Growing Together: Diversification Helps DUDA Thrive Through Generations

It used to be so simple. The founders of A. Duda & Sons planted celery and harvested the crops. They wore out footpaths between each other’s houses negotiating business decisions that had to be unanimous. That was back in the early 1920s, when Andrew Duda and his sons Andy, John and Ferdinand started the company in Slavia, a community their family helped settle near Oviedo in Seminole County. They lived on the same family property, worked together on their farm and prayed at the same church.

Founder Andrew Duda

Today their descendants carry on the family business, but it’s a bit more complicated. With 212 family members, including direct descendants and their spouses, the family still strives for consensus. DUDA, as it is known today, employs more than 700 people, including 27 family members who work there full time and are part of the fourth and fifth generations. The company has diversified to include not only celery farming but also a host of other crops, cattle ranching, land development, home building and commercial property acquisitions. It has holdings in 19 states and reported $519 million in gross revenues in 2017.

“We see ourselves as a mixture, a portfolio,” says David Duda, the company’s CEO and a great-grandson of Founder Andrew Duda. “The first principle of investing is, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Some celery farmers didn’t make it. But we kept accumulating more land and growing celery in more than one place. Then we added lines of business: cattle, citrus, sugarcane, sod. We tried a variety of things that didn’t stick: onions, foliage, tomatoes, orange juice processing. The mentality has been, ‘Let’s keep pushing forward.’ … We’ve achieved a balance between agriculture and real estate, and between shorter- and longer-term investments.”

A Family Affair

In the beginning, Andrew Duda’s sons split responsibilities for running the company three ways. Andy was good with numbers, so he ran the office and handled sales. John, who was a mechanical genius, built equipment that helped the farm modernize, and the company still holds his patents. Ferdinand had a legendary touch with people, so he ran the farming operations and worked with employees. Now owned by a much larger group of family members, not all employed in the business, DUDA has a three-part governance structure in place to manage the business and the family that owns it.

Board Chair Susan Hanas, CEO David Duda and Family Council Chair Stacy Mello

David Duda, a descendent of John, has served as DUDA president and CEO since 2010. His father’s first cousin Susan Hanas, a daughter of Ferdinand, serves as chair of DUDA’s board of directors. Her niece Stacy Mello, a granddaughter of Ferdinand, chairs a group called the Duda Family Council. The group was voted into existence by the third and fourth generations, which served as founding members, with Hanas as its original chair.

The three see their roles as stewards who will carry the torch until emerging leaders in the family take their turn.

A conversation among them and other family members at DUDA headquarters easily slips back and forth between company business and family matters. “That meeting went well. Here are the documents.” “Yes it did. Hey, how’s your mother? And who’s bringing the board games on Saturday?”

A discussion about the company’s history turns into a flurry of calculations: During the third generation, about 75 percent of the family households were involved in the business. Today, about 75 percent are not. No one owns more than 8 percent of the company.

There’s another number that interests Duda family leaders: Research by the Conway Center for Family Business shows only 3 percent of family businesses survive past the third generation. They have never wanted to be part of that statistic.

“We’ve flipped from early generations having probably too much emotion about the business, where you swim in that ocean every day, 24/7, living next-door to family, working in the business, going to church with them, almost too much family, to not enough emotion, in some respects,” Duda says. “That’s the concern we have: making sure we still keep a tie with younger family members. If they ever lose an emotional attachment to the business, or a reason to want to stay involved with it, then it’s a very short walk from there to, ‘Why don’t we just sell this business?’”

Tough Times

Company records show A. Duda & Sons was founded in 1926, but efforts to establish a business actually started several years earlier. Andrew Duda, an immigrant from Slovakia, moved back to Cleveland after failing to produce successful crops from 1912 to 1916. His family returned to Florida and tried again, and the farm finally harvested a crop without losing money.

The company has run into other tough times through the years. Freezes and other factors forced many Central Florida agriculture operations further south. DUDA converted some of its land into commercial and residential properties — most notably, the planned community of Viera, which has become the seat of Brevard County’s government.

Today the company’s portfolio is based on four pillars:

1. Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a subsidiary that manages fresh produce operations under the Dandy® brand in California, Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia.

