths in the Nucci family. With the loss of Don Nucci and his son, Joe, and the retirement of Bill Ramsey, the women in the families emerged as majority shareholders. Earlier this year, Mann Packing was certified as a women-owned-and-operated business. Lorri Koster, Don Nucci’s eldest daughter, was named the new CEO, officially marking the shift in power from “the Dads” to “the Moms.”

Changes and challenges

Mann Packing is accustomed to navigating changes. Once the world’s largest shipper of frozen broccoli, it switched to supplying fresh broccoli after the frozen broccoli market moved to Mexico and the export market went to China. Broccoli is still a mainstay of the business, but today half its revenues come from sales of washed and ready-to-eat packaged vegetables for retail, wholesale and food service marketplaces. The company does not disclose financial details, but Mike Jarrard, president and COO, says that revenues have grown by 60% since 2005. Sales slowed in 2008 but have been rising since 2010 as consumers’ appetites for healthy, convenient foods have increased.

The Ramsey and Nucci families have strong ties to their small, tight-knit hometown. Don was born and raised in Salinas; Bill’s family, farmers from Oklahoma, arrived in the 1930s. Mann Packing has developed long partnerships with local farmers, some spanning 40 years, and many of the company’s 500 employees are the second generation in their families to work for the company.

“This is not an easy industry because nature is the boss,” says Lorri, “but I love that everything we grow and sell is healthy. It affects your consciousness to be associated with fresh, wholesome products.”

Bill and Don didn’t start Mann Packing Company. That honor goes to H.W. Mann, still known as Mr. Mann to the Ramsey and Nucci families. He founded a carrot-packing business in Salinas in 1939 before recognizing greater opportunities in the frozen broccoli market. Mann hired Bill as a full-time employee in 1955; 12 years later, Bill recommended Don, his wife’s first cousin, to be office manager. Mann didn’t have children and needed help in building the business. The three men worked so well together that in 1976 Bill and Don joined Mann as partners in the company.

The turning point for the company came when Bill’s father-in-law, approaching retirement, offered to sell Bill and Don 12 acres of nearby land to build a processing plant. “That was the most significant decision we ever made,” says Bill, 80, chairman emeritus. “We had to make a big capital investment. That sealed our fate; we were going to be partners for a long time.” The plant, which opened in 1982, still serves as the company’s processing facility, although it’s been enlarged five times in the past several years to keep pace with the volume growth in Mann Packing’s business.

Just as the company finished building the plant for packing broccoli, new technology was developed for packing the crop in the field. Mann quickly adapted to the change, but the experience encouraged management to explore other business ventures. In the mid-’80s, the owners of Costa Farms, growers of leaf lettuce in Salinas Valley, approached Mann for help in handling their whole-leaf lettuce business. Thirty years later, the profitable partnership grows and markets 35 different field vegetables.

Costa Farms developed a machine that cut florettes (Mann Packing’s preferred way of spelling florets) from the broccoli crowns. Dave Stildolph, head of Mann’s marketing department in the 1980s, recommended packaging the florettes in sealed bags and calling them “Broccoli Wokly.” Stildolph’s son even wrote a song to promote it, “The Broccoli Wokly Two-Step.” Later, Mann used the same idea to market cauliflower florettes, which the company dubbed Cauliettes. Stildolph’s innovation launched Mann’s expansion into marketing washed and ready-to-eat vegetables. Today the company supplies and distributes packaged fresh vegetables under its Sunny Shores brand.

H.W. Mann died in 1995, and Bill and Don took on substantial debt to buy his one-third share of the company from his estate. As 50-50 owners, Bill and Don reorganized management. They became co-chairs, Bill’s son Dick Ramsey was put in charge of sales, and Joe Nucci headed marketing.

Meanwhile, Mann Packing undertook a new venture. For years, it had been the largest customer of the Sakata Seed Company in Japan, which developed the vegetable broccolini, a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli. In 1998, Mann entered into an exclusive agreement with Sakata to grow and market broccolini in the U.S.; the product name is a registered trademark of Mann Packing Company.

