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Two Trailblazing Lessons From Patagonia

Many business leaders that I work alongside have long referred to Patagonia as an aspirational example… a family-owned company that is run on its values, and known for this in a way that connects with consumers; its actual authenticity makes it enormously successful and profitable. The latest move by the Chouinard family cements their trailblazing approach to a new form of values-led capitalism, and there are lessons here for all of us.

Since I heard the news about the founder of outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, giving up ownership of his family’s company, it has stayed with me. 

Many business leaders that I work alongside have long referred to Patagonia as an aspirational example… a company that is run on its values, which connects with consumers and actually leads to its success and profitability. The latest move by the Chouinard family cements their trailblazing approach to a new form of values-led capitalism, and there are lessons here for all of us.

If you haven’t read the details of the exit or Chouinard’s message to Patagonia employees, I highly recommend digging in. The cliff notes are:

  • Chouinard is 83, and his family and the board have been wrestling with what would happen to Patagonia after his death for years. The company was 100% owned by the Chouinard family (Yvon, his wife Melinda, and their two children).
  • The family has created a unique structure in which they have donated 2% of the company (the voting shares) to a trust, and the rest of the common shares to a new 501(c)4.
  • The trust serves as a governing board for the company, and ensures that all excess profits (about $100 million annually) of the business are donated to the nonprofit in order to support a variety of environmental and grassroots programs and organizations. 

As Chouinard put it: “Now I could die tomorrow and the company is going to continue doing the right thing for the next 50 years, and I don’t have to be around.”

Lesson #1: Constraints beget creativity

One of the most inspiring aspects of this story for me was the reminder that limits or constraints can actually make us more creative. 

As business leaders, we often complain about needing more time, more money, more options… and we forget that sometimes less time, less money, fewer options are actually where our genius and the genius of our team can shine. 

Chouinard put very specific constraints on the team that was in charge of coming up with a satisfactory transition option. They needed to come up with a solution that met the non-negotiables to ensure that the purpose and ethos of the company would not be lost, and that the proceeds not just benefit the family, but the planet. 

As David Gelles points out in The New York Times article that broke the news, the easiest paths, selling the company or taking it public, would have enabled Chouinard to fund conservation initiatives from the proceeds. 

But Yvon did not believe that Patagonia would be able to prioritize things like worker well-being and funding climate action as a public company.

“I don’t respect the stock market at all,” Chouinard said. “Once you’re public, you’ve lost control over the company, and you have to maximize profits for the shareholder, and then you become one of these irresponsible companies.”

Chouinard even added some time pressure to the team to find a suitable alternative for his ownership succession. As the CEO, Ryan Gellert recounts: “One day he said to me, ‘Ryan, I swear to God, if you guys don’t start moving on this, I’m going to go get the Fortune magazine list of billionaires and start cold calling people. At that point we realized he was serious.”

By taking traditional solutions off the table and making the issue both urgent and important, Chouinard forced Patagonia to blaze a new trail that satisfied all of the Chouinard family’s values-led requirements. 

Lesson #2: What makes you different is where your value lies.

Companies often think that their strategic advantage is in being “better.” Better tasting. Healthier. Cheaper. More efficient. In reality, your strategic advantage is in being different.

“This family is one of one… People are gut-checking this move because it is so unusual,” Gelles noted in a Vox interview. “This family operates on a different wavelength.” 

The Chouinard children, Fletcher and Claire, essentially renounced their inheritance of billions of dollars, and share their parents’ disdain for billionaires.

My expectation isn’t that family enterprises all over the globe start emulating the Chouinard’s exact structure or willingness to donate their fortune to a cause. But they do act as an exceptional example of when having extreme values and personalities can work in a company’s favor.

It is a stark reminder to own this truth: The quirks of a family can actually create value in the brand and have positive ripple effects. By operating at extremes, they attract customers and employees who share their values, but lack the Chouinard’s capital to act on them.

Embracing personality, values, and profitability as ingredients for a successful business, instead of choices to be made is a liberating concept. This is something that makes me excited about the unique ability of family-owned and closely held businesses to truly make meaningful change in the world.

Patagonia is not a perfect company, and Yvon Choinard is not a perfect man. He wrestles with his own values. His company manufactured products that created waste, but the proceeds allowed his family to protect undeveloped lands. They had to deliberately slow the growth of the company at times and pull out of markets where they felt their products were being purchased by people who did not share their values. 

