Former Bush Brothers boss outlines roadmap for family-owned food businesses

When Jim Ethier was thrust into the leadership of Bush Brothers, he knew his family-owned business needed a different path. He shared that successful path with members of the Southeastern Food Processors Association (SFPA) at their convention recently. His company’s path to greatness saw him overcome the challenges of a family-owned food business.

It begins with A.J. Bush, who opened his country store in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in 1897 to supplement his income as a schoolteacher. The following year, the nearby Stokely family began their tomato-canning business. Their fertile river bottom produced extraordinary vegetables and their primitive canning plant produced enough to ship their products to country stores in cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga. A.J. noted the Stokely success and longed for a way to bring employment to the many desperate, poor families who visited his country store.

In 1922, A.J. took out a $945 loan from his life insurance policy, found some river bottom acreage and formed Bush Brothers & Company. By 1935 the company was canning 10 million cases per year ranging from pork and beans to dog and cat food.

In 1942, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam inundated the farmland under hundreds of feet of water and Bush Brothers started operations in Arkansas, contracting more than 500 family farmers for their raw product. A.J. died in 1946, and his son Fred, now at the helm, committed his company to building a brand under the Bush’s Best label.

By 1990, Jim Ethier assumed leadership amid a growing number of business initiatives and a fourth generation of Bush family members, each with varying involvement and opinions on the direction of the company. Ethier sought the advice of Leon Danco, the nation’s leading expert on maintaining family-owned businesses.

With Danco’s guidance, Ethier set in place a strategic plan to focus the company toward profitability. He consolidated subsidiaries into a single entity, narrowed the product line and emphasized customer satisfaction. He reorganized the board of directors to reduce the number of family members and recruited outside experts in food to the board.

By 1993, Bush Brothers had hired an advertising agency that refined the company’s “Secret Family Recipe” campaign for its baked beans involving Jay Bush and his talking golden retriever named Duke. The result, through consistently focusing on the message, was the growth of Bush’s baked bean line to an 80 percent market share.

Ethier focused family members on developing a plan of corporate philanthropy, history, and their own plan for growing personal wealth. Family leadership established a new Bush Visitor Center at the Chestnut Hill site of A.J. Bush’s country store, with 150,000 visitors in 2015. The family has restored a nearby farm to replicate its origin in 1909. Visitors can also tour the company’s Chestnut Hill processing facility, one of the most modern canning facilities in the nation.

He also set a path for success for family members who truly wished to be involved in the business. Now, with some sixth-generation family members involved in various roles in the business, Ethier has handed chairmanship of the board of directors to Drew Everett. Drew is the great grandson of A.J. Bush, the fifth family member to serve in that role, and at age 46, has held a variety of positions within the company over the past 22 years.

Ethier’s legacy is founded in his leadership in developing a seasoned senior management team composed of leaders from other consumer product companies, in turning a commodity product into a strong and profitable brand, and in strengthening a process for family involvement for the future.

In summing up his advice to SFPA family-owned businesses, Ethier quoted Irish-born philosopher Charles Handy, “An organization’s purpose is to aim for immortality, a community that lasts past a lifetime … for its grandchildren. It is an everlasting community that adds wealth to society.”

-Tony Treadway