“The harvesting business is profitable if you can come up with equipment that makes it advantageous for the growers to do business with you,” says Bill. “Our ability to adapt to changes over the years wasn’t luck. We had to learn how to grow and market products like broccolini and design new equipment ourselves. It wasn’t easy.”

In the late 1990s, the company ran into financial difficulties when it overestimated the market for broccoli and broccolini and found itself with more product than it could sell. Mann’s revenues dipped, putting Bill and Don under pressure in meeting their payments to Mr. Mann’s estate. It took them ten years to pay off the debt.

Planning for succession

In 2001, Don and Bill were ready to step back and give the next generation a bigger role in running the company. Don retired and Joe Nucci, then 36, was named CEO and president. Dick Ramsey replaced his father as head of field operations.

Dick, who was 13 years older than Joe, wasn’t interested in being CEO. “I’m more of an introvert,” reflects Dick, now 60. “I like to do my own thing. Joe had an outgoing personality and a background in marketing. He was the right choice to lead the company.” Today, Dick is co-chair of the board and vice president of field operations for broccoli and broccolini.

Tackling the company’s debts required Joe to trim expenses and start building a professional management team, including hiring the first CFO. “The Dads were used to doing things one way,” says Lorri’s sister, Gina Nucci, 39, director of Healthy Culinary Innovations at the company. “Joe had a lot of drive and business sense. He set up the structure that took the business from a packing business to a professional corporation.”

Bill’s grandsons Bixby and Cody Ramsey were already working full-time in the company, and other third-generation members were soon to follow. Convinced that the families needed outside help in thinking about succession, Joe hired the Carmel Institute for Family Business in Carmel, Calif. Besides working out a succession plan, they set up a family council as a forum for both families. (They never considered having separate forums for each of the two families, but Lorri says that could change down the road as the business grows in size.) “It never occurred to us that we were the kind of family business people we had read about,” muses Bill. “We were familiar with how to run the company, but not with how to bring in the second and third generations from two families.”

“Two-partnership, multigenerational family businesses compound the complexity of a single-family business,” says Steve Lytle, principal of Clearpath Family Advisors in Portland, Ore., whose family’s beverage distribution company merged with another family business to create Columbia Distributing, one of the largest beverage distributors in the country. “Good communication is the key in any organization, but open minds and hearts are critical when two families are involved,” Lytle says.

“I’d be lying if I said that the relationship between the two families was always rainbows and roses,” says Lorri. “Sometimes things weren’t pretty, but we always worked through our differences by being absolutely honest and transparent.” She prefers not to discuss specific disagreements.

Mann Packing did not experience any rivalry for top positions among members of the two families, according to the Nuccis and Ramseys. For one thing, Bill’s children were older and entered the company a decade before Don’s children. Dick Ramsey is approaching retirement now, while Gina Nucci is closer in age to Bill’s grandsons Bixby and Cody. For another, Mann was fortunate that the family members had a range of personality types and interests. The Nuccis like to be out in public serving on committees and attending conferences, while the Ramseys have preferred to work in field operations and sales.

“What often trips up two-family partnerships are turf fights,” says Lytle. “When family members know the roles they’re best suited for, that’s when they can do a great job in managing succession.”

A double tragedy

Just as the business had regained momentum, Joe died of a heart attack while vacationing with his family in 2005. He was 40 years old. His unexpected death rocked the family. “It was a very difficult time,” says Gina. “Lorri wasn’t working in the company then, so Bill and I had to be the strong ones and reassure our customers that the business was carrying on as usual. My dad stepped back in as CEO, but you could see in his eyes that part of him was gone, too.”

