LANCASTER, Pa. — Tradition can help a business grow, particularly a close-knit family business. Knowing what worked last year, or 10 years ago, or when Great-Granddad started the business 75 years ago can be a good guide to what will work today.
Turkey Hill Dairy was such a business. In the 1930s, Armor Frey ran a dairy farm in the western part of Lancaster County. He bottled milk for sale to his neighbors and soon developed a route in the town of Columbia on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
The route grew and soon enough it was Frey’s only business, which his sons bought from him in 1947. In 1980, the Freys began to make ice cream, really good ice cream, and the business grew and grew and grew.
At one point, according to John Cox, the company’s executive vice president, there was a Frey family member in charge of every important function at the company. And that was a good thing.
“There were a lot of advantages to our traditions and our hierarchical structure,” Cox told listeners at Lancaster County’s annual Ag Industry Banquet, sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It was the right thing to do at the time. But then we got bigger.”
Cox spoke to the more than 500 people who attended the Nov. 15 banquet at the Double Tree Resort just south of Lancaster.
Other highlights included presentations of the 24th annual George C. Delp award, which went to Donald Hoover, president of Binkley & Hurst farm equipment company, and the 2012 Century Farm Award, which went to Bill Coleman of Elizabeth Farms near Brickerville.
Mary Henry, representing MidAtlantic Farm Credit, sponsor of the George C. Delp award, presented the award to Hoover, who was born and raised on a farm near Manheim in Lancaster County and has been involved in agriculture his whole life.
The Delp award is named for one of the founders and longtime president of the New Holland Machine Co., now doing business as Case New Holland.
The award, according to an entry form from the chamber, is presented to “a resident of Lancaster County who has made a significant personal contribution to the agricultural community.”
After the banquet, Hoover said he was honored to be in the company of the 23 previous winners, and said of his company and himself, “We do what we do because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re looking for awards and recognition.”
He said Binkley & Hurst has put a lot of effort into promoting stewardship of Lancaster County’s productive topsoil by helping customers move into no-till and cover-cropping practices.
Hoover has been with Binkley & Hurst for 30 years and, along with a small group of other employees, purchased the business in 2006.
The company now has five locations in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware, and a farm toy store in Lititz, Pa.
Leon Ressler, Penn State Extension director for Lancaster, Lebanon and Chester counties, presented the Century Farm Award to Coleman, whose family has actually owned Elizabeth Farms for 200 years, making this year’s award a bi-century one.
Coleman’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Robert Coleman was an Irish immigrant who came to this country in 1764. He worked as a clerk in the area’s iron industry, where his excellent penmanship served him well. He saved his money, bought shares in a number of forges and furnaces, and married the daughter of a local ironmaster.
The born-in-Ireland Coleman supplied cannon balls to George Washington’s army and crafted a chain to stretch across the Delaware River to block the passage of British troops.
The Elizabeth plantation became a self-contained community with supporting industries and farms, and has been passed down from generation to generation.
Bill Coleman lives on the farm today, but he is the first in the family to do so since the mid-1800s. He co-owns the farm with his 90-something uncle, Francis I.G. Coleman, who lives in Maine.
Elizabeth Farms today is a self-sustaining Christmas tree operation that spreads over 250 acres.
Coleman started planting trees about 30 years ago while working on Wall Street. In 2002, he left New York to move with his family to the farm, and he’s been there ever since, building the tree business.
This year, he expects to see 80,000 to 100,000 customers who will come to choose their trees, cut them and haul them out of the fields on horse-drawn wagons.
“I’m not a farmer, I’m a businessman,” Coleman recently told a reporter for the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve created a business that will sustain the farm ... unless Christmas is repealed.”
In his keynote speech, Cox recounted how Turkey Hill expanded beyond its Frey family origins.
As the business grew, he said, as operations went to six or seven days a week, 24 hours a day, there weren’t enough Freys to go around.
In 1985, Turkey Hill became a subsidiary of the Kroger Co., and Turkey Hill products, particularly ice cream and iced tea, can be found throughout the U.S. as well as in some international markets.
Cox oversees operations at the dairy, a job he describes as “making ice cream. How much fun is that?”
He said traditions had served Turkey Hill well.
“But we needed to change,” he said. “We’ve kept some traditions, particularly respect for individuals, and we realized that what makes us special is our associates. So we have invested heavily in training.
“With that training, our quality, safety, customer service and productivity have all improved,” he said. “Not just because of really smart leaders, but because our associates have been encouraged to develop and use their God-given talents.”
Much of Cox’s speech centered on the subject of leadership, and how the role of business leaders is changing in the Internet age. He alluded to the fact that employees are blogging, Facebooking and tweeting about their lives and their work
“Your people are out telling the world what they think of you,” he said, “and you’re not going to be able to control it.”