Back in 1989, Marygrace Sexton, from Southern Florida, decided to compete with the preservative-laced cartons on supermarket shelves by going into the fresh juice making business, “before it was chic,” she says.
So, she invested $20,000. that she had saved in two thousand gallon stainless steel tanks and a juicer and set up business in a shack surrounded by groves. And the Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company was born. Since that time, the company has grown to be conservatively valued at more than $140 million. Each day at 7pm, the first of six semis rolls up with 50,000 pounds of fruit. Workers check each orange for bruises before a machine grabs them and juices. By 3am, 30,000 gallons will start flowing into bottles. (ref, Forbes, February, 2019). Sexton’s product is shipped out later that morning, whereas other factories hold their juice in tanks covered in nitrogen for up to a year. She relates details of her early years in the business, saying, “In those early days, I had a terrible fear of poverty. Knowing what poverty does, I was just so driven.” (Sexton was raised by a single mother who worked as a maid, which prompted Sexton to start working at a movie theater at age 14 to help pay the electricity bills.) Apparently that work ethic has provided Sexton with the drive to establish the fresh juice enterprise. Natalie’s now sells 25 flavors – from tangerine to green tea lemonade – in 42 countries and 5,000 U.S. supermarkets and makes private label juice for chains like Pret A Manger. And, even more laudatory – Sexton got to this point without taking on outside investment, or, until a recent $3 million mortgage, any debt. She describes her method as “organic growth” – investing the money that is made back into the business. Sexton uses only Florida oranges and spends $10 million each year to warehouse the fruit so that she can juice it fresh in the summer. The juice is minimally processed – at the FDA minimum of 165 degrees for 3 seconds. The big food companies are struggling with ways to be able to claim that their products are “minimally processed” – although the products that they sell are generally processed at 200 degrees for a long as 30 seconds, requiring orange peels to be added back in for flavor. Sexton is a self-styled perfectionist who was talked into selling her business in 2001 to a private equity firm – those of you who read these posts regularly will know where this is going. And, you’re right – the equity firm botched the company, selling it at a loss in 2003. The new owner, Fort Pierce Fruit Farm, brought Sexton in to offer her advice, and two years later, offered her a 50% equity at a very reasonable price. Sales had dropped by 20% by the time that Sexton was back at the helm, but she was able to turn that around by doing a label redesign and adding $5 million in machinery along with a $3 million dollar warehouse. Today, she and other managers walk through the juice plant several times a day, overseeing the 145 workers who feel ownership of the product with their initials printed on the side of the jugs. Sexton has her succession plan set in place – her 30-year-old daughter is assisting with the management – but she declares that she will never retire, saying: “You have to stay focused and be true to what you are.” Yes, indeed – that’s the way that successful businesses are made and maintained.