Image credit: Jesse Laflamme, Courtesy Company
“I was a political science major and minored in economics, just perfectly well-equipped to be an egg farmer,” says Jesse Laflamme, CEO of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs.
When Jesse Laflamme returned home from college in 2000, his family’s third-generation egg farm, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Laflamme’s parents were struggling to sell their eggs and considered going into debt just to keep the Monroe, New Hampshire-based farm alive.
That’s when Laflamme stepped in.
“We were really hanging on by our fingernails,” says Laflamme, 40, who has since become the CEO of Pete and Gerry’s. “I was a political science major and minored in economics, just perfectly well-equipped to be an egg farmer.”
Laflamme didn’t have the traditional education of other business owners, but he had the drive. He says that the fledging egg business went from “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in annual revenue to $177 million in 2017. Today, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is the No. 2 brand in the country across all egg types, according to the company.
The chicken and the egg.
The family’s history of farming began in the 1870s, when Laflamme’s grandfather Les Ward and great-uncle Rodney Stanton became agricultural partners. The Monroe