Transfer of flower power: Paul Ecke III optimistic about poinsettia powerhouse’s future under new ownership

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Paul Ecke III stands among the poinsettias grown at Ecke Ranch in Encinitas. (Photo by Manny Lopez)

Manny Lopez

For the first holiday season since 1911, a member of the Ecke family will not be at the helm of the Encinitas company that popularized the poinsettia and made it the No. 1 selling potted plant in North America.

In August, it was announced that all of the business assets of Paul Ecke Ranch, which included intellectual property and growing operations in Guatemala, were sold to Dutch-based Agribio Group, a worldwide horticulture breeding, production and distribution company. All staff members, including executives Andy Higgins, Steve Rinehart and Tom Hennessey, are employed by the new company, which has been named Ecke Ranch Inc.

Paul Ecke III, the sole owner of the Paul Ecke Ranch, confirmed that the 68-acre property, located at 441 Saxony Road, has been purchased by the Carlsbad-based Leichtag Foundation in honor of Max “Lee” and Toni Leichtag. Housing more than 850,000 square feet of greenhouse space, the land adjacent to the San Diego Botanic Garden has been renamed Ecke Ranch to commemorate the legacy of the family that made the poinsettia synonymous with the holiday season.

“The world is not going to notice a big change. The only difference is that I am not involved anymore,” said Ecke, who described the company’s business as breeding poinsettias that produce cuttings, which are then bought by growers around the world, who in turn cultivate and sell them. “I wanted to make sure this company survived, and in order to do that it needed more capital. The only way to get more capital and scale to keep up with multinationals is to consolidate. I chose to do that and I think it was the right decision.”

Parting with the company’s assets was very difficult, Ecke said, but he has no seller’s remorse. He expressed excitement that the future looks bright for the company that bears the Ecke family name and the property that had been in his family’s possession for nearly 90 years.

As chief operating officer, Steve Rinehart focuses on operations and production for ranch facilities worldwide. A 28-year veteran of the Paul Ecke Ranch, Rinehart said he believes the move was probably needed to continue competing in a globalized market that is quickly evolving. He added that Agribio has the capital and broader resources to make the investments necessary to keep the Ecke line significant and thriving for another century.

For the past 60 years, Evelyn Weidner, owner of Weidner’s Gardens, a destination and show garden located at 695 Normandy Road in Encinitas, has been a loyal patron of the Ecke Ranch. She has done business with every generation of Ecke and said that while each one has been different, they have all been special. She described the company’s breeding programs as supreme and said that the family’s hallmark has always been its commitment to customers, and its reputation for having the best poinsettias in the business.

“With the support of Agribio, the Ecke line of poinsettias will be stronger than ever before,” Weidner said. “I don’t expect much to change in the day-to-day operations of the company. The name will still be there, all of the employees will still be there. It will just be within a bigger company.”

James Farley, president and chief executive officer of the Leichtag Foundation, explained that very few legacy commitments of this quality come along, and that the purchase of the Ecke Ranch represents a significant move for the organization. Farley wanted to allay any fears the community may have by saying that there is no intention of creating a commercial shopping center or housing subdivision, and that any uses will be consistent with the agricultural heritage of the site.

“I think the community will appreciate what we want to accomplish with this property over time,” Farley said. “We are in no hurry to do anything. We want to be very thoughtful about this, so we are listening to a lot of new ideas.”

Ecke Ranch has signed a multi-year lease on the greenhouses and will continue to develop the poinsettia at the ranch property for at least another three years. Administrative offices will be moved to a different office space in Encinitas.

While the sale of the land and business assets of the Ecke Ranch represents the end of a family legacy, it marks the beginning of a new one for Paul Ecke. At 57, and in good health, he does not play golf, but he has not ruled it out. Ecke said that he intends to be busy through the beginning of the new year putting the finishing touches on the two deals and sorting through a large collection of artifacts that has been left behind and stored in some of the barns on the property.

Ecke said that he will continue to play a role as a director and owner in his family’s real estate business, but he does not intend to become more involved as an employee or active partner. He may participate peripherally in flower fields he owns in Carlsbad, or possibly grow grapes and dabble in the wine business if he can manage not to lose too much money, he said.

Ecke said he has no intention of leaving Encinitas, and the Ecke family approach to philanthropy will not change, although he no longer has access to free poinsettias.

More information on the Ecke Ranch can be found at www.ecke.com or by calling 760-753-1134.

Manny Lopez is a North County freelance writer