Taking the Reins: What it takes to step in and run a long-time northern Michigan business

A successful, lifelong business now in transition to the next generation: It’s a familiar tale with many risks and opportunities. What does it take to assume the reins at a beloved family business? The answer can be different for young leaders, and especially for women. We caught up with three female business leaders and one wife-and-husband team – all of whom have taken the helm of a northern Michigan institution – to learn more about their “passing of the baton” moments.

Marie-Chantal Dalese, President and CEO, Chateau Chantal

In 2015, when Marie-Chantal Dalese was named president and CEO of the Old Mission Peninsula winery Chateau Chantal, it was – on the surface at least – a predictable development in Traverse City’s budding wine scene.

Dalese is the daughter of Bob and Nadine Begin, who planted grapes at Chateau Chantal in the 1980s and incorporated the winery as a business in 1991. Even given the fact that Chateau Chantal is a multi-shareholder-owned company, the winery was something of a birthright for Dalese.

As she tells the story, Dalese’s journey to the CEO seat was a long and winding one, with the ultimate outcome never guaranteed just because the winery was the family business.

“From the very start, my dad had always kind of insisted that I work elsewhere,” Dalese recalled. “Even growing up, I worked at various hotels or retail positions at high school. And when I went to (DePaul University), I worked at different stores in Chicago. (My parents’) thought was, ‘We’re not going to automatically hand her any type of position at the winery.’ That would need to be earned, if it was something that was of interest to me.”

Dalese saw her parents’ philosophy as a challenge – one that she took on gamely. Shortly after college, she was in Australia, working through a wine business program at the University of Adelaide. There, she both met her husband and learned the foundational skills that would eventually allow her to return to Traverse City and take up her parents’ mantle. A return to Chicago and a few years spent working in other facets of the wine industry – from retail to distribution – rounded out her resume.

In 2009, Dalese finally returned to northern Michigan and took on a job with Chateau Chantal for the first time as director of marketing. For several years, she worked alongside then-CEO Jim Krupka to learn the leadership role of the winery. Then, in 2015, she officially took the presidential job.

“There were aspects of (the transition) that were intimidating,” Dalese said. “Trying to transfer into this role of leadership with people that have known you since you were 12 – that was slightly intimidating. I definitely took a lot of time to make sure that I was doing things in a way that would create mutual respect between those staff members and myself. And that could only be done through work; it wasn’t going to be an automatic thing.”

Six years in, Dalese feels confident that she’s earned the respect of her employees and her shareholders alike. Still, she notes that there are challenges to her situation – not because she’s her parents’ daughter, but because she is a female business leader in a male-dominated industry.

“There aren’t a lot of women in the wine world,” she said. “I’m often the only woman at the table. But things are changing in that regard. I remember, working in the wine industry in Chicago, I faced a lot of stereotypes – which I thoroughly enjoyed shattering. It’s fun to know your stuff (about wine) and to prove people wrong who might still have those stereotypes.”

Rachel Jabara, Director of Operations, Preston Feather

Rachel Jabara’s story – of taking on a leadership role at her parents’ company and working hard to earn respect – isn’t unlike Dalese’s.

Today, Jabara oversees much of the day-to-day operations for Preston Feather – a northern Michigan building materials supplier with locations in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Traverse City and Gaylord. When Jabara’s father, Kirk Jabara, bought Preston Feather in 2015 – the same year the company celebrated its centennial – she was on a different type of professional path. A CPA with a degree in economics and management from Albion College, Jabara had a job as assurance manager for a large public accounting firm.

Though Jabara says she was on the partner track with the firm, something about her small-town northern Michigan upbringing – and her first work experience, which had come working with her parents in a different up-north business venture – drew her to Preston Feather. She started with the company in 2016, armed with no experience in the lumber or building supply industry, but bringing an accounting and management background.

Jabara’s first project at Preston Feather was to implement a brand-new point-of-sale system. The existing system, she says, demanded that any employee have an encyclopedic knowledge of Preston Feather’s product code numbers in order to carry out even a simple transaction.

Jabara helped oversee the implementation of the new system – a role that not only allowed her to meet and interact with nearly everyone in the business, but that also gave her a chance to prove herself by coming aboard and immediately eliminating a major company pain point.

That project and several others – including the implementation of a system that keeps better track of Preston Feather’s product inventory – earned Jabara the trust of her team.

“The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was being my father’s daughter,” Jabara explained. “I consider myself to have a strong work ethic, but I think when somebody hears that the boss’s daughter is going to come work there, they think that person is just looking for some cushy office position.”

Jabara says she made it her goal to prove she was worth having on the team.

“My father had me interview with the leadership team before I came on board and he told everyone when he introduced me that I could be voted off the island at any time,” she said. “So I had to make sure I was useful from the start.”

Leisa Eckerle, Owner, Benjamin Twiggs

When Leisa Eckerle purchased Benjamin Twiggs in 2019, she had no idea her first year in business would turn out to be one of the most troubled in retail history.

