The End Of The Ecke Era [opinion]

Once upon a time, in 1900, a man named Albert Ecke arrived in Hollywood, Calif., from Germany, intending to continue on to Fiji and open a health spa. Instead, he opened a fruit and dairy farm and dabbled with his love of flowers.

Albert and his son, Paul, became interested in the wild poinsettia that grew abundantly in the area and decided it would make an ideal holiday plant since it produced large red blooms at Christmastime. Through tireless promotion and careful, diligent breeding, Albert, Paul and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., created marketable poinsettias and made them as ubiquitous during the holidays as the Christmas tree.

Paul Ecke III, Albert’s great-grandson, led the business into the twenty-first century, expanding operations into Europe and Guatemala, producing millions of cuttings and expanding product offerings to include many other varieties. In short, it is an all-American success story. It is the story of how many iconic businesses in our industry developed — W. Atlee Burpee Co., Goldsmith Seeds, Yoder Brothers — all of which are now absorbed into larger corporations.

So, I was saddened, although not shocked, by the news that Ecke Ranch had been acquired by the Agribio Group. It is good news that the business will continue and even grow. It is also good news that, with the sale of the business, the Ecke family is realizing the results of a great deal of hard work.

Why then, do I feel sad? For me, it’s always hard to watch a family business end — like a little piece of history has been chipped away — whether it’s the local hardware store or an international business like Ecke Ranch. The third-generation family nursery where I first worked was sold out of the family and ultimately went out of business two years ago, taking a piece of my own history with it.

A common perception of consolidation, by the general public at least, is of less personal service, less flexibility and less diversity of product offerings. Sometimes these perceptions are based on reality. However, if it’s handled right, there can be significant benefits to consolidation. For instance, Ecke president Andy Higgins says that now, rather than just a five-person breeding team, Ecke will now have access to 80 breeding technicians — an incredible jump in brainpower and technology.

Mark Schermer, general manager of Fides Oro (also part of the Agribio Group), says, “The benefits for Fides Oro and Ecke are that the combination of the parties create a larger platform for the Agribio genetics to be successful in the North American market. More important, however, is that the customers will be able to get a wider palette of products between the two companies.”

Economies of efficiency and scale can also make some products more affordable and available.

The Ecke acquisition and others like it are an inevitable part of a maturing industry. But I’m still mourning that little piece of history.

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