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Michigan firms learn the benefits of passing the torch

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Michigan companies that have weathered years of the industry’s ups and downs and managed to grow strong roots are seeing the rise of younger generations stepping up to take the helm.

At Ben B. Schwartz & Sons, Inc., Detroit, BB #:104793 brothers Drew and Jake Billmeyer work alongside their father, Chris.

“This company is a proud and forward-thinking organization, and that’s due in part to the fourth generation,” said Nate Stone, in charge of special projects.

Dual leadership from both the third and fourth generations, Stone said, is what “keeps the company going and recreating itself, which is a must in today’s world.”

Adaptability is key. This internal growth has allowed the company to continue blossoming after 113 years in business.

Stone believes being a great wholesaler is an artform.

“So many things have to come together so we have the produce when we need it,” he said and credits to the business staying current, modernizing operations, and always being able to answer today’s demands.

Mike Pirrone Produce, Capac, MI, BB #:105238 is another longstanding business. Fourth-generation Matt DeBlouw, director of operations, at age 26 has what he considers a new way of thinking compared to the older generations in his family business.

With rising production costs, DeBlouw scrutinizes tightening margins.

“The price of produce is not going up, but the cost of growing the actual fruit or vegetable is, so we have to be smarter with everything,” he said. “I dive into details and know how much it costs to make one case.”

He’s also making soil health a priority.

“We’ve farmed on the land for many years; the dirt’s been used, so we need to be smart with the rotation of different crops and giving nutrients back to the land.” In turn, DeBlouw’s seen stronger yields and the proactive approach decreases the need for chemicals.

Change that might be more difficult for some is welcomed by DeBlouw.

Food safety is a prime example. “It’s common sense; we need to track everything so we have our customers’ confidence and nothing is contaminated,” he said.

With the passing of his father in 2012, Matt DeBlouw’s older brother, Henry, took over the family business.

“We’re in a job that’s not very enticing to people my age or younger. It’s hard work and long hours, and that’s the challenge we face with the older generation leaving. It’s tough to get new, motivated, quality people coming in and wanting to devote their life to the farm.”

Matt DeBlouw, who was playing pro hockey, quit “to come back, learn the business, and devote myself to the place.”

Returning and taking care of day-to-day operations has allowed Henry to focus on sales and taking care of customers.

“We’re all working toward the same goal,” he said.

The brothers still work side by side with their grandfather, and have their skillsets complement one another. “It’s exciting that our dad built this company to what it is and now two brothers are taking over. We’re young, energetic, forward thinking, and excited for the future.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.