Growing pains

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Tom Rice admits that one of the more difficult things he’s done in his life is to name a successor for Rice’s Nursery, a retail garden center, gift shop and design/build/landscape concern located on 35 acres in North Canton.

It wasn’t that he balked at the idea of turning the day-to-day operations over to someone else. The 58-year-old CEO was perfectly happy to be out of the office and running one of the nursery’s three Stark County farms, a 90-acre spread he bought four years ago to produce shade and ornamental trees.

Furthermore, he realized it was high time sons Bryan, a 34-year-old horticulturist, and Kevin, a 33-year-old state-registered landscape architect, learned how to manage the business and its 120 employees.

“I found out a long time ago that as long as you’re doing it, everybody will stand back and watch you do it,” Tom says in a matter-of-fact tone.

The hard part was choosing one of his sons, both hard-working Ohio State University graduates, to head the family business.

“Making Bryan president was tough because the boys are just a year and five days apart,” Tom says. “They’re so close in age. But Bryan’s really a leader. Kevin’s a little more quiet, a little more laid back.”

Tough is a word Bryan also uses, in his case to describe the role he assumed in January after working at the nursery for 10 years.

“The changing of the guard, if you will, has not been as easy as I thought it was going to be,” he confesses.

The result was that neither Bryan nor the nursery employees knew exactly who was in charge of what. The new president says that people went over his head to his father with problems and concerns instead of bringing them to him.

The problem was remedied to some extent when Tom explained Bryan’s role in a letter to employees and asked them to support him in his position.

But Bryan says he needs to do it verbally, too, and calls that clear definition of roles “one of the biggest things with a family business that needs to be done.”

Bryan’s new title has gotten him involved in landscape sales and production, which has resulted in “a little bit of a power struggle/ego thing” with his brother, who designs and sells landscape jobs for the business to install. Bryan describes Kevin as a tremendously gifted landscape architect who, like many artists, doesn’t possess all the management skills needed in his position as vice president.

“A lot of artists won’t recognize that or can’t recognize that,” Bryan says. “That’s one of the issues that we’re dealing with right now.”

His solution is to pitch in and help.

“I’m hoping and praying he’s receptive,” Bryan says.

Kevin, for his part, says he’s had no trouble working with his brother or his father since he left a Columbus landscape design firm and began working with them seven years ago.

“The dynamics of the business are unique,” he says of the family firm. “But we tend to work well together, and we understand our chain of command.”

Tom says he has relatively little experience with his sons’ predicaments. By the time he purchased his father’s small landscape business, J.D. Rice & Sons, when his father retired in 1970, his own brother was no longer involved. But he says his sons have their own areas of responsibility — Bryan the “green-good buying” and garden center, Kevin the landscape business — and work hard to resolve any differences they have.

“We’ve had our moments, believe me, but for the most part it’s been very enjoyable,” he says.
Lynne Thompson