Don't be fooled by this farmer. Paul Ecke III is just as likely to talk about diversification and copyright protection and strategic alliances as he is about plants and soil and rainfall. And whatever he's talking about, it's with enthusiasm.
The heir to the Paul Ecke Ranch in southern California, he says he knew he would end up in the family business, so he studied accordingly. After graduating from Colorado State University with a bachelor's in horticulture, he came to Duke's Fuqua School of Business. Representing the fourth generation of Ecke farmers, he was preparing to bring the business into the twenty-first century as its chairman and CEO.
His great-grandfather Albert started it all when he arrived in southern California in 1900 and fell in love with the poinsettia, the tall, leggy, red plant that grew wild in the area. His son Paul helped him figure out how to cultivate the plant. Paul's son, Paul Jr., brought the growing operation inside to greenhouses, and, through relentless media placements, television, and print promotions, made the poinsettia synonymous with Christmas.
The company now originates more than 80 percent of the world's poinsettias. There are 350 employees at the ranch in Encinitas, where blooming poinsettias are grown for local markets (San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). The rest of the operation ships cuttings, which have been genetically developed and patented by the company. Two farms in Guatemala have been the point of origin for the poinsettia cuttings for the past five years. Two and a half million square feet of greenhouses and 680 workers supply consumers outside the Southwest U.S. with their traditional flowers at Christmas, by way of growers around the world who bring the cuttings to maturity.
A property-rights management office in Denmark handles all the offshore business, collecting the royalties on the cuttings that have made their way overseas. "Copyright issues are very important to us," says Ecke. "When we go forward in the twenty-first century, we will be looking at China as a market. But the Chinese are just learning as a culture what copyright means. We know they don't celebrate Christmas in China, but we know they like the color red."
In fact, Ecke feels a kinship with China. He and his wife, Juliane, adopted a baby girl from China last January. They also have a son, Max, who is nine. ("Being a 'Paul the Fourth' seemed a bit much," he says.)
While poinsettias are the flagship product of the ranch, Ecke is diversifying. "In the past, you could be a single-product focus, but today you just can't," he says. He developed a spring-plant business, Flower Fields, and formed strategic alliances with several other large companies, expecting, eventually, to have a hand in one-third of all flower products sold in garden centers.
" It's a whole new way of doing business for us," says Ecke. "We're trying to make gardening simple for the consumer. Gardening is fun and therapeutic, but so many people are afraid of it. We do a lot of research to find which plants are easy to grow. We want people to go out and take a chance."
" Color is the mantra for Flower Fields," he says. "Humans respond to color." Although Ecke Ranch's horticultural scientists are always looking for the next new favorite color--and texture and shape--Ecke knows buyers find comfort in the old favorites. "People go gaga over the new, wild, wacky stuff when they visit our greenhouses. But now I just laugh, because when we offer them a flower after a tour, they always pick red. They get all excited about new varieties, but deep down they're traditionalists."
Despite his success as an entrepreneur, Ecke hasn't forgotten his roots. "I'm a farmer at heart. It's still at my core," he says. "Unfortunately,
I don't get to drive around in my pickup and look at fields as much as I used to, but seeing what we've built on my watch--that's been fun."