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When leadership goes bananas

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Hawaiian banana farmer Richard Ha came close to packing it in last year.

Ha hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d converted a $300 investment into one of Hawaii’s most successful farms, producing up to a third of the state’s bananas.

He’s a leader in other ways, too, being among the first in Hawaii to develop a market for premium apple bananas and earning an Eco-OK certification from the Rainforest Alliance. Ha also has a sense of humor, calling his green farming blog Ha Ha Ha!

He’s a careful businessman who watches expenses.

And that’s where the problem lies. Ha’s expenses for fertilizer, energy and employee health care insurance were going through the roof, as evidenced by his utility bills, which last spring hit $15,000 a month. Plus, a virus kept hitting the islands’ banana crops. His weekly spreadsheets showed a business in decline.

Ha figured he’d be better off closing his doors now than continuing to lose ground and eventually being forced out of business.

That’s when his employees stepped in.

The Monday after Ha announced he’d be shutting down the farm, seven of his nine full-time banana pickers showed up to make a case for keeping the business open.

They brainstormed for several hours after the workers said they’d do whatever it takes to keep the enterprise going, then together decided to eliminate 100 acres of a less profitable variety, move new plantings closer to the packing house and create other efficiencies to improve output up to 10% per acre.

The team also found some local and global business experts to weigh in on their predicament. Suggestions include setting and sharing financial benchmarks, marketing their environmentally sound practices and developing an exit strategy.

The jury’s still out on whether the strategy will work, but the alternative was worse and all parties deserve kudos—the workers for leading, and Ha for acting on their ideas.

“They really wanted to make it happen,” he says. “I felt I had to meet their commitment.”

— Adapted from Case Study: Has This Farmer Gone Bananas?” Alex Salkever, Inc.

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