Family Business: Trust the next generation to find its own way, even if it’s a different path

Harry Radtke on his tractor.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:20 am

When the entrepreneurial bug hits most kids, they’re likely to set up a lemonade stand in their front yard and draw on the goodwill of neighbors to fill their piggy bank one quarter at a time. But if you grow up on a two-lane state highway with a 45 mph speed limit, the foot traffic is going to be pretty limited and it is going to take a long time to sell even one glass.

There are other options of course, especially when your family runs a 60-acre perennial farm just a mile away. My grandpa, Harry Radtke, used to let me help him with work, paying me a dollar an hour and taking occasional breaks to play catch. At one point, I set up a stand outside the office and began selling herbs to customers on my own. I’m pretty sure it was a one-sided arrangement in which the business put all the costs into growing the plants and somehow, I kept all the revenue from the sales.

Arthur Thomas takes a break from selling plants with his grandmother at her church’s Fourth of July picnic.

I grew up on that Germantown farm, formally known as W. & E. Radtke Inc. but often just referred to in our family as “the greenhouse.” Summers, in particular, meant swimming in irrigation ponds, exploring fields and playing on soil piles. Some employees still tell me stories about finding my toys on the planting line.

The business is run by my mom, Liesl Thomas, and my uncle, George Radtke, with help from their sister Rhonda Weber and my grandma. The company is a market leader in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. If you’ve seen hostas, daylilies, ornamental grasses or thousands of other varieties of perennials at commercial developments throughout the area, there’s a good chance the plants came from their business.

My family has been at this for a long time. The current business traces its roots back to the late 1920s and the family’s heritage of farming dates back to 1852. My mom and uncle are the third generation to run W. & E. Radtke, but they are approaching their 60s and the fourth isn’t angling to take things over. I’m part of that generation, with my cousins Lianne and John, who, like me, have established careers in other industries.

I don’t remember the exact point when I decided I wouldn’t be joining the family business. Part of the decision was probably made when I realized my high school ability to get good grades on papers completed at the last minute could potentially translate to journalism. It became more of a reality when I started getting internships and gaining some traction in the field. Landing my first job and moving into a management role probably helped cement it.

There are, of course, several options for family businesses when it comes to the next generation. Parents can make it clear from an early age their children are expected to follow in their footsteps or they can push the next generation away, forcing their children to find their own way. My parents took a middle ground approach, giving me opportunities to be involved but never mandating my choice for me.

I can’t say I ever felt the weight of family history pushing me in any direction, nor did I feel any direct pressure to change my career path. I have a very distinct memory of a car ride with my grandpa where this approach was made clear. We were driving south on Highway 145, having just turned off Mequon Road. I don’t remember what prompted it, but he told me I didn’t have to follow him, my mom or my uncle into the family business.

“You can be anything you want to,” he said, adding I just had to do my best at it.

The horticultural industry isn’t exactly a highly lucrative business and there is plenty of risk involved. All it takes are a few stretches of sub-zero days in winter with little snow cover and large portions of the crop will fail to make it through. Likewise, a few bad weather days at the wrong time can torpedo demand. It also doesn’t take working too many chilly, rainy days in the spring to make you focus a little harder in school. It was more coincidence than anything else that I started taking college seriously the semester my grandpa passed away.

Stories of family business succession planning are often told from two perspectives. There are the case studies of things going right—an orderly transition from one generation to the next. Then there are the stories of thing going horribly wrong, with businesses crumbling and disputes sometimes finding their way into the court system.

My mom and uncle are somewhere in between those two points. With no heir apparent, they are looking at other options, although the industry doesn’t exactly leave them many good choices. Constant turnover in staff makes an employee stock ownership plan difficult to follow and efforts to develop potential buyers in management have also been problematic. Perennials occupy a unique space in the green industry and being exclusively wholesale growers in Wisconsin limits the pool of potential strategic buyers.

My decision to not join the business was never really made, it just kind of happened, and my mom and I had never really talked about it. Given the challenges she faces now, I asked her while we were having a beer recently if she would have done anything differently. To her credit, she didn’t ask for a do-over.

She said it was probably when my journalism career began to gain traction that she realized I wouldn’t be following in her footsteps. I’d spent my summers in college working on the farm; first in the field, then making deliveries, and then in the office, handling customer calls and routing drivers.

The industry is extremely seasonal. Most of the year is spent gearing up for an eight-week stretch in spring and early summer when work days can easily stretch into the 12- to 14-hour range for six or seven days a week. That environment can be high stress, but it also comes with a rush of adrenaline when things go well.

My mom said her approach was to encourage me and give me opportunities to be involved in the business, but not to mandate it. In a business with a yearly gamble on the weather and such intense time requirements, she said you have to love the industry to be in it; you can’t be forced into it. I suppose that’s true in most family businesses, but it rings especially true in this situation.

My uncle had known he was going to follow in my grandpa’s footsteps, so he got a horticulture degree from the University of Minnesota. While he was away at school, my grandpa asked my mom to help out. She had designs on being a large animal veterinarian, but life events have a way of changing plans.

The wholesale perennial nursery at which Arthur Thomas grew up working and playing.

It wasn’t lost on me as I talked to Paul Woelbing, president and co-owner of Carma Laboratories Inc., for this issue’s cover story that he spent 10 years teaching art before joining his family business. Life has a way of letting things work out the way they are supposed to.

The reality is the land currently occupied by the greenhouse may be destined for some other use in the future. Previous locations for the family business have met similar fates, one making way for part of Capitol Court, the others for houses in Glendale and near North 17th Street and West Concordia Avenue.

It would be hard to see that happen. Just as I clearly remember the car conversation with my grandpa, I also remember him teaching me to drive a tractor. We went way out to the far reaches of the field and when he knew I could handle it, he hopped off the back without telling me, leaving me to find my own way.

As we kept talking, my mom made it clear she’d like to see the business continue in some fashion, but if it doesn’t happen, so be it. As for me, she said knowing I’m doing something I enjoy makes her happy every time she sees my byline in print.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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