One of the things that sets the leadership of Patagonia apart is that they are willing to engage in conversations around contradiction and complexity. They embrace it. And that is something that we all can do.

Three Ways You’re Burning Out Your Marketing Managers

Our team interviewed marketing managers of family businesses in a wide range of industries. We learned that many of them were feeling burned out from entirely avoidable situations. By offering clarity, focus, and professional development, leaders of family businesses can set up these key employees for success.

Three Ways You’re Burning Out Your Marketing Manager – And Three Solutions

When you spend as much time as I do talking to CEOs and executives in family businesses, you can start to get a distorted view of reality.

I know some of you are nodding along, thinking that you have to be a little crazy to work with your parents, kids, in-laws, or Great Uncle Herbert. But that’s not what I mean. I often only hear the executive side of the story, and I miss the perspective of others in the organization who have keen insights into the day-to-day opportunities and issues within a business… if not always the power to act on their insights.

So our team took the time to talk to marketing managers this summer. These are often key employees who are “caught in the middle” – they are overseeing the work of internal marketing teams or agencies, and they report to owners or executives who may know very little about marketing or branding.

These conversations quickly yielded patterns and key take-aways you can benefit from. Because chances are, if you have a marketing manager, you are probably burning them out.

Here are three things that you or the person overseeing your marketing manager are likely doing that need to stop. (Get the full report here.)

#1: You know what you want, but can’t clearly explain it.
(And even if you think you are being clear, chances are, you aren’t.) This was one of the most common frustrations of marketing managers. They desperately want to “get it right” for the executive team, but they don’t always have a clear idea about what “right” looks like… they just know what is wrong because they have been burned multiple times.

We heard marketing managers expressing that their most important professional goals were to be good stewards of the company’s investment in marketing. They often cited their worst fears were “letting people down.”

These are qualities that you want in an employee, but these same qualities combined with lack of clear direction can be a recipe for frustration on all sides.

If you’ve ever said (or thought) “I’ll know it when I see it,” you are guilty of this. And as frustrating as it may feel to actually have to take the time to communicate what you know by instinct, it is worth it.

In order to accomplish this, you will likely need a colleague or trusted advisor to ask you questions and help you clarify your ideas. Then challenge yourself to state them as positives, not negatives. Sometimes you are just too close to your own vision to be able to formulate it clearly.

A checklist for clear direction would look something like this:

  • Have you stated the outcome you want? Is it a positive statement? (not just specifying what you don’t want)
  • Have you clearly defined how you will know when this outcome has been achieved? What evidence will you see/hear/feel?
  • What are the obstacles to achieving that outcome? What are the resources available to them (people, information, budget)?
  • Have you provided examples of when this has been done in the past, or when you have seen it done in other companies? This is especially important if you are providing some kind of creative direction… Words like “bright” or “authentic” can be achieved in a lot of different ways, and mean different things to different people.

#2: You are putting too much on their plates.
When I see this, it is usually done with good intentions, and often as a sign of respect. Chances are, if you are guilty of this, you are lucky enough to have a marketing manager who “gets it.” They understand your industry and your business pretty well, they can write and communicate succinctly, and you work well together.

Unfortunately, these capable people get flooded with requests and responsibilities. They are constantly having to juggle the short-term urgent requests with the long-term strategic priorities asked of them. Plus, they are conscientious and don’t want to let you or anyone else down. It is a recipe for frustration and burnout in the best times, but now with labor shortages in every industry, it is even more likely.

One solution to help to minimize burnout and also to develop this person as a leader is to enable them to delegate. This might mean introducing them to a prioritization tool like the Eisenhower Matrix, and then providing them with a budget to outsource tasks that are not important to freelancers on Upwork or an existing agency partner. Even if the budget is not large to start, empowering them to manage their own priorities with support while still being accountable for the same outcomes will help to build leadership skills and stave off burnout.

We also heard from marketing managers who feel like the “marketing” part of their job often gets second priority to being a support to the sales team. It can be helpful to better differentiate between marketing and sales. This could include providing the sales team with a separate support role specifically to tackle time-sensitive requests such as presentation decks, sell sheets, and lead tracking.

#3: They aren’t receiving professional development opportunities.
In family businesses, many people learn the job while they are on the job. That can be great to pass down industry knowledge or company-specific processes, but for a rapidly evolving field like marketing, it is not enough.

