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Bush Brothers CEO James B. Ethier (right) accepts the Kellogg Family Enterprise Leadership Award from Professor John L. Ward, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprises.

Bush Brothers CEO James B. Ethier (right) accepts the Kellogg Family Enterprise Leadership Award from John L. Ward, director of the Center for Family Enterprises.

Kellogg Family Enterprise Leadership Award

James B. Ethier, chairman and CEO of Bush Brothers & Co., is lauded for his ‘brave and unbelievably collaborative leadership’

By Cheryl SooHoo

5/17/2012 - It was all in the family when James B. Ethier ’66, chairman and CEO of Bush Brothers & Company, on May 9 received the first Kellogg Family Enterprise Leadership Award.

“Kellogg really is a huge family,” Kellogg Dean Sally Blount told the crowd of 130, which included Kellogg students, alumni, Executive Education participants and about 20 of Ethier’s family members. “It’s the way we’ve conducted ourselves over the decades. And the way we’ve prided ourselves on our strong culture.”

On a global scale, four-fifths of all businesses are family enterprises, and more than half of the United States’ GDP is attributed to the revenues and jobs generated by this business model, Blount said. While Kellogg has honored the special contributions of family businesses in the past, this new award focuses on the successful leadership of individuals who run family businesses.

“We quickly honed in on Jim Ethier as the honorary first recipient,” said Ivan Lansberg, academic director of Kellogg’s Family Enterprise Executive Programs. “This man is a visionary — brave and unbelievably collaborative.”

‘An aristocracy to a meritocracy’
Ethier heads Bush Brothers, a 104-year-old company based in Knoxville, Tenn. With production facilities across the country and some 650 employees, Bush Brothers has gone from a regional cannery to a national brand presence under Ethier’s leadership. Family enterprises often struggle to survive past the second generation, but third-generation member Ethier has transformed the company from “an aristocracy to a meritocracy.” Encouraging collaboration with family members as far out as the sixth generation, as well as employees, he has managed to achieve results within the sometimes difficult dynamics unique to family businesses.

“Jim created a lot of transparency that shined a light on some of the ‘emotional’ baggage [of families],” said Teresa McKee, a fourth-generation Bush Brothers shareholder, family senate representative and second cousin to Ethier. “That took a lot of courage and integrity.”

To that end, Ethier introduced company organization charts and annual reports. He infused new blood by establishing an independent board of directors. The creation of a profit-sharing program further strengthened Bush Brothers’ commitment to a culture of community for all members, whether they are blood-related or not.

Feeding the world?
“Our vision statement begins simply: Bush Brothers is a community,” said Ethier, who gave the keynote address “This Community of Companions.” Beyond that, said Ethier, it is the company’s mission to make a difference by providing nourishing, palatable and adaptable branded-bean products to perhaps, one day, feed the world.

“Vegetable protein — that’s the future,” Ethier said, noting concerns about the sustainability of animal-based protein as the world’s population grows. “The next 50 years offer tremendous opportunities.”

Further reading
The paradox of 'family business'
John L. Ward shows how family businesses can thrive by embracing the tensions between 'family' and 'business'