By Lynne Beverly Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
For almost three decades, Ethel “Stephanie” Stuckey had a successful career in environmental law, sustainability and politics. Now she’s gone in a totally different direction for her next chapter.
In 2019, Stephanie became a first-time business owner at age 53 when she bought Stuckey’s, the roadside pecan stores begun in Eastman, Georgia by her grandparents, W.S. Stuckey Sr. and his wife Ethel, during the 1930s.
The purchase of all of Stuckey’s shares took most of her life savings but Stephanie knew she had to act. “I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to take back the business and see my family’s legacy restored,” she says.
Reviving an Ionic Brand
If you’re over 50 and your family took road trips in the South or Southwest, you might remember Stuckey’s pecan log roll, grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, the touristy knickknacks (like seashell ashtrays and plastic green toy alligators) in its souvenir shops, and the pitched roof with teal blue shingles that marked its restaurants. In its heyday, more than 350 Stuckey’s dotted the U.S. roadways.
By the 1970s, the network began to wane after a large corporation purchased the business. In 1984, W.S. “Billy” Stuckey, Jr. – Stephanie’s father who was a five-term congressman from Georgia’s 8th District — acquired the company and began to turn it around.
Like so many others who grew up in America during the 60s and 70s, Stephanie has childhood memories of Stuckey’s, tagging along when her family visited its locations. But she never worked at the company until she became its CEO. It was a huge transition for someone who spent almost 30 years as an attorney specializing in sustainability and served as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for 14 years.
Once she took the reins at Stuckey’s, she had to get up to speed quickly. Recognizing she needed help, Billy Stuckey put his daughter in touch with Robert “RG” Lamar, Jr., who was running another family-owned business called Front Porch Pecans. In September 2020, Stuckey’s acquired Front Porch Pecans and RG Lamar became Stephanie Stuckey’s business partner, bringing hands-on experience managing the day-to-day operations of a pecan company.
At 37, RG Lamar is 18 years younger than Stephanie – an age difference that she sees as a big plus. “In addition to balancing out my skill sets with solid financial acumen and knowledge of the pecan business, RG has fresh ideas and a different perspective,” she says.
Embracing Social Media
With RG on board, Stephanie is able to focus more of her attention on Stuckey’s marketing and pitching the company to potential partners. As a state legislator and a lawyer, she learned the basics of storytelling and public speaking, giving her a strong comfort level in front of in-person and virtual audiences. All of that experience comes in handy as she reintroduces the Stuckey’s brand to those who remember it, and creates awareness among younger people who weren’t around during the company’s peak.
“The number one rule in public speaking is ‘know your audience,’” she says. “That’s true about social media as well. Before I post anything, I always ask why people should care and how it’s relevant to them.” She also engages her audiences with interesting, historical images and shares personal anecdotes that let customers get to know the people behind the brand.
Her emphasis on marketing seems to be paying off. After five straight years of losses, Stuckey’s made a small profit during the second half of 2020. “I don’t consider myself especially skilled. I just know how to tell a story,” she says modestly, “and I’m passionate about the Stuckey’s brand.”
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Stephanie agrees that starting a business at a later age has advantages. “It’s less about the skills because you can acquire those,” she says. “Your character, your resilience and your ability to function under stress – that’s more important. You also tend to be more financially secure and have a credit history, making it easier to have access to capital.”
For aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages, her transition offers other lessons. Among them:
Play to your strengths – A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis or books such as StrengthsFinder 2.0 can help you determine what you do well – and where you need help.
Revisit your strategic plan regularly – All too often, a business plan sits on a shelf collecting dust. Stephanie says she reviews and revises her business plan quarterly.
Don’t burn bridges – While serving in the Georgia state legislature, Stephanie learned that an opponent on one issue may become an ally on another. The same is true in business. It pays to always be respectful, open-minded and willing to listen to others with different points of view.
“Things are really exciting right now,” says Stephanie. “I feel like we’re at a tipping point – and that in some ways, we’re like an 80-year-old startup.”
The company just purchased a manufacturing plant in Wrens, Georgia, which will enable most of its core candy and pecan snack items to be produced in-house. Plans are underway to add new product lines geared towards health-conscious consumers and those who enjoy a decadent treat every now and then.
In addition to growing its e-commerce platform, Stuckey’s expects to add to its 70-plus franchises, focusing on quality rather than quantity. “Our future locations are likely to be in the South and Southwest since that’s close to our distribution center and we have a solid customer base there,” says Stephanie. “But we’ll base our decisions on market research, traffic counts and other data.”
For this roadside business, the road ahead won’t be easy. But Stephanie believes Stuckey’s can make a comeback by following the same principles used by W.S. Stuckey Sr.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Every traveler is a friend,’ and he meant it,” she says. “That fundamental philosophy will never change.”