Without access to expertise and peers, many marketing managers feel worried that they are missing out on opportunities, or are working off of old assumptions. For many of them, the feeling that the company has been doing marketing the same way for years is both concerning and frustrating, but they don’t have the insights or the skills needed to suggest changes confidently.

When we spoke with high-performing marketing departments, they often cited professional development at conferences and peer learning as being critical to their confidence level and job satisfaction. But where to begin?

Our Effective Marketing Manager report lists some of the most often cited sources of professional development

How we can help
Six-Point is now offering our new Aligned Brand program that combines professional development, peer learning, and marketing plan development. Our inaugural six-week cohort kicks off in October!

Power of Relationships in Family Business

Family businesses often excel at relationships, a super power which allows them to challenge the goliaths in their industries. While this may leave them vulnerable to the intrusion of lifechanging moments, it also is a powerful way to motivate employees and partners.

Relationships are a superpower for many family businesses.

For our client, Hyde Tools, relationships have always been a superpower that allow them to challenge the goliaths in their ever-consolidating industry.

This is a company that has been family-owned for almost 150 years, and relationships with employees, the community, the hand tool industry, and construction professionals have enabled it to compete through market cycles and disruption. 

We’ve worked with the Hyde team for over 15 years, and can attest that their commitment to relationships is 100% authentic. Our team even refers to the HYDE brand as “our” brand (as in “I saw one of our new products at Ace Hardware yesterday.”) After 15 years of trust-building, Hyde is also a company and a brand for which we don’t mind leveraging our own personal relationships.

Most recently, one of our producers, Danielle, enlisted two well-established construction professionals, Guy and Jerry, to lend their talent to brand videos we would be shooting for Hyde. They were also two of her closest, oldest friends. (Hyde Tools’ reputation with its professional users is critical, so using actors or models doesn’t fly… a professional painter or drywaller would spot that inauthenticity immediately.)

From the get-go, Guy and Jerry were enthusiastic about the project. They agreed to split on-camera duties and began preparing for their roles. Our producer Danielle continued leveraging her connections in the construction industry to find locations for the shoots. The trio of friends were now a brand-building, video-making team! <

Then the unthinkable happened. Guy Delyea passed away suddenly after a brief illness, just before production was to begin. 

It’s in these difficult, unimaginable moments that you take stock. You reflect on the generosity of friends and the importance of relationships. You realize that the line between colleague and friend can be blurry. And when a tragedy occurs, the lines don’t matter so much anymore.

Guy was an entrepreneur himself, starting his first business while he was still in high school. A natural entertainer, he DJ’ed for over two decades, and was also a skilled and meticulous painter, working on properties throughout Vermont and Maine. 

We never got a chance to capture Guy’s craft and charisma on camera, but the fact that he was willing to lend his skills to support his friend Danielle, the team at Six-Point, and the HYDE brand speaks loudly about the person he was. 

And this is what happens when you bring the personal into the professional, and when “business” isn’t separated from “life.” We connect in deeper, more meaningful ways. When births, deaths, illnesses, and family milestones supercede project timelines and strategic plans in our businesses, it can sometimes feel disruptive. But try to imagine where your business would be without those connections.

The employees that help us move mountains also need us to return the favor, and to go to great lengths to support them and their families.

The customers who have become friends need us to be understanding when life disrupts their businesses.

The vendors who care about our businesses need to also be cared for. 

We are so grateful to Guy for his spirit of generosity, and for his commitment to his friends. We are also grateful to Danielle for introducing us to her friends. And we are grateful for their good friend Jerry, who is still willing to lend his talents to a project that was once going to be a fun adventure with a best buddy, but will now be an emotional roller coaster. 

When business becomes personal, it becomes powerful. We are excited and more motivated than ever to make this a project that honors Guy, and we know that you likely have had many projects with similar emotional overtones from the relationships and people they represent. I would love to hear your stories about how relationships have been meaningful for your company’s culture, reputation, and longevity.

The Power of Vision: Jessica Little of Sweet Grass Dairy

Jessica and Jeremy Little are second-generation owners of Sweet Grass Dairy, an artisan cheese-making company located in Southwest Georgia. The milk for their cheese is sourced from her family’s fifth-generation dairy farm, which raises barn-free cows grazing on grass 365 days a year. The creamery was started by Jessica’s mom, Desiree Wehner, to better tell the story of their sustainable grazing method and the high-quality milk it produced. Sweet Grass Dairy has since grown into a national brand, available in all 50 states.

