A Juicy Legacy: Citrus CEO Offers Leadership Lessons To Her Daughters, All Women



You can squeeze a lot of leadership lessons out of 27 years in the fresh juice business. Marygrace Sexton, CEO of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co., a Florida-based company serving customers is in 30 states and 24 countries, is willing and eager to do just that.

As the matriarch of a family company that also employs her brothers, Sexton shares her legacy of leadership with her daughters, Natalie and Lucy, who are also working with the company. For the record, the company is named after her older daughter.“I’m learning people don’t perceive me as gentle,” says Marygrace Sexton, whose business with 100 employees she says is an example of the American dream.“My job as CEO is to hold all the employees accountable. And when they come to work, my job is to get the most out of their characteristics, traits and values.”

She says that over the years, she has learned to temper her encouragement and not to assume everyone is highly ambitious. “For some, I might push a little too hard.”Natalie Sexton says her mother’s biggest lesson in leadership for her and all women is to strive for excellence and lead by example. “You have to be a leader who understands the most important assets are your employees and your customers.”[bctt tweet=“A mother’s biggest lesson in leadership? Strive for excellence and lead by example #empowerwomen #womenCEOs” username=“takeleadwomen”]

The orange and citrus groves business is a $4 billion a year industry in this country with close to 11,000 companies employing more than 20,000 workers. “U.S. production is concentrated in Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. Florida, by far the leading State, usually accounts for more than 70 percent of all U.S. citrus supplies,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.According to Florida Citrus Mutual, in a recent year, “Florida harvested 170.9 million boxes of citrus, representing about 65 percent of total U.S. citrus production. Of the citrus harvested, 90 percent was processed into juice and the remainder was sold as fresh fruit.

”Most of the management and most of the farmers and employees in the citrus industry in this country  are men. A female CEO is a rarity.“Our industry is run by a lot of farmers and professional men, and it is a good old boy industry,” says Natalie Sexton.Women leading in agriculture as a whole are an anomaly, and last  year Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden convened a White House dialogue on women leaders in agriculture

According to the USDA, these were the recommendations for women, who like Marygrace Sexton,  are CEOs and leaders of companies in agriculture.[bctt tweet=“Women leading in agriculture as a whole are an anomaly #womeninagriculture” username=“takeleadwomen”]

  • “You know more than you think you do. There is a place for everyone in agriculture and women are leading the way. Your voice adds an important perspective that is vital to discussions and decisions being made. You know more than you think and are more qualified than you know.”

  • “Say yes to new and different opportunities. It is important to know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. It is equally, if not more important, to take risks and seize new opportunities. Your path to leadership may change over time but each experience along the way will make you a stronger person.”

  • “Look to others for guidance. At all stages of your career, it’s important to have both mentors and mentees. Share what you have learned from others. There are other women out there who are also looking to advance into leadership position, not just in agriculture, but in all fields across the globe. Use that network to grow and thrive.”

As a leader in the fresh juice (not processed) business, delivering juices within 32 to 48 hours after picking, Natalie’s is an example of a company run by a woman CEO that is growing in its niche market. And there were distinct steps to making that company successful.Natalie Sexton says her mother taught her that a key to good leadership was understanding presentation, and that how you carry yourself and present your ideas is critical.

Another key is work ethic. “Those both distinguish you from the rest. My mother’s lessons transcend generations.”Humility is also a keen component. “You cannot take credit for everything,” Natalie Sexton says. “Nourishing, building and energizing the team is important.”Marygrace Sexton says as a leader of her team over the years she felt “that everyone should have the opportunity to be a CEO and I would push people so hard to do that.”

She adds, “But not everyone wants to be CEO, some people just want to work 9 to 5.”With the second generation of Sextons now working with her in the family business she started with her husband, Robert (whom Natalie Sexton calls the dreamer, while mom was the doer),  Marygrace Sexton says it is a tricky business working with family.

The statistics bear that out.“Some 70 percent of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over,” according to George Stalk, Jr. and Henry Foley writing in Harvard Business Review.“Just 10 percent remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, in which the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years, and these extended tenures can increase the difficulties of coping with shifts in technology, business models, and consumer behavior.

Today family firms in developing markets face new threats from globalization. In many ways, leading a family-owned business has never been harder.”Natalie Sexton says she is aware of her responsibility in the family business run by her mother. “I’m still young in management, but the number one thing you realize is that in order to build a company, it takes a team.”Marygrace Sexton says her business is growing and to that she attributes communication, setting high standards and leading by an example of excellence.

“It’s very challenging,” she says. “But as a leader, you have to build trust.”And she adds, “I am shy by no means. You have to work hard, dedicate yourself to what you love and success will come.“