An Agricultural Heritage
By Susan Howard
“People who drive by our office in Oviedo probably wonder why a sod company needs a two-story building,” David Duda, president and CEO of A. Duda & Sons, Inc., says with a chuckle. Located in front of a vast field of commercial turf grass, Duda’s office on Aloma Avenue is actually the headquarters of a highly diversified land company with a presence in some 21 states across the country.
Sod is just one of the agricultural products produced and marketed by the family-owned and -operated company that began growing celery in 1926, where turf grass now sprouts. Celery remains a primary crop for the company’s fresh produce subsidiary, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, with operations in Florida, California, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. The company’s Dandy® brand citrus and a variety of vegetables, including popular fresh-cut celery sticks, can be found in area supermarkets including Publix, Walmart and Target.
Well known locally for its sod, which is produced in four Florida locations and in south Texas, DUDA also produces citrus in Florida, sugarcane in Florida and Texas, and has a cow-calf operation in Florida.
Success in Diversification
In the late 1980s, a real estate development subsidiary, The Viera Company, was established to build a master-planned community on DUDA’s cattle ranch and sod farm in Brevard County. Viera is now home to over 22,000 residents, the county government and school board complex and a vibrant retail center. The Viera Company’s vertically integrated operations include Viera Builders, a residential homebuilder; Viera Realty, residential home sales; the Duran Golf Club in Viera; and commercial property sales and management.
The DUDA Corporation also holds an extensive commercial property portfolio of retail stores, restaurants, pharmacies, office buildings and distribution centers across the U.S.
“Our diversification is what has made the company strong financially and has allowed us to survive the cyclical nature of both our agriculture and real estate operations,” explained David Duda, a member of the fourth generation of the Duda family. “As a diversified land company, our business model is to acquire land, hold it for long periods of time as an investment with our agricultural operations, sell it or develop it as real estate when it reaches its peak value, and then repeat the cycle by reinvesting the proceeds into additional land. Any investor can buy and hold land, but we think DUDA’s unique advantage is our ability to hold land profitably for generations with our agricultural operations.”
The decision to enter real estate development was a natural fit for the company, according to David Duda, given the location of its land holdings in Florida and the family’s experience with land investments. The creation of an entire community on the family’s beloved Brevard County ranch was also in keeping with the family’s agricultural heritage.
“Farmers have a deep appreciation for taking good care of their land, because if they don’t, they go out of business. The Duda family has brought that same love of its Brevard ranch and appreciation for its wildlife and wilderness areas to its approach to planning and developing the Viera community,” David Duda explained.
Tracy Duda Chapman, CEO of The Viera Company, said, “Developing Viera as a master-planned community has allowed us to ensure that the community is built with integrity and the same stewardship of the land that has always guided the Duda company and family.”
As for the company’s plans to remain in agriculture, David Duda says that is not an “either/or” but a “both/and” decision.
“We intend to remain in Florida agriculture as well as be a Florida community developer. Not only is agriculture an integral part of our business model as a diversified land company, the Duda family is still passionate about it; it is our legacy.”
A History of Generosity
The DUDA company operates from a solid foundation of faith, family and philanthropy.
David Duda credits the company’s founders – Andrew Duda and his sons John, Andrew Jr., and Ferdinand – for establishing the company’s core values and beliefs that continue to provide guidance for the company’s leadership.
“Our company’s purpose statement – ‘to multiply and share God’s blessings’ – summarizes the core Christian beliefs and values of the company’s founders, which is the recognition that we have been blessed to be a blessing to others. The statement gives a greater meaning to our daily jobs than just a profit motive, and is also the ultimate filter through which all of our business decisions must pass.”
David Duda’s great grandfather, Andrew Duda, arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1909 from what is today the country of Slovakia. Like many immigrants at the turn of the last century, he sought freedom of religion and the opportunity to own land and make his own way. In 1911, he and fellow Slovak travelers established the colony of Slavia, just outside Oviedo, living in shacks that previously housed turpentine workers. One of the shacks served as their house of worship, the genesis of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.
Andrew Duda’s wife, daughter, and his three young sons arrived a year later. It was rough going for the first few years, and he found it impossible to make enough money to pay off the 40 acres he had claimed in the Slavia colony. For a time, the family returned to Cleveland. In 1925, with three strapping young sons to help him, Andrew Duda and his family returned to Slavia and began to successfully grow celery, the area’s most marketable crop.
The father and sons grew their business with physical labor, as well as a healthy dose of perseverance, innovation and imagination. They plowed their earnings back into additional property to extend the seasons for their vegetable crops and to add new commodities.
While none of the sons, respectfully referred to as the “Three Seniors,” earned a high school diploma, they educated themselves, attending Dale Carnegie and American Management Association seminars, and invited highly respected business executives from other industries onto their board of directors – a practice that continues today.
By the time the third generation received the reins of management in the early 1970s, A. Duda & Sons, Inc. was a well-established, diversified agribusiness with a substantial Florida land base.
Armed with college degrees in addition to experience pitching in on the company’s farms and ranches, the eight male offspring of the “Three Seniors,” along with brothers-in-law, continued the push to expand and diversify the company’s operations over the next 35 years. Upon transfer of leadership to the fourth generation in 2010, a clear, strategic vision for the future had been set in place for what was now best characterized as a diversified land company.
Today and Beyond
Members of the fourth generation of the Duda family began joining the business in the 1980s. These young men and women brought more diversified education and skills, from production agriculture to economics, from law to marketing and public relations. Now, members of the fifth generation are beginning to join the ranks. Today, there are 17 descendants of the “Three Seniors” and an additional seven family members employed in the company, which has just under 600 full-time employees.
“DUDA fulfills many objectives for the Duda family, including an employment opportunity, a financial investment, and a shared heritage,” David Duda said. “The family still believes that these objectives are better accomplished by sticking together than breaking apart and going our separate ways.”
In an effort to keep the now nearly 200 family members engaged, the Duda Family Council was established in 2004. “Through the Council, we are placing a lot of emphasis on educating our owners to think of themselves as stewards of the business for future generations, and to be actively engaged owners of DUDA,” David Duda said.
The fourth generation realizes, as did the generations before them, that family members alone do not make a successful company.
“We place tremendous value on our employees because their commitment to the business is the company’s real strength,” Tracy Duda Chapman said.
David Duda added, “We believe in honesty and integrity in our business dealings, and in treating people with respect and dignity, the way we would want to be treated by others.”