A family-owned business: standing the test of time

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by MELODIE M. DAVIS

Neil Houff at his desk at Railside Enterprises in Weyers Cave where he serves as president of Houff Corporation. Photos provided

You never know how or when a great idea will start—perhaps with two brothers brainstorming how to improve their farm crops—bigger yields—better income for the family and produce more food for the world.

Two dairy farming brothers—Fred and Harry Houff, put their heads together in the late 60s about their need for liquid fertilizer to grow better crops. Then they began offering that service to a few neighbors. The collaboration grew into a diversified family business, known today as Railside Enterprises, supporting not only their own families, but also those of some 115 additional employees.

Today Houff Corporation and IDM Trucking Inc. are the main companies making up Railside Enterprises. In addition to fertilizer, the enterprise handles products or services such as storing de-icing materials for roads, managing and transferring loads shipped by train cars onto trucks for delivery, collecting and repurposing food by-products from production at Valley poultry or beverage processing plants, and much more.

Fred is now 90 and his oldest son, Kern, is now retired but plays an advisory role to the companies he was instrumental in developing; Fred’s youngest son, Neil, is president of Houff Corporation, and the middle son, Dennis, is the president of IDM Trucking. Fred’s son-in-law, J.D. Patton, is the financial controller of Railside Enterprises. The company is managed with a mix of family and non-family members. Railside Enterprises, Inc. is owned 49 percent by employees (through an employee stock ownership plan) and 51 percent by the Houff family.

Photos of the two Houff brothers who started Houff Fertilizer, Fred and Harry, hang in the reception area of Railside Enterprises in Weyers Cave. Fred, now 90, is Neil’s father while Harry is his uncle.

Incidentally, IDM Trucking delivers Valley Living magazine to the Shenandoah Valley from a printing plant in Pennsylvania, and has for many years. Fred’s three sons all received four-year degrees from Virginia Tech, a background which helped prepare them not only for careers in agriculture, but with the skills, imagination and hard work it took to diversify from a small liquid fertilizer company to the multifaceted business it is today.

Neil explains their company lives by these values: integrity and ethical business practices; a strong work ethic (work hard and show up on time); create products or services which add value for their customers; a strong emphasis on family and community for employees and customers; and finally, compliance with regulatory agencies related to safety on the job, the highways and the environment. Neil says they hire individuals according to a person’s work ethic, values and skills, but are willing to train and transfer the right persons to other jobs. “We hire by these values, live by them, and do evaluations based on them,” Neil outlines.

“The owners still know everybody, and it still feels like a family business.”

The business moved in 1993 to its current site just off Interstate 81 at the Weyers Cave interchange, with an old railroad line going right across the property. The rails were scheduled to be idled, but “we saw it as a God-given opportunity” and worked to supply services using the railroad as an active part of their business plan. Today they have added 7000 foot of siding for transloading 2500 train cars to trucks annually. This keeps “Valley industries competitive and reduces truck traffic on highways” such as I-81, company literature notes.

Other services and products through Railside Enterprises include Pioneer brand seeds for farmers and producers, warehousing and distribution, servicing poultry houses between flocks by applying a substance that reduces ammonia levels (improving the health of baby chicks when they come in), and recycling materials known as biosolids and applying them to Valley farms. About 85 percent of their employees have commercial driving licenses as a job necessity.

As far as succeeding generations being part of the business, Neil looks for about half of the third generation of Houffs (his sons and their cousins) to be involved, with others choosing other careers. Some of the “third generation,” including one of his sons, are still in college. He and his own siblings were never pressured to join the business, rather it was an opportunity. The fact the company is as diverse as it is, supplying services in a number of related fields, helps provide openings where many can find a niche.

Tim Grove, bio-solids manager emphasizes a strong point of the company is its diversity. “Between our fertilizer and trucking, (agricultural and industrial), individual marketplaces can rise and fall and the whole company is not impacted so much.” He illustrated that by saying if you have a severe drought or wet spring, for instance, if you are only a fertilizer company that’s hurtful, or if it’s a heavy or light winter, that affects how much de-icing material is sold, “making a much bigger swing on the bottom line. So the diversity adds to the stability of the company and its profits.”

Neil admits as they’ve grown, “It is a challenge to maintain the close-knit feel of a family company.” Tim adds, “We’re growing to the point that we have the stature to get involved in bigger contracts, but the owners still know everybody, and it still feels like a family business.

For employees, the company offers a spring banquet every year (because the annual Christmas banquet came at such a busy time for families). The event includes a nice meal and presentations on the successes and challenges the company is experiencing.

Tim points out the community right around Weyers Cave is still very agriculture-based but the community embraces the newer sectors Houff added as they grew. “But we’ve held onto the relationships with the company’s original customers for fertilizer. They’ve appreciated that style of growth.”

For Railside’s customers, vendors and employee families, there is an annual summer barbecue for around 800-900 at the Weyers Cave Community Center that is “just an opportunity to sit down and talk to our friends and neighbors” says Neil; in other words, not a business or company meeting.

The company also encourages employees to support local schools, civic groups and has employees who serve on various charitable boards in the community to “give back.” Neil stresses they do so quietly, without “attaching their company name” on everything they do. Neil and his wife Sara are an active part of the Pleasant Valley Church of the Brethren in Weyers Cave where his father and one brother also goes; other family members go to Covenant Presbyterian in Harrisonburg.

Tim offers a testament to the Houff family being well known and liked in the community. “I’m not a Houff,” he points out, “but I’ve been an employee since 1998, and I have never in all these years had to apologize for the name of the company. Instead it is an edge up, a positive thing.” He says employee morale is good and their positive employee retention speaks to that. The fact that employees share in the success of the company through the employee stock ownership plan gives extra meaning to their work and the desire to make sure the business as a whole is doing well.

Some of their current challenges are the complexities of staying organized. They have set up a structure for mid-level management of the various operations, studying a book “Good Profit,” by Charles Koch, on managing from a values basis. “We’ve implemented some of the ideas throughout the company—and are working on how to roll it out to employees in the next 18 months to two years,” Neil says. “We feel every employee matters and appreciate new thoughts and ideas coming often from the employee base—where they see places to make improvements. There’s a good feel and vibe and I am proud of employees we have here,” he concludes.

Melodie Davis is editor of Valley Living and grew up on a farm in Indiana where her father used liquid fertilizer and Pioneer corn back in the day.

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