I spoke with Jessica to learn more about her personal journey coming back to her roots in Thomasville, Georgia, and what she sees for the future of Sweet Grass Dairy.

Could you just talk a little bit about the history of Sweet Grass and how the company got started?
My parents were actually dairy farmers for many years. My dad’s a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and I grew up on the dairy farm and fell in love with sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry through 4H. So I showed cows growing up and just loved agriculture, but I also knew by the time I graduated high school, I did not want to be a dairy farmer. So I went off to college, studied business, and while I was in school, I got bit by the hospitality bug. I worked in restaurants, and I met my husband, who is now our head cheesemaker. 

In the meantime, my mom had this vision of really telling the story of cows on grass. Less than 5% of all the cows in the whole country can be farmed in an intensive grazing management style year-round, and due to our very mild winters and unlimited water, we are able to keep our cows on grass and it gives this milk a really different flavor profile. It was her vision to really tell people the story of this really unique farming method and this regenerative agriculture through cheese. 

So I started going around in Atlanta, taking cheese to all these chefs to see if there was even a market for it, and it turned out chefs were really excited about it. Then Jeremy wanted to move to South Georgia to pursue this career path, but we really thought we were only going to be here for a couple of years, to pad his resume, and then he was gonna be this great chef somewhere. 

But after just a couple of years, we knew that we were onto something bigger than ourselves, and we really just fell in love with this industry. So in 2005, my parents gave us the opportunity to buy the creamery part of the business. We still source all of the milk from my family. And my brother is now the fifth-generation dairy farmer in our family to continue the tradition. So we hope for opportunities for future generations, although it’s not looking likely right now. But the kids are all too young to really know what they want to do, so you never know. 

I mean, I said never. So I’ve learned, never say never. So as soon as my kids are like, “I’ll never move back to Thomasville” I just say “All right, we’ll see. We’ll see about that.”

What was that like to come back and take over your family’s legacy and this vision of showcasing the grass-based milk from your cows?
I think ignorance is bliss. We did not know what we were getting ourselves into. So I was 21 when came back and was not happy to leave Atlanta, this incredibly fun, dynamic, exciting city to come back to our tiny little sleepy town of 20,000 people. But I remember calling my parents when I got my first restaurant job, and I started complaining about my coworkers. Nobody really knew how to work. Nobody was doing the closing checklists and I didn’t understand why they weren’t, and my parents just started laughing.

That made me realize that although I hated growing up and having a summer job from the time I was 10, it really taught me a great work ethic and what it means to be part of a family and chip in. So when we came back, we weren’t afraid of hard work. We were just scrappy. We would drive four hours every other weekend and sell cheese at farmer’s markets in Atlanta because there were no local farmer’s markets for us. And we were just cold calling chefs, asking, “Are you interested in local cheese?” Luckily chefs are very curious by nature, and then once they tasted the cheeses, it wasn’t a super difficult sell. 

In the end, I really found that I not only have a love of sustainable agriculture, but I have a love of entrepreneurship and the lifelong quest to learn more. As an entrepreneur, how much are we learning all the time? It is the best opportunity to just learn and grow so much.

Speaking of learning, what would you say has been your biggest lesson that you learned along the way?
There have been many, but I’ll tell you one of our most painful lessons and one that I’m so thankful that we went through even though it was truly a lesson of failure.

I’m an extremely competitive person, and until this point, anything that we had really ventured out to try to do, we were able to. Sweet Grass just grew. Whatever Jeremy wanted to make, we could sell. And I think that we kind of got this false sense of success pretty early, even though it was hard and we were scrappy, we had never really lost.

So we opened a cheese shop that turned into a wine bar in 2010, and then we had so much success with that locally that we really wanted to fulfill this restaurant bug that Jeremy and I both had. So in 2013, we opened a more fine dining restaurant, even though the two restaurants were only a hundred steps from each other in our tiny town of 20,000 people. We really thought we were going to be able to draw in more people and be a destination location.

We hired an amazing chef who was very talented but did not share our same vision of what we were trying to do. He was also not from this region. We did not do a good job of writing the vision and explaining it to our team and sticking to our guns. That restaurant actually went under about a year in.

It was really, really painful to have those life lessons of failure. But when I look back on it, I am so thankful because we learned the power of vision, the power of explaining the why to our whole team, and being true to who we are.

