Continuing one family's long tradition

Five generations have built Joppa landscape company

June 19, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The business began in a small greenhouse heated by a wood-burning furnace.

In 1876, Charles Akehurst, who had immigrated to Maryland from England, launched a home-based operation growing flowers and vegetables to sell.

Four generations later, Akehurst Landscape Service Inc. in Joppa has grown into a multimillion-dollar business.

Today, three generations are involved in the business, and the younger family members are unanimous on the key to its success: William E. Akehurst, president of the company.

"My father threw everything he had into whatever he did," said William K. Akehurst, the oldest of three sons in the business. "He always told us he was building for our future. He worked hard to give us everything he could, and now we all work hard to make sure what he did for us will be carried on to future generations of Akehursts."

Family businesses are a powerful element in the national economy. More than 90 percent of businesses in the United States are family owned, according to the Family Business Forum at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Businesses enduring into subsequent generations are another matter. The forum's research shows that about 30 percent of family-owned businesses make it into the second generation and 12 percent into the third. Only 3 percent survive into the fourth generation and beyond.

"My father didn't force us to stay in the business," the senior Akehurst said. "At one point, my brother went to school to become a doctor, and he ended up leaving and coming back to the business. Once I got into it, I stayed, and my sons have, too."

For the Akehurst sons, chipping in with the business is among their earliest memories. William K. Akehurst said most kids would come home from school and go out to play, but he and his brothers ran out to the greenhouse to help water plants.

"I wasn't strong enough to pull the garden hose down the 200-foot rows in the greenhouse. So I had to run to my uncle for help," said the oldest son, recalling helping out as early as age 5. "My father would take me out with him and have me help driving stakes and things like that. We talked a lot and bonded."

The odd jobs he and his brothers performed for their father instilled a love of the business and a strong work ethic.

"We lived and breathed the family business growing up. We loved the time with my father, and we were taught to appreciate flowers and plants," said the oldest son. "I knew I wanted to be a part of the family business when I was old enough. It was all I knew growing up."

The senior Akehurst said he learned the work ethic from his father.

"My dad always taught us not to ask someone to do something you wouldn't do yourself," he said. "Always lead by example. This is how I've tried to be with my boys."

According to Brian, the middle son, his father succeeded.

"My father worked hard to make this business strong so he could hand it down to us, and we can hand it down to our sons someday," he said. "He taught us the business using the same values and ethics he taught us as children."

As each son graduated from high school, their dad gave them a choice: the family business or college. Each chose the business.

"Once the boys decided to join the business, they were given their own department," the senior Akehurst said. "A business can generate more money that way and have more to work with. But we all deal with the major decisions and draw from the same pot."

John, the youngest son, said his father allowed the sons the latitude to find their niche in the business. Initially, John pursued outdoor landscape architecture but then gravitated toward interior landscape design.

"My dad has allowed each of us to have our own creativity," he said. "It's like we each have our own business we run under the name of Akehurst Landscape Services Inc."

The fifth member of the family involved with the business is Jay Tarleton, the senior Akehurst's nephew. Tarleton said his uncle taught him about business, life and wealth.

"Bill taught me to dot my i's and cross my t's," said Tarleton. "We are all part of the same family and share the same values and beliefs, and we work all together as one unit. My own father died last September, and he taught me about working directly with people, and Bill taught me about working behind the scenes. "

The sons agree that beyond the financial benefits, working with their father gave them a strong sense of family.

"Money was never a big thing growing up," said the eldest son. "We share the motto of the Three Musketeers, `All for one and one for all.' All the boys get the same pay from the business. Even though my part of the company has brought in about $10 million and my brother is about to hit the $1 million mark. I don't get a lot more because I brought in more. Each area of the business is different. My jobs may be $300,000 each while my brother's can be $2,000 each. He's working just as hard, but it's the nature of our jobs. We take care of everyone's needs equally."

It's a perspective their father can understand.

"Working together has made us appreciate each other," he said. "It made us a tighter family."

As for the future, just ask grandson William Josiah Akehurst, who at age 10 said he intends to be the sixth generation to join the business.

"I get to learn about plants, and I get to water them," said Josiah. "I think it will be cool to see how many generations will work in this business. I don't want to be the one to stop it. My dad has always taught me to work with a happy heart, and I can do that here."

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