Though Eckerle comes from a local cherry-growing family, her career had taken her from the nonprofit sector to retail and back again. In 2019, when her hairdresser informed her that Benjamin Twiggs was for sale, Eckerle was intrigued by the opportunity to combine two of the things she loved – cherries and small local retail – into a single career.

By October 2019, Eckerle was working alongside Julie Millen, the now-former Benjamin Twiggs owner, to learn the ropes of the business. On Jan. 2, 2020, she officially took over ownership of the business. A strong January and February of sales and foot traffic followed, and Eckerle was excited to see what the future would hold.

March 2020 changed the game. On the upside, Benjamin Twiggs was never required to close entirely. On the downside, Eckerle says most of those early pandemic days saw one or two customers at most. Discouraged – and forced to lay off her staff – Eckerle decided to view the slow period as an opportunity to learn, inside and out, the business she’d just bought.

“(Without staff), I was working seven days a week,” Eckerle said. “It got me totally acclimated as the new owner into everything that needed to happen. It was an opportunity for me to think about the traditions of Benjamin Twiggs that I want to keep going, as well as the new aspects that I wanted to look at incorporating.”

By summer, things stabilized. Customers slowly started coming back to Benjamin Twiggs, and Eckerle was able to bring her staff back. There were still blows to be weathered: the cancellation of the National Cherry Festival, for instance, took out 20% of the business’s budgeted sales for the year.

Still, a solid summer, a great fall and an extremely busy holiday season – as well as a dozen new wholesale accounts, some of them outside of Michigan – helped salvage 2020.

Now 14 months into her tenure as owner, Eckerle is once again feeling excited about the future of Benjamin Twiggs. In particular, she notes one fact about herself that she thinks will benefit the business in the long run: her deep, family-grown expertise of cherries and the cherry industry.

“It’s always fun to be in the store, because I can answer questions about cherries that a lot of people don’t know – just because I lived and breathed cherries every day of my life growing up,” she said. “There are a lot of questions about the cherries themselves, and what blossom season looks like, or what the production looks like. It’s fun to be able to share those stories and make that connection for our customers.”

Elise and Cory Holman, Owners, Garden Goods

One of the most recent local changing-of-the-guard moments came this past February, when Gordy and Julie Sovereign closed a deal to sell their business – the popular garden center and nursery Garden Goods – to new owners. The Sovereigns opened Garden Goods 26 years ago, buying a business called Traverse Gardens and rebranding it. Now, they’re passing on the baton to the next generation: The buyers, Elise and Cory Holman, are 24 and 29, respectively.

The Holmans grew up in northern Michigan. She’s a Traverse City West grad; he’s a Central alum; she grew up in town and worked for farms throughout high school; he’s a seventh-generation farmer who grew up on the family farm, Cherry Ridge Orchards on Old Mission. Both have a fondness for Garden Goods that dates back to childhood, when their parents started shopping at the store.

For all parties, the Garden Goods transition came rapidly. The process started last year when the Sovereigns received a letter from their attorney, which said if they were thinking about retirement any time soon, they should put together a five-year plan for wrapping up the business, preparing it for sale and finding a buyer.

The Holmans caught wind that the Sovereigns were thinking of selling Garden Goods and made contact. In February, the deal was closed and the business officially had new owners.

For the Holmans, taking on Garden Goods is a form of diversification. While the pair are continuing the Holman farming tradition at Cherry Ridge Farms, they’re also acknowledging that the economics of farming are changing.

“We’ve been trying to find ways to be doing something that we love and are passionate about that also revolves around agriculture, as a way to supplement the farm,” Elise said. “You’ve probably heard a lot of the stories about how the small family farm is dying. It’s really important, as young people who want to continue the tradition, to make sure that we have every avenue possible to continue farming.”

Garden Goods was a golden opportunity at that kind of diversification. The business keeps the couple in an agriculture-adjacent industry, and even gives them a chance to sell some of the produce from their farm (such as pumpkins around the Halloween/harvest season) to a different subset of buyers.

The hardest part? Filling the shoes of the (beloved) former owners. The Sovereigns say they’ll be sticking around in a full-time capacity throughout the spring, to help the Holmans learn the business and navigate peak garden center season. They plan to re-evaluate their role with the company – and consider a more traditional retirement – around July 1.

“We’re so happy that they’ve chosen to stay on and work with us, because they’re amazing,” Elise said of the Sovereigns. “I think they’re the biggest factor in what makes Garden Goods the special, niche place that it is, because they know so much. Without them, it definitely wouldn’t have the same level of (professionalism) and customer service that people are used to having here.”

While the Sovereigns say that closing a chapter on their lives is “bittersweet,” they’re confident that now is the right time to move on – and that the Holmans are the perfect pair to continue the legacy of Garden Goods.

“Our business had grown significantly in the winter and throughout the past year, because of this new segment of gardeners,” said Julie Sovereign. “And that demographic, it’s mostly younger folks embracing plants and growing indoor house plants. (The Holmans) certainly are more of that demographic, so it’s exciting to think about new, fresh ownership to take the business to the next level.”