I also learned the value and the investment of time. A restaurant can be extremely time-consuming, and it took away a lot of time with our children, plus we were not really focused on developing the cheese production side of the business. As entrepreneurs, we get to choose how we spend our time, and that restaurant was a money pit and a time pit – a bad investment. It was an incredibly difficult life lesson, but I’m thankful we went through it.

On the flip side, what makes you feel the proudest of what you, Jeremy, and your team are doing?
One thing that does make me really proud is that I think Sweet Grass Dairy has a really unique company culture. We’ve worked really hard at fostering servant leadership and more open-book finance, with lots of transparency to make sure that people know that their work is meaningful and that they have a say in their future. And that everybody matters. I am really proud that we have employees that will stay 7, 8, 10 years employed at Sweet Grass. And that’s not very common anymore.

What would you like your legacy to be?
I hope that my kids will always know that the impact that Jeremy and I have made in this business wasn’t about us. It was a bigger picture. I hope that we make an impact in our industry by really telling the story of family-owned, grass-based, handcrafted cheeses that can come out of our country, a country that doesn’t have a long history of cheesemaking. 

I hope that they’re proud of the fact that we never gave up and that we were continuing to innovate, even when it seemed hard. And that we were not afraid to be visionaries and push the boundaries. And I think about my own parents, that my mom very much is a visionary and my dad is a doer. They are such a good combination, and they’re not afraid to make a mistake. I think it has made me a better entrepreneur because I know that it’s not the end of the world and we’re going to make mistakes. So I hope that we can pass that on to our children as well. I find that so many people are afraid to take risks because they’re afraid to fail. And the reality is that we’re all going to fail. It’s how you handle it that matters.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
The easiest one is my mom, for sure. She is one of my very favorite human beings on the face of the planet, and if I can be half as great of a mom as she is, then I’ll know that I’m winning in life.

She really is a visionary. She is one of the toughest human beings that I know, and also so kind, and such a big cheerleader, and a soft place to land. But I’ve also learned, do not ask if you don’t really want to know, because she will tell you the truth, whether you’re prepared to hear it or not! 

I will also say in our industry alone there are rock stars in the cheese world that are all women. There are some great men cheesemakers as well, but this industry in the United States is built on the shoulders of great women.

It’s been so exciting to have these conversations and to be included at the table on a national level with these incredible women that are now in their fifties, sixties, seventies that want to help the next generations of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds make an impact on this industry. So I could pick up the phone and call Judy Schad [of Capriole Farm] or Allison Hooper [of Vermont Creamery], and they would give us really great feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. In this industry, women have made an incredible impact and I’m so proud of that for sure.

**

Jessica Little is the co-owner of Sweet Grass Dairy, a family-owned creamery handcrafting cheese in Thomasville, Georgia. Their cheese features the high-quality, grass-based cow’s milk from her family’s fifth-generation barn-free dairy farm. To learn more about Sweet Grass Dairy or to order their cheese, visit their website: SweetGrassDairy.com

Serving Up Love: Dora Herrera of Yuca’s Restaurants

Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, which her mom, Socorro Herrera (affectionately known to longtime customers as “Mama”), opened the stand in 1976 with her husband, Jaime, to share a taste of her home-style Yucatán cooking. The restaurant has garnered thousands of loyal customers and critical accolades over the decades.

Dora is an engaging storyteller with a lot of wisdom to share. I spoke with her to learn more about the history, legacy, and future of Yuca’s, and what she has learned as she has led and grown her family’s business. 

Could you talk about the history of Yuca’s?
My mom always had a dream to have a little place where she could feed people – a happy place that when people come in they are just relaxed and feel like family. No pomp and circumstance, none of that. Just Hey, good to see you. Let’s eat. Let’s share stories.

One day somebody at work with my sister said, I think I found the place your mom was looking for. My mom saw it and said, Oh my God, this is beautiful. And everybody else thought it was too small or too ugly. And she just looked at them all and said, This is perfect.

Initially, she did everything herself: cook, cashier, hostess, everything. But since she made really good food, very quickly it got to the point where she was asking for help. Then my brother and my dad started working. The turning point was my brother standing on the sidewalk and waving cars over and saying, Hey, we just opened, we have great food. Come in and try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you double your money back. People would hear that deal and pull in and try it. Of course, we never had to give any money back, but people walked away with a story. 