2. Duda Ranches, a division that manages DUDA’s other agricultural holdings in cattle, sugar cane, citrus and sod.

3. The Viera Company, a subsidiary that manages commercial and residential development of non-agricultural properties and is the master developer of Viera. This subsidiary also includes Viera Builders, the company’s home-building arm.

4. Commercial real estate properties in 16 states, including restaurants, retail stores, drugstores, warehouse distribution centers and office buildings.

Diversification allowed DUDA to be patient and wait out the major investment of Viera for 10 to 15 years — something a publicly traded company might not choose to do. DUDA is in it for the long haul. That commitment provides stability for employees and shareholders, as well as family members.

“We believe in perpetuating the business and the need to grow,” says Duda, who started in the finance department after working in the banking industry with an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in food and resource economics from the University of Florida (UF). “We believe we’re here for future generations and not just for ourselves, because that’s the legacy that has been passed on to us.”

The Family Council

“The part about passing on the legacy — that matters a lot to me,” says Mello, who serves as senior director of ranch and resource management for Duda Ranches. Like Duda, she holds a bachelor’s from UF in food and resource economics.

The Family Council she has led as chair since 2013 includes 11 members who represent the original three branches of the family. Its primary job is to connect family members with each other and to the business they own together.

“We hold two gatherings a year to bring our family together,” Mello says. “We have to work at making those connections, helping people connect to each other as a family and connect to a business that most likely they don’t work for and their parents don’t work for.”

When Hanas led the Family Council, formed in 2004, the group unanimously adopted a family mission that sums up its history and hope for a future of legacy, farming, business expansion, community service and faith: One family, growing together, making an eternal difference.

“Our generation saw the need for taking all our hats off and putting them on the table, and deciding which one you were wearing when you were talking, and understanding you were doing that,” Hanas says. “And making sure issues that were family- and shareholder-related had a home and they weren’t all mixed up in the management and running of the business.”

The Board of Directors

Like the Family Council, the board of directors is carefully populated with people from each original branch of the family. It also includes four outside directors, and those leaders serve as the audit and compensation committees.

“If there’s one thing that will come up that’s a nuclear force that can tear apart family or private businesses, it’s the emotion that comes around compensation,” Duda says. “So over time, we’ve moved to where these independent directors, who don’t have a dog in the fight, look over whether the books are being kept properly and in accordance with an outside audit firm, and they review our compensation practices, especially our senior management compensation.”

When she was elected in 2015 Hanas was the first family member not employed by the business to become chair — and also the first woman. Her career path led to teaching and she retired as superintendent of St. Luke’s Lutheran School in 2016. Today, more women in the family are joining the company than men. But when Hanas was growing up in the 1960s, women weren’t involved in the business.

“We were always taught all of this belonged to all of us,” she says. “But the women in the family in that generation never pursued opportunities in the business. We weren’t encouraged or discouraged to be employed. It was just something you didn’t do then.”

Back row, (L to R): Andy Duda Jr., Sammy Duda, Jim Marlatt, Nick Pavelich
Front row, (L to R): Charles Adams, Debbie Martell, Chuck Allison, Susan Hanas, Tracy Duda Chapman, Bob Weismann

Still Planting Seeds

Looking toward the future, DUDA plans to expand its residential and commercial growth to keep building the portfolio. On the agriculture side, facing pressure from a lack of labor available to help harvest crops, the company plans to invest in more automation. It’s also looking to expand more into organic crops to meet market demand. At the same time, the company is continuing to grow a job rotation program that allows younger family members to explore roles in the company to see where they might fit in.

Ferdinand, John and Andy Duda

The company has come a long way since the original celery operation, but the principles remain intact. Hanas points out that in Slovak the name Slavia means “glory” and Viera means “faith.”

“A common theme through all of our generations has been our commitment to each other, our strong Christian faith and a belief that you forgive and forget along the way,” she says. “This makes you more willing to hang in there. In our heart of hearts, we’re all thinking the same. Even if we don’t practice the exact same thing, we all have that basic core to us.

“We have managed to keep the business in the family and the shareholders together. We’ve bridged the third to fourth generation. Maybe the business will continue in perpetuity. I can’t leave a greater thing to my daughter or grandchildren than that.”

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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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