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Paul Ecke: Selling Ecke Ranch "Hardest Decision I Ever Made”

After nearly 100 years, the poinsettia empire is changing hands—a bittersweet and necessary move, Ecke explains.

Story updated Aug. 17 at 8:47 a.m.

Wednesday night the Ecke Ranch announced it has . Here, Paul Ecke III talks with Patch about what motivated the sale, and what’s next for him.

Patch: How long have plans been in motion to sell the ?

Paul Ecke: I don’t know exactly but it seems about six months. In our industry there has been a lot of consolidation going on for some time. Over the last five years, most of the small breeder producers have been bought and that was one of the things I looked at. When I was growing up we were a big company and today we are on the small side through no fault of our own. What’s going on is consolidation, and that’s natural in all industries. Retailers such as Walmart, The Home Depot, Lowe’s and Costco are driving more and more business, so growers are getting bigger and demanding more from breeder producers. We had ideas to grow, but we had to have capital to grow. The last three or four years was not a good time to find capital.

Patch: Will you be involved with the new company?

Ecke: No, I will not be not going along, but they are taking all our employees both here and in Guatemala. They will be staying in Encinitas and leasing the greenhouses here for at least three years. For the Encinitas operation, not much has changed. They are buying the name as well. It will still be Ecke. From the outside, nothing is different. The leadership team is staying, and they will have more opportunities because they will be senior officers in the North American market. It makes it easier to go to retailers and customers when you have a bigger basket of products to sell.

I’m excited because hopefully they will be good stewards of our name, our products, and our people. Hopefully, they will go to another level because they have access to capital. This company sells over a billion cuttings a year, but they didn’t have a large U.S. presence and that’s what they got when they acquired us.

Patch: Will there be layoffs?

Ecke: Everyone will transfer to the new company. I can’t tell what happens afterwards.

Patch: When will the actual hand-off of control happen?

Ecke: The target is around Sept. 1.

Patch: What accomplishments did the Ecke Ranch realize under your watch?

Ecke: For my grandfather, and his father a little bit, this was an outdoor business. They grew poinsettias —it started in Hollywood and they moved here in 1923 and, until 1963, that’s what they did. In the 1960s, my dad did three things: he transformed the business from outdoors to indoors. He started marketing the poinsettia, and he started our breeding program.  Instead of selling big, dormant stock plants he sold cuttings. This was able to happen because after World War II the air freight business started up. Then in the mid 1990’s, we started getting lots of competition, mostly from Europe, and then we went offshore, to Guatemala. My grandfather started it outdoors, my father took it indoors, and I took it offshore. Every one of the moves was necessary at the time.

We are almost 100 years old. I’ve always been amazed that we lasted that long with all of the changes in the marketplace. If you don’t adjust, you die. This move, even though there is a change of owner, our company, the name and our products will live on and go on to another level. I’m proud of all of that.

Patch: At one time, your company was the largest producer of poinsettias in the world. What is your market share these days?

Ecke: We have a large market share. In the US, it is about 70 percent—and worldwide, over 50 percent. This was higher pre-1992, when we started getting competition, but we are still very proud of these figures. Most companies would love to have a 70% market share!

Patch: How do you feel—relieved?

Ecke: It’s bittersweet. It certainly is something I did not take lightly. I told employees yesterday that it was the hardest decision I ever made. This has been a family company, my life’s work. At the end of the day, I’m a long-term planner. Looking into the future, five or 10 years, we would never have caught up with the big guys. It’s like the car business. A “little” company like Porsche was recently purchased by VW. You can survive as a boutique for a while, but it’s getting increasingly hard to survive without more products, more capital and being more efficient. I decided not to be stubborn, and to take the opportunity that presented itself. In that regard, I feel relieved because I believe the company will be going to a higher level.

Patch: What do you want the community to know about you and your decision to sell?

Ecke: One thing I was trying to tell our employees yesterday is that this was always a team effort and even though I’m going away, the business is not going to collapse. It was never about me, my dad or my grandfather. We all contributed the vision and the effort, but it was our people who did the work.  I have the upmost respect for everybody on our team now and in the past. They made me look good on many occasions which was always nice. The Ecke Ranch, the Ecke name and the Ecke poinsettia will continue. Even though I won’t be a player or a coach, I will be sitting in the stands, cheering, and will watch the team go to the Super Bowl!  At least now I will have more time to go to football games, and cheer for my Chargers.

Patch: What do you think about ?

Ecke: I’m really very, very excited about what they are talking about. They are planning and have been doing a ton of work. The Leichtag Foundation is a first-class organization. They have very unique ideas about how to use this land, and some very cool agricultural concepts about growing plant material and food for local use. I’m thrilled that they will restore the ranch house my sisters and I grew up in. Not only did I find the right steward for the company, I found a great steward for the land as well. I handed it off to the right people and I can sleep well at night.

Patch: What accomplishments are you most proud of that benefitted the community?

Ecke: The will be an awesome legacy for our whole family. My sister and I have been very involved in the Paul Ecke Central School garden program. If you haven’t checked it out, I would encourage you to do so. Our foundation has been supporting them, and sending plants. Next year kids will grow produce and that is on the school site on Sundays. I think that’s a cool idea. The whole curriculum is incorporated into the garden—science, math, cooking, and water quality. We are all humans, but we are connected by the land. Maybe we’ve become disconnected, but programs like this are a great way to reconnect. 

My wife is involved with the Community Resource Center. The last five years, we’ve had Of course, the is one of our favorite charities. My sister is on the board.

I am president of the Encinitas Preservation Association. We purchased the boathouses in downtown Encinitas to preserve them.

