As Michel and Veronique Sallin survey their breathtakingly beautiful Cherrylake farm, the husband-and-wife co-founders of IMG Enterprises, the holding company for Cherrylake and IMG Citrus, can justifiably feel proud. Their 10,000-acreage has survived everything from devastating freezes to epic recessions. And now they are facing what could be their biggest challenge: turning over their family business to the next generation.
The Sallins are part of what economists have dubbed the “wealthiest generation in history,” estimated to pass on $30 trillion. For the 5.5 million, family-owned American businesses, decisions go well beyond who will get the family heirlooms. Decades of hard work and the future of their companies – and even family relationships – are on the line.
Sprawling across the rolling hills of south Lake County, Florida, Cherrylake, the largest tree farm in the Southeast United States, is a gem. Endless rows of trees, shrubs and citrus stretch as far as the eye can see. The successful farm and nursery have won many awards, including the 2015 This Farm Cares Award and the 2016 Agriculture Environmental Leadership Award. Michel Sallin, the 70-year-old family patriarch, was named the 2020 CEO of the Year by the “Orlando Business Journal;” and Veronique Sallin was named the 2020 Woman of the Year in Agriculture by the State of Florida.
With so much going right, the Sallins decided the time was ripe to step down from their leadership roles and turn over the business to their three children: Melanie Ressler, Timothee Sallin and Chloe Gentry, who were named co-CEOs.
“I wanted to leave while I was 100% able,” Michel Sallin said. “We were ready.”
From France to Florida
The journey to retirement started decades ago in Paris, where the Sallins married and where Michel and Veronique received their MBAs at the HEC Paris Business School. Michel worked for an international steel company, and it was Veronique who suggested they experience living in another country. They moved to London, where daughter Melanie was born, came back to Paris in time for son Timothee’s birth and then transferred to New York and welcomed their third child, Chloe.
After a couple of years, the family moved to California. While there, Michel’s father, an apple grower in France, became interested in acquiring Florida citrus. Michel researched the idea and became acquainted with a Lake County citrus grower and packinghouse owner who wanted to export grapefruit.
In 1982, the Sallins moved to Clermont, Florida, and purchased the Cherrylake citrus groves. A few months later, there was a deep freeze that wiped out much of the citrus in Central Florida. The Sallins thought they could save their damaged groves; but a year later, an even worse freeze killed off what was left.
“We went from 600 truckloads in one season to four,” Michel Sallin said.
The Sallins used their European business connections to export citrus that was still plentiful in south Florida. Diversification had saved them, and it was a lesson that the family continues to practice today.
Eventually, the Sallins replanted and also began cultivating a wide variety of trees and shrubs, which they supplied to a white-hot Florida construction industry. As years passed, the Sallins started planning for their succession. It wasn’t a given that their children would fill that role.
Family business 2.0
Melanie Sallin Ressler earned her master’s in finance and aspired to work in corporate America. Initially, she was just going to work at her parents’ company temporarily.
“I found there were lots of opportunities (at IMG Citrus),” she said. “It was exciting and much more than farming.”
Ressler soon found herself in charge of developing the company’s Japanese market, a responsibility that would have been years away at another company. The Sallins found they had an enthusiastic, highly capable person to expand the business – someone who would respect the family’s values and vision.
As the business thrived, Timothee joined the sales team of Cherrylake.
Chloe Sallin Gentry said she never had any intention of being part of the family business.
“I will not join the company,” she told her parents.
With a degree in economics and psychology, and a master’s in corporate finance, she had other plans. When her parents invited her to coordinate the company’s marketing, Chloe looked at it as temporary.
“What I found is that they offered more responsibility and a more interesting career than I could find somewhere else,” she said.
The Sallin siblings excelled at different areas of the booming company. Collaboration and teamwork not only became a hallmark for the family but also figured into the company culture.
The siblings touch base throughout the day and meet every Tuesday to discuss operations, strategies and investment opportunities. Veronique Sallin said they had practiced “collaborative control” for years, inspired by a book titled “Reinventing Organization.”
While Michel and Veronique will remain on the board, they are enjoying pursuing other passions. Michel is learning to play the piano and is an avid bridge player. He and Veronique play more tennis now and enjoy more time with their grandchildren. Veronique is busy fulfilling her duties as Florida’s Woman of the Year in Agriculture.
While the idea of having co-CEOs may sound unusual to some, there are Fortune 500 companies that follow this model, such as Samsung and Netflix. Melanie, Timothee and Chloe say distributed decision making is key to the company’s success.
“We couldn’t imagine one of us being over another,” Timothee Sallin said. “It wouldn’t feel right for one of us to be the ‘Big Boss.’”
At Cherrylake, new growth is always on display. Seedlings take over where mature trees once stood. And for the Sallins, succession just comes naturally.