People and Companies

Up Close with Joseph Duda

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Former CEO and Board Chairman of A. Duda & Sons

Theirs is the story of a man who left his roots in Slovakia to follow the call he heard only in his heart and mind. He came to America to pursue the course of his faith, where his dreams were drawing him. It meant years of separation from his wife and three young sons and then homesteading on land few wanted. Trying, failing and succeeding, again and again, the legacy of Andrew Duda and his sons John, Andrew, Jr., and Ferdinand lives on in their many heirs, and the expanding agricultural and real estate development company of A. Duda & Sons. Now seeing the fifth generation join the ranks, Joseph Duda, Ferdinand’s son, who served as CEO and Chairman of the Board, has been at the heart of the business from literally the ground up. 

 

Earliest Memories

My grandfather actually lived in our home the last 20 years of his life. But one of my regrets is that he would speak broken English to other people, but not to us, so there were so many things that I wish we could have talked about, but my Slovak was as poor as his English. I think a grandfather is one of the most influential people in a child’s life, but most of what I learned about him or from him came from my father and uncles. I regret that I missed that as a kid.  When I came home from school, he would be waiting for me on the porch and I would sit by him, but we didn’t talk much.

When I went to work for Duda, my nephews and I would come to the office once a month and my dad and his two brothers would share their stories with us; their successes, their failures and their advice – that is where we learned most of what propelled us forward as a company. We understood what went into a decision and how they responded to setbacks. There were eight of us, my six cousins, my brother and me; unfortunately the old European view was that women didn’t work in agriculture. Today it is much different and I regret that the daughters in the family didn’t have a more inclusive role at that time; we lost something which we tried to make up for in the next generation. For instance, Tracy Duda Chapman is CEO of The Viera Company.

Before that, in the summer when I was growing up, I used to drive with my dad to various job sites and later I would drive him around in his pickup truck and watch how he managed people. It was better than any college management course.

 

The Journey From the Old Country

There is so much I don’t know that I wish I did. Because my grandfather spent time in the military he had more of a global perspective than people who just grew up on a farm. He knew about America and he wanted a place that he could call his own, to be a landowner. In his country, the aristocracy controlled all the land.

He came here and settled in Cleveland three years before the rest of his family in a Slovak, Lutheran community of eight families.  He worked in a factory and before his family came, these eight families hired a realtor and he put a down payment on 40 acres, sight unseen near Oviedo.  Six months before his family came, he went to Florida and lived in a shack that was built for the workers in the turpentine operation, which is what the land was used for until he bought it. Grandma came to New York with $300 in 1917 with the rest of the family. 

My uncle Andy once said, ‘It was easy to clean the shack; you could sweep the dirt right through the cracks in the floor.’ Boy, were they poor. Once, one of their teachers bought them shoes for a Christmas pageant.

 

If At First You Don’t Succeed

The first attempt at farming in Oviedo didn’t work. They were just surviving with four young children, so the family moved back up to Cleveland. Grandfather wasn’t about to raise his children in the inner-city, so he got a place outside of Cleveland where they could raise vegetables which they sold. He, along with the sons after they grew up, commuted to the city for work.

Once they were grown, the three brothers decided to stick together and pool their talents. Then the whole family moved back to Florida. It was tough; my dad told me they once tried to get a $300 loan from a bank to buy a parcel of land and were turned down. But on the other side, when the depression hit, they weren’t affected like other people because they were raising their own food. It was actually opportunistic for them, because they were able to buy land so cheap. They could have purchased far more at that time, but in some ways, they felt guilty doing that because they considered it taking advantage of other people.

 

The Why

When my dad and his brother got older, they would talk about how blessed they were – how they were able to build Duda into such a successful company and they would start to weep. Today when I drive around Viera and think about them buying all that land back in the 40s, intuitively knowing what one day it could be worth, the same thing happens to me. Then I see the 13 churches that call Viera home and I wonder, ‘Is that why God so blessed our efforts through the years?’


This article appears in the April 2015 issue of i4 Business.
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