I’m involved in the Don Diego scholarship board at the fairgrounds and another scholarship foundation. I love to get involved in the education of kids. And Scripps Encinitas—I’m involved in that is being built right now. They are well on their way to meeting their goal, but could still use more help!

Patch: Will you be staying here?

Ecke: Yes, I am. Why would I go anywhere else? It’s paradise here. My sister and my mother live here, and we love it. I may have more time to go surfing, riding my horse, cheering for the Chargers, and skiing, but we have no plans to move.

Patch: What will you be doing?

Ecke: We still have an 11-year-old-daughter at home. I expect to go to more of her soccer games and drive the carpool more than I did for our first child. On a personal level, I’m not worried about staying busy. On a professional basis, I still have work to do including completing the land deal, the option to sell to the Leichtag Foundation.  In the meantime, I’m involved in nonprofit work such as Scripps Hospital, the Don Diego Scholarship and we have the Ecke Family Foundation that I am president of. Fortunately, I will also have the time to think about what I’m going to be when I “grow up.”

Patch: Ecke poinsettias have graced The White House along with stages of America's most iconic TV shows, such as The Tonight Show, during the holidays. Is that still the case, and how did that tradition start?

Ecke: Yes, we still provide poinsettias to the Jay Leno show, and have for many, many years. My father started doing that as a way to market poinsettias by providing poinsettias for TV shows. He also provided poinsettias for magazines, especially woman’s magazines. This effort put poinsettias in photo shoots of Christmas scenes and made people want to mimic those magazine shots.

Patch: In the future, what will come to mind when you hear, or see, “poinsettia?”

Ecke: Good question. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like even this Christmas. I grew up with poinsettias all around me, even before I was born. You know I can’t divorce myself from that. I’m sure I will enjoy them even more. I’ll probably hold them more dear because I’ll have to pay for them! My friends will probably be upset because they will have to pay for them also. And I will continue to remind people that poinsettias are not poisonous!

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bruce freebury August 17, 2012 at 01:49 PM
P-3 you and your family have been the best! thanks for all the memories and sharing
Ecomim August 17, 2012 at 02:03 PM
This is one of the saddest stories I have read in quite some time. I understand the desire to grow the company for the sake of the employees and to keep the Ecke name strong but it is such a sad tale about the state of agriculture-big business and the destruction of the small farm/er. The Ecke family and name are synonymous with Encinitas. I hope this is not the beginning of the end when it comes to our rich agricultural roots!
Lisa Shaffer August 17, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Thanks for all you have given to the community.
michael farnum eddy August 17, 2012 at 03:56 PM
As usual Paul has down played his role as CEO of Ecke Ranch. This sale would not have taken place unless Parul determined that it would of benefit to the community and to his employees. Those were his priorities and always have been and that is why Ecke Ranch has been so successful for 100 years. Ride on Paul with your family and enjoy the sunsets.......Semper Fi !!! Col Mike Eddy, USMC (Ret'd).
Julian Duval August 17, 2012 at 05:57 PM
The Ecke family has been very important to the San Diego Botanic Garden and in fact Paul's grandfather played a crtical role in having SD County which operated the Garden in the beginning change what was originally Quail Park into Quail Botanical Gardens. He also purchased and donated the land and auditorium building and which is the Paul Ecke Family Building in the Garden. Things are changing for the horticultural community in San Diego County and have been doing so for sometime. However SDBG will be around for a very very long time and will stand as testament to the people and industry that is in large part responsible for why it exists. All of us in the Garden wish Paul and his family the best. Julian Duval President/CEO San Diego Botanic Garden
Lynn Marr August 18, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I respect the work the Ecke's have done in terms of operating an agriculturally based business, particularly the grandfather and his son. I know times are changing, & I guess we all have to be "resigned" to that, but so many family concerns are selling out to "capitalize." My opinion, Paul Ecke, the grandson and his relatives are now primarily involved in the business of "capitalization" thru development of their land holdings. To me, it's unfortunate that this seems to have become the "American Way." Obviously the Dutch company felt it could make a profit & keep the business going. I wish the Eckes had more faith in continuing their local business, but of course they have freedom of choice. So many family owned companies have been sold now, such as Longs Drugstore & many, many others. Wealth is becoming more & more concentrated in the hands of fewer & fewer "elite." Paul Ecke is very fortunate that his grandfather realized the true value of the land, which exceeds that of the dollar, which is becoming worth less and less . . . Encinitas is no longer the flower capital of the world. The King is dead; long live the King. The new king seems to be developers. My vision of utopia would be a world where value is not based on capitalization & profit thru constant expansion, thru raging development & increasing market consumption of material goods, but based on service, relationship, providing food & shelter to all who would work together, in harmony & charity.
hank stelzl August 18, 2012 at 04:42 AM
Paul, thank you for your continued support in our community. Even through change you are forced to make being here and putting an effort in Encinitas is amazing. Thank you always. Mr. Hank
Melisa August 18, 2012 at 05:38 AM
Thank you to the Ecke Family for generations of support to everyone in Encinitas. The family has always supported the Encinitas area and the steadfast presence will be missed. Thank you for your support of my 4H project years ago by buying animals at the Del Mar Fair every year. The legacy lives - on regardless of the sale to "big box corporations."
susy shepard February 07, 2013 at 03:58 PM
Just talking to a friend about the Ecke Ranch and Googled what happened to it. Saw your comment, Mike. Have never run across someone I know in the "comment" area before. Mr. Ecke DOES sound incredibly humble. I like that in a man!! ;-) Susy Shepard
Patrick Woodhouse October 26, 2013 at 09:12 AM
Paul Senior planted the seeds with his hands. The next generation plowed him under, with some help from, "The Queen of the Hill." Many, including his own family, do not know this tragic truth.

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