Family businesses are notoriously fraught with issues, from succession disputes to money squabbles to inexperienced leadership to good old-fashioned personality clashes.
So it’s pretty rare to find a thriving, fourth-generation family business like the Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company. A major sweet potato producer based out of North Carolina, the company was founded in 1935. Founder Wayne Bailey worked with his son Elroy, who worked with his stepson, current president George Wooten Jr.
While George and Elroy sometimes got on each other nerves (“like sandpaper against sandpaper”), George found he really missed his stepfather’s perspective when Elroy died in 1993. Elory had always played devil’s advocate, had always argued against his ideas — but now George had to do that for himself. “I found myself trying to think back on what he might have said in a certain situation. It turned out us working together had been pretty good after all.”
Today, Wooten runs the company with the help of his two sons, Adam and George III.
Grooming the Next Generation
Both sons are both heavily involved in the business. “Some people say it’s better for your children to go work other places before going into the family business,” says George. “That may be the case. But I felt like I was in a tight spot — I really needed my sons’ help.”
But George Jr. recognized that George III, fresh out of college, probably wouldn’t be ready to take on a leadership role just yet. “My son’s position was eventually going to be farm manager. But first, I brought in another manager” — someone to mentor him and model leadership tactics. George III worked under him for several years before taking over the division.
The same was true for Adam, whom George Jr. envisioned taking over operations. A former plant manager from Heinz who was working at Wayne E. Bailey provided Adam guidance until he was ready to take on the position himself.
While he admits that it can be “hard working with your own flesh and blood,” George’s pride in his sons is obvious as soon as he starts talking about them — George III’s lifelong passion for farming, Adam’s talent for baseball during high school, their university degrees (“more education than I ever got”). Says George, “I want the best for my sons, the same way I do the rest of my employees.”
Bringing in an Outsider
“We’re a pretty tight family,” says Wooten. But he also admits that business disputes “don’t just stop at business if you’re not careful.”
He says he tries not to get involved in his sons’ respective departments too much. “Adam has really stepped up to his role — he manages food safety and traceability, among other things, which are very important in our business today. And George has really stepped up to managing farming.”
But says Wooten, “sometimes they think my department — sales — gets special treatment.”
“Recently, I hired a COO to come onboard. He helps orchestrate between the three of us, so we don’t get to fighting,” and so that the company can run more smoothly, without family dynamics getting in the way.
Looking to the Future
The Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company currently employs approximately 125 team members. Agriculture is a $78 billion dollar industry in North Carolina, and constant innovation is at the heart of the business’s longevity.
“I’m an idea guy,” says Wooten. The company has been at the forefront of many of the changes in the sweet potato industry. “We’ve gone to consumer bags, individual microwave bags, steamer bags, different sizes of packaging,” says Wooten. “We’ve gone from all retail to food service too. We helped get North Carolina sweet potatoes into the European market.”
Their openness to change will likely help ensure success not only now, but for years to come. The only problem, according to Wooten? “Everything we do, the competitors can follow us.”