My mom’s a great cook, and she also has this charisma. Love just shoots out of her and people start loving her right away. So we started building all this, and my parents spoke very little English. As they made friends with the community and the people started becoming regulars, people would come and tell my mom stories or share their angst, not aware that she didn’t understand a word. She would say This customer came and was talking to me about, well, I think it was his wife. I’m not sure. I just smiled and touched my heart and he left happy, but I have no idea what he said! I told her that if she made him happy, that was all that mattered. 

With that combination of things, people started taking notice, and then we got a review in the LA Times. And at the time, we didn’t know how big the LA Times was, and we didn’t know what a big deal it was to get the centerfold of the food section, all to ourselves as a first article. The reporter who wrote the article showed up and she was there from nine to five that day answering the phones, because she knew my mother didn’t speak a lot of English. People loved that the reporter was at the location. So they started coming and we never looked back from there. In the 46 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve had Vanity Fair, GQ, USA Today, LA Times, New York Times, Gourmet. Just incredible opportunities to shine. And the funny thing is 46 years later, when we get an article we are still excited and surprised. I like that. We haven’t gotten jaded.

How did you come into the business?
Because I love sports. And I can explain that! I went away to college at Brown in Rhode Island, and I told myself when I got there, I would try everything. I wouldn’t stick to what I knew and a narrow life at college. I’ve always been an active person, so I joined the fencing team and the soccer team and the ice hockey team and the rugby team.

I had never been on a varsity team before, and I just loved it. And when I graduated, I didn’t want to stop. So in order to continue to play soccer and ice hockey, I decided I would work for my parents. That way, if there’s a trip to Mexico or Canada or Philadelphia or wherever to compete, I would be able to say to my parents, Hey, I love you. Can I have the weekend off? So that’s how it started. And every year I would tell my mom at the end of the year, Come January, I’m going to go find a real job. 

And my mom, of course, would say, Okay, thank you, honey. We appreciate all the years you worked for us. And then January would come and go and it would be December and I’d say the same thing. And then one year I realized that I really didn’t want another job. I enjoyed what I was doing. I enjoyed working with my mom. She’s always been my best friend, so that was a no-brainer. And once I realized that it was just like, okay, we’re in it together for the long haul. 

Do you have a favorite memory since your mom started the business?Our trip to New York to receive the James Beard Award. It was an award that we didn’t know existed. We were nominated by a customer who we didn’t know was a food writer. To be nominated for the most prestigious culinary award in the United States was just astounding. 

The big story was that we got the invitation and it said it was black tie. My mom asked, Do you think I should wear my regional costume? Or should we go buy me a dress? And I said, regional costume all the way, no question about it. She kept asking because she didn’t want to look like a fool. And everybody was like, yes, of course, you have to dress in the whole Yucatan thing and the shawl and the flowers on the side of your hair.

Patric Kuh, the food writer who nominated us, met us in New York. He came to a room and he was all like, oh, you guys brought Porto’s. Porto’s is a bakery in Glendale, because we didn’t know if we were gonna be able to find food or not, so we figured we’d bring breakfast at least. And he sat with us for hours. Then the day of the event, an article came out by him, and it was basically my mom trying to figure out if she should wear this or not. He weaved a fabulous story and at the end, he talks about her coming out and shining as she wore her regional costume. 

But the joy in my mom’s face that day was just astounding. And then to, to see all the love just bestowed on her. Within five minutes of meeting her, people were calling her Mama. This one guy was on his knees, adoring her. At four in the morning when we were leaving the after-party, some guy chased her out to the taxi and was kissing the window to say goodbye. And the taxi took off and his lips just slid across the taxi window. My sister and I were just like, oh my God, Mom, who knew you were such a heartbreaker?

When they announced the category we were in they popped up a photo of the hut. And my mom was like, OOOOH! I said, Mom, you knew! She was like, Oh, I just got excited. But the beauty of it was in the theater, there must have been like 600 or more people there. People were like Oh! and then laughing joyfully, and then clapping. We didn’t know how many of our customers were in New York or throughout the country that flew in for that. Not only did we get an award, but people love us. And then at the party, as we were walking around, they had all these chefs from throughout the United States, feeding us and we’re walking around and here’s a customer here’s another customer – we had no idea how many famous chefs were eating at Yuca’s. That whole evening was just amazing.

Is there a life lesson that stands out to you, anything that you kind of learned along the way that has made an impact on how you run the business?