Fourteen months later, the family was reeling again when Don died suddenly at age 70 while on vacation. “The two deaths so close together threw everyone for a loop,” says Dick. “We had a multimillion-dollar business and a lot of people who depended on us, and who we depended on. But we regrouped and did what we had to do to keep going. It showed everyone how well the two families worked together.”

The company began a search for a new CEO, but no candidate matched the skills and knowledge of Mike Jarrard, who had worked at the company for 12 years. After working in different areas on the operations side of the business, he was put in charge of Garden Valley, a satellite business that grows stringless sugar snap peas. (Garden Valley is Mann’s only acquisition.) For a non-family member to step into the top leadership position after the tragic deaths of two family CEOs required considerable delicacy, but Jarrard credits the family and the employees for his smooth transition. “The company never missed a beat,” he says. “Joe had prepared a good foundation by adding more professional talent. We all had heavy hearts, but we were committed to keeping the company moving forward. We have a culture of rolling up our sleeves and dealing with whatever confronts us, and we said, ‘OK, we can take this on, too.’”

Don’s daughter Lorri started working full-time at Mann Packing in 1990, but left after a few years to work for an Internet company. When Joe died, she was raising two young sons, working from home and doing some consulting for the family business. She increased her consulting hours to help out her dad. After her father died, she returned to Mann Packing full-time. Her husband, Tom Koster, had been working in sales in the company.

“My dad was a workaholic,” says Lorri. “My husband and I did not want to repeat that mistake. We wanted to be present for our kids, so Tom quit his job and became Mr. Mom.”

As part of his estate planning, Bill Ramsey had been gifting his company shares to his four children. That action, coupled with the distribution of Don and Joe’s shares after their deaths, left the women in the two families with a 64% majority. The company applied for certification as a women’s business enterprise through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council to give it a competitive edge in bidding on government contracts over some of its biggest, publicly traded competitors. (Many of Mann Packing’s customers, like Wal-Mart, Safeway and Kroger, also have vendor diversity programs.)

To qualify for certification, Lorri became CEO in 2012 and Mike Jarrard—who Lorri says is “like a brother” to her—took the title of president and COO. The company also changed its bylaws to allow it to add outside professional women to the board.

“Gina and I do a lot of media training with our trade association,” says Lorri. “They like to have us because we’re moms marketing to moms. We just got back from a women’s bloggers’ event where the audience of women were ‘high-fiving’ us. They love that we are a women-owned and -operated business and that Gina and I are sisters. It adds a lot of credibility to what we do.”

Lorri has been CEO for less than a year, but she is settling into her leadership position and says it feels right for her to be there. “My being CEO created a sense of stability, security and continuity,” she says. It says to our employees, customers, and growers that the Ramseys and Nuccis are still here and still moving the company forward.”

Nonetheless, she admits that the sudden elevation to CEO under such tragic circumstances was not easy. “I never would have thought in a million years that Joe would die so young and that I’d be where I am today. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, but that I never had to because I had a big brother. My dad assumed he’d pass on the business to his son. Had he been more transparent with me about his thoughts about the company, it would have been easier to become CEO. Instead, I had a baptism by fire.”

Don’s and Joe’s deaths so close together taught the Nuccis and Ramsey families a hard lesson. “We got hit by a truck twice,” says Lorri. “You think it can’t happen, and then it does. That’s why it’s so important for family businesses to have strong executive management teams in place.” And, as a women-owned and operated company, they want to ensure that the women shareholders, in particular, understand the company’s financials and what’s happening in the business. Now Gina, and Bill’s daughter Rebecca Ramsey, regularly attend board meetings as observers.

Lorri is optimistic about the company’s future. She and her management team have developed an ambitious plan for growth by 2014 that includes adding new products and possibly new acquisitions. “This is a good time to be in the food business,” she says. “I’m passionate about this company and our industry. We will stay true to our values and won’t forget where we came from, for sure, but we’re not ‘the Dads’ anymore. We’re much more professional.”

Deanne Stone is a business writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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November/December 2012

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