Tips For Overcoming Challenges In Family Business From The Owners Of Costa Farms

Laura Drotleff
Laura Drotleff

Our industry is run by a collection of family businesses, and every one, no matter how big or small, has its share of management issues. But there are several differences between one that is run successfully as a business and one that allows family politics to distract from the organization’s goals.

In this year’s State Of The Industry Survey, we noted that labor recruitment and succession are two areas where growers struggle. In talking with the owners of Costa Farms for this month’s cover story, I thought some of the values they have incorporated into the operation’s management structure really stood out as practices that other family businesses could use.

The participatory management approach to business and team building is one that Tony Costa, the second-generation owner of Costa Farms, instilled in his children, Maria Costa-Smith and Jose Costa, and son-in-law, Joche Smith, the current owners of Costa Farms.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, I’ll save you some time: Participatory management is the practice of empowering members of a group, such as employees of a company, to participate in organizational decision-making.

“Our dad firmly believes that without participation, there is no commitment, and one of the biggest lessons I learned from him, which led to our team being our biggest asset, is we have to come together as a team to communicate, participate, and give opinions,” Maria says. “To build the best team, we have to be sure that we are inclusive in our decisionmaking and allow people to grow.”

The leadership at Costa Farms made a conscious decision years ago that team members don’t have to have the Costa last name to run the business, or big parts of it, Joche says.

The current owners of Costa Farms (left to right) are Jose “Joche” Smith, Maria Costa-Smith, and Jose Costa.
The current owners of Costa Farms (left to right) are Jose “Joche” Smith, Maria Costa-Smith, and Jose Costa.

“The only way we’re going to be able to recruit great people and keep great people who are going to help us grow the business is to give them opportunities to grow. If people come into this organization — or any organization — and understand that they can only get to a certain level because so-and-so is in line to run the business, you’re never going to attract the most talented people around. It’s important. It’s not Joche, Jose, and Maria making all the decisions here — far from it. We have a great group of people who make good decisions who we empower every day, so they can grow professionally, they can grow financially, and they can grow by taking more responsibility.”

Recruiting dynamic, intelligent people from within and outside the industry has been a key to Costa Farms’ continued growth over the years. Providing team members with a good experience is key to spreading the word that your organization is the employer of choice.

“Your best ambassadors are your team members,” Maria says. “I love hearing our team members talk about why they love to work here. That’s infectious. We are focused on our goal to be the employer of choice on all levels — from farm workers to programmers, financial planning, and marketing.”

Tony Costa also taught the current owners how to be an efficient, working family, Maria says. Balancing the leadership of a family business isn’t always easy, but the keys, she adds, are communication, tolerance, and mutual respect.

The owners of the company have worked to segment the different areas under each of their control, to avoid power struggles and keep the business running smoothly.

“We have compartmentalized what each of us do very well,” Jose says. “We ask each other for advice, but we respect one another’s boundaries, and we divide and conquer. We’re all focused on certain portions of the business, and allow and trust explicitly the others to do their jobs. We’re not second-guessing — we are giving everybody room to work”

This is critical going forward, as the ownership eventually transitions to the next generation of leadership, which may not necessarily be Costa family members, Joche says.

“Separating our roles into more traditional areas of responsibility is important, so when we plan succession to the next group, we’re not so intertwined and involved in everything,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to replace us if we have a little more discipline.”

Grower Homework: Is the working experience at your operation one that your team promotes to others? If not, take a look at your management structure. How can you divide and conquer, and separate responsibilities? How can you empower others to make decisions and advance within your organization? Share your ideas and experiences with me at [email protected]

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