I went to Brown and I didn’t know how to play sports. One day I saw a girl with a soccer ball. She was dribbling down the hall and I was like, Wow! And so she stopped and she says, Do you like soccer? And I said, I don’t know. I’ve never played it. And she goes, Well, let’s go. So I went and she was teaching me the basics. And then she said that there’s a tryout for the soccer team. I got picked for the team and then soccer season was over people were asking me what I was going to do next. 

They said, Come play ice hockey with us. And I said, I would love to, but I don’t know how to ice skate. And they said don’t worry about it. So I went and I told the coach that I didn’t skate. And he goes, Well, that could be a problem. I tell you what, spend 20 bucks. Get a used pair of skates, and come try out. If you don’t like it, you’re out 20 bucks.

Well, I tried it, and I was hopeless, but I loved the team camaraderie and working hard. They called me the Human Zamboni because I didn’t know how to stop. I would just go around in circles. They also called me Scrapper because I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up. 

When the first season was over and the next year came, I told myself that if I was still ankle bending, I’m not doing this. And I got on the ice and I was smooth and I could turn and I could stop. And it was just fabulous and I played for four years.

That experience has stayed with me over the years. Whenever I’m faced with something that I think is impossible, I think back on not knowing how to ice skate. I learned how to ice skate. I played for four years. I got athlete of the year my senior year. And it was all because I decided to try. 

What would you like your legacy to be?
We had three young women from the Yucatán visit us back around 2013. They wanted to do so many things. They would say, Oh, I wish we could do this. And I’m like, I know someone. We would call and they would say, of course we’ll give you a backlot tour or whatever. And then whenever anything came up, they would turn and say, Dora knows people! 

So I guess I’d like to be known as the person who knows and loves people because it wasn’t only that I knew them, but there was a connection. Because you can know a lot of famous people, or people who can help you along in life, but unless you have that emotional connection, it doesn’t really mean much. So I guess I want to be remembered for love.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I would say the women in my family, like my mom, my aunt, who’s my mom’s sister, and my sister. In fact, the four of us got to cater the Super Bowl Tailgate Party together.

The women in my family are strong, so I want to acknowledge those strong women that let you spread your wings and also let you know that they’re there underneath, should you fall. Having that support lets you try things that will stretch you.

And they always told me, This is your dream. Go for it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have all your ducks in a row in order to go and try something. Giving me permission to be bold and daring was huge.

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Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, known for its Yucatan-style cooking and community involvement. Now with two locations, the original “Hut” in Los Feliz and a second location in Pasadena, Yuca’s remains a Los Angeles institution. Learn more at YucasLA.com.

Reviving the Road Trip: Stephanie Stuckey of Stuckey’s

Stephanie Stuckey is on a mission to revive her family’s brand. Started by her grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, Sr. founded Stuckey’s as a roadside pecan stand along Highway 23 in Eastman, GA. Stuckey’s eventually became a roadside empire with its peak in the 1960s. With 368 stores in over 30 states at its height, Stuckey’s was known for offering kitschy souvenirs, clean restrooms, and its famous candies.

I spoke with Stephanie to learn more about her personal journey to restore her family’s legacy, how she has refocused the brand, and the opportunities she sees for the future.

Can you tell us the story of your entry into the business and what it has taken so far to start to bring Stuckey’s back?
I had a full career doing things other than food and the family business. I was a state representative for 14 years. I’m an attorney. I was a public defender for over a decade. I practiced environmental law and headed up sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And the last chapter of my career, I thought, would be environmental advocacy.

Then I got a completely unexpected opportunity to buy my family’s failing business. And it had been out of our family’s hands for a long time, and frankly was six figures in the red when I bought the company. We didn’t own or operate any restaurants, we only had a handful of licensed locations. We had a dusty rented warehouse full of merchandise that hadn’t turned in while.

So it was a challenge, but what I bought was a brand and it was a brand that I believed then, and definitely believe now, has sticking power. And so that’s what I believed in when I made the investment. My life savings are all sunk into reviving this brand.

In a little over two years, we’ve turned it around from $2.4 million growth in sales to over $12 million gross in sales and in the red six figures to a little over a million net profit, all of which we’re reinvesting in the company. And the way we have turned it around is through food and manufacturing.

We really went back to our roots. We started as a pecan stand on the side of the road. And so we went back to that. We bought a candy plant, a pecan-shelling plant, and a fundraising business. And the majority of our profit is being driven through the sale of our snack pecans, our in-shell pecans, our candies that we manufacture ourselves now and shell ourselves. And we’re selling to retail outlets from a mom and up store, like a gift to grocery chains and convenience store chains all over the country.

