The Next Generation By Darhiana Mateo

Bob's Market and Greenhouses, Inc., based in Mason, W. Va., has changed drastically since it's humble roots as a small roadside market in 1970. Over the past few decades, it has expanded and thrived, evolving into a profitable player in the industry. But one thing hasn't changed: the Barnitz's family's commitment to keep the family business in the family despite industry-wide economic challenges.

In the early days, Robert and Corena Barnitz — sole owners — tried their hand at selling fresh produce, garden vegetable plants and some flats of bedding flowers. The business quickly grew and now operates as a wholesaler and grower, offering a wide selection of perennials and annuals, as well as a complete line of plugs. In addition, the company also runs five retail operations throughout West Virginia and Ohio.

Currently, three generations work side-by-side to keep their family business thriving. And it's this mix of old-fashioned values and fresh ideas that is helping Bob's Market and Greenhouses defy the odds facing many family-owned operations today, as they struggle to transition ownership from one generation to the next.

A Family Affair

Bobby Barnitz, the eldest of Robert and Corena's five sons and the company's vice president and plug business manager, says he "grew up in the family business." Barnitz, who is also president of OFA — an Association of Floriculture Professionals, got a taste of both the retail and greenhouse sectors throughout high school, and after graduating, started working full time as a supervisor. During the evening, he took college classes in pursuit of a business degree.

The family's desire to ensure the longevity of the business Robert and Corena worked so hard for has helped fuel the company's growth and success, he says: "I have witnessed the growth and know that it is because of our values and goals. I would be afraid that would not be there with outside owners," Barnitz says. "I don't think [my parents] ever imagined that the business would become what it has, but they are proud we can work together as a family to achieve our goals."

A Band of Five Brothers

Robert and Corena's five sons — Bobby, Rick, Scott, Jeff and John — along with their father are all equal shareholders and are hoping to one day pass on their ownership to the third generation. The five sons each "found their own niche within the company," says Anna Barnitz, the company's chief financial officer and wife of Scott (the third son). Bobby's prowess with numbers and attention to detail naturally led him to production, while Rick gravitated to growing. Scott, with his engineering background, oversees the electrical and construction phases as well as their retail strategies, and Jeff is in charge of the trucking, transportation and greenhouse construction. The youngest son, John, heads the finished product loading and shipping side of the business.

The breakdown of the management, with five sons specializing in their areas of strength, "has allowed us to grow," says Anna, who worked at her high school sweetheart's family business throughout her high school and college years. "We would love to be able to keep the day-to-day operations of the business in family member's hands. We've been blessed with a lot of children in the family; if it's their desire to come in, there will always be a place for them here."

Asking Tough Questions

As enjoyable as it is to be able to work with your family, it also presents some unique challenges. After all, business is business. "There were hard questions that had to be asked," recalls Anna, referring to the time when Robert decided to slowly "gift out" the company stock to his sons. "Once ownership was equalized, what if one of the sons decided he wanted to do something else?"

The brothers eventually sat down together and came to an agreement: Only those who maintained an active working role in the company should be shareholders. If one of the brothers decides to leave, he will sell his stock to the remaining shareholders. And now, with the third generation slowly starting to take leadership roles in the business, the time is approaching when the Barnitz family will need to plan for another ownership transition down the road.

"We're at that point again," she says. "Now we're planning the transition from second to third generation. How will that ownership pass to the next generation? You have to ask hard questions because even though it's not easy and we all don't like to face our own mortality, the longevity of your life's work depends on it."

Like Father, Like Son

Alan Michael Barnitz, Bobby's son, also grew up in the business. The 24-year-old has fond memories of "working" at the business — racing to put together shuttle trays for $1 per pallet — as an 8-year-old. Alan, who works in shipping of cuttings and plugs, says he looks forward to one day being an owner and helping propel the business to new heights.

"Growing up in the business and seeing the strong family environment made me want to be a part of it," says Alan, who went on to earn a business degree from Marshall University in his quest to better understand how the business operates. "My grandfather, father and uncles have made this business a strong business that has provided me with the best childhood I think anybody could ask for. I would like to keep it going for future generations like my son and daughter."

Working alongside his uncles, aunts and father has been a great learning experience, he says. "Poise and patience is the main thing I hope to learn from them," Alan says. "It's an asset for different generations to work together toward the same goal. You can put new ideas with old ones and make the flow of things much better."

The younger generation also has a lot to contribute, especially at a time when issues like technological advances and sustainability are reshaping the industry, says Anna Barnitz. "[The younger generation] has a unique ability to think outside the box. They bring fresh ideas, a new way of doing something."

Eric Barnitz, 26, says he's following in the footsteps of his father, Rick, the company's head grower. "I just found a niche and went after it," he says. When asked what it's like to work with his dad, Eric sums up their work dynamic with elegant simplicity: "Sometimes he's dad and sometimes he's the boss," he says.

For Families' Sake

As the Barnitz family knows, the time to plan for tomorrow is today. The business' next step requires formalizing a family succession plan for the day when the younger generation takes the lead. Not only for the future of their own family, but that of "all the other families that work for us, that depend on us," says Anna Barnitz.

Darhiana Mateo

Darhiana Mateo is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1013.

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