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Business Owners

Leadership Lessons from a Fourth-Generation Family Business


Wayne Bailey and Bernard Peele (in suits)

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.

Today, Wooten runs the company with the help of his two sons, Adam and George III. He talked with us about management tactics, tension between generations, separating work and family, and more.

Rebellion Lies in Wait

Sometimes, different generations just don’t see eye to eye, and there’s little to be done about it.

“Wayne Bailey was a pretty dominant person,” says Wooten. “People would say you did it the right way, the wrong way, and the Bailey way. You had to follow his lead.” Bailey’s son Elroy did what he was told, “but he wasn’t happy about it.”

Elroy waited until his father was gone to make his feelings known. Wooten recalls the week Wayne Bailey died, in 1970. “At that time, we had to wear uniforms. My stepfather didn’t want to, but his father made him. Wayne Bailey passed away on a Wednesday, and on Thursday when his son took charge he wasn’t wearing a uniform.”

Says Wooten with a hint of amazement in his voice, “It was the day after his father died.”

The same went for Saturday hours, of which the elder Bailey had been a proponent. Elroy closed the company down the first Saturday after his father’s death.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Elroy Bailey and George G Wooten Jr.
Elroy Bailey and George G Wooten Jr.

The relationship between Wooten and his stepfather Elroy was also strained at times. Wooten describes Elroy Bailey as a “an intellectual guy,” and himself as “more of a horse trader.” The fact that his stepfather had final say in business decisions wasn’t always easy for Wooten to accept. Once, after a disagreement over a distribution arrangement, Wooten went so far as to throw his keys on the table and quit.

But it didn’t last long.  “I felt really bad,” says Wooten. They were in the middle of harvest, and Wooten knew his stepfather needed his help. He returned almost immediately.

Still, “we were always rubbing against one another, sandpaper against sandpaper,” says Wooten.

But when Elroy died in 1993 and Wooten took over, he found he really missed his stepfather’s perspective. Elory had always played devil’s advocate, had always argued against his ideas — but now Wooten 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.”

Grooming the Next Generation

George III, George Jr., and Adam Wooten

Wooten has two sons, Adam and George III, who 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 Wooten. “That may be the case. But I felt like I was in a tight spot — I really needed my sons’ help.”

But Wooten recognized that George, 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 Wooten 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.

Wooten’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”). But he also admits that “it’s hard working with your own flesh and blood.”

Says Wooten, “I want the best for my sons, the same way I do the rest of my employees.” But the close family relationship can make productive conversations difficult. He recognizes that his sons may feel ready to take on even more responsibility than they have right now. His youngest son is now 37 — the same age Wooten was when he took over the company.

While he recognizes the frustrations of subservience, Wooten also feels like “I’ve paid my dues. Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘You’ll get your day when it’s your day, but right now it’s my day.’”

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.

George Wooten III and Adam Wooten
George Wooten III and Adam Wooten

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.”


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