The future is bright for us. We’re looking at investing in a distribution facility that we will own instead of renting and we are expanding our candy production with new equipment and new space.

 

In your social media content, you really emphasize both the history of Stuckey’s and also the history of a lot of roadside stops and interesting historical brands along the way. Why is history so important to you and to the Stuckey’s brand?

I have a nostalgic brand, and I firmly believe in embracing what you truly are. And I’ve gotten all sorts of advice about how you manage nostalgic brands. But I went back to my roots in politics, which is you start with your base. The first thing I had to do was to shore up our base. We have generations of people who stopped at Stuckey’s on their road trips as kids. And those people are not only still alive, but they’re successful and have money to spend.

So I went after that demographic and those folks want to hear our story. They want to hear the history. I’m not selling to everyone everywhere, and it’s not just selling our product. It’s the story. And it’s creating a community and engaging.

I would put out the stories and I look at the analytics and I look at who engages and it’s working. So if something works, you do more of it. For example, my post today on LinkedIn was about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, because I literally had 20 people reach out to me and say, have you ever been to the Big Texan Ranch? I had about 20 people ask me if I have been to The Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, the Kentucky Fried Chicken. So I put that out yesterday and it got crazy engagement because that’s what people told me they want to hear.

Sales and marketing is a two-way street. It’s not just you. Family businesses that have persisted, the ones that are still around into the third generation and beyond, are the ones that get that.

Has there been a favorite memory since you came into the business?

There have been so many, but I’ll pick one, which I like to call my Scarlet O’Hara “I’ll never go hungry again” moment. It was right after I bought the company, and I decided to embark on a road trip because I realized that is what this brand is really about.

And so I started my road trip and I stopped at Stuckey’s, of course. And I went to this one store that looked terrible. It was in Marion, Arkansas. It literally had a hole in the roof from a tornado. And I just sat in the parking lot crying. I just could not believe that that is the condition of the wonderful company that my grandfather built and put his life’s work into.

I finally like forced myself to go into the store and that didn’t look much better, I’ll be honest. But what gave me hope was that there were people in the store. And they actually seemed pretty happy to be there! And I just thought, wow, if this brand can translate past generations where people still remember our good days, and they’re still incredibly loyal despite the downfall, what if we actually had the stores looking good? What if we actually had great products to sell, because our products had been outsourced for decades and frankly, the quality had suffered. So that gave me hope. It made me think, okay, this brand actually has sticking power.

Now in full disclosure, I have yet to get the financing I need to start owning, operating and renovating stores. I get people messaging me every day saying, “Oh, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I went to one of your stores and it looks terrible.” It’s not a big news flash. If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I’d happily do that. But right now we are focusing on what we can do right now to drive profit, which is through manufacturing.

What would you like to be remembered for?
The road trip. Professionally, I want my legacy to be about celebrating the joy of exploring America, and not just the big cities, but the small towns, by car.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I know people always say their mothers, but that is because it is true. My mom gave me a great gift. When I bought the company, she had six boxes of archives that my grandfather had left my dad, her husband, and that was just an incredible gift.

And then I had this point early on when I was deciding whether or not to buy the company. And there’s a moment of tough love. My father is a wonderful man and I love him, but we’re not perfect. And he sat me down and he said to me, “You have never even run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s?” And I was just struck by that. Suddenly I had all this lack of confidence. He was right. I’d never run a business, not even a lemonade stand. So what did make me think I could do this?

And my mom is the one who said, “You can do this. Look through these archives, look through these boxes, read how this company was founded. And guess what? Your grandmother did a lot of it. She just never got the credit.”

So I think too often when we tell the stories of family businesses, you read about Sam Walton and Colonel Sanders. You don’t read about the wives, but guess what? A lot of times, the wives are just as involved, just as critical. They just didn’t get the credit. So all these women who never got the credit, who were in these major businesses that I admire in food, they’re the ones who I think should get a shout out.

Stephanie Stuckey is the CEO of Stuckey’s, a family-owned roadside chain offering motorists a friendly stop where they can relax, refresh, and refuel. Stuckey’s is known for its Southern hospitality and candies, especially its world-famous pecan log roll. To learn more about Stuckey’s, visit their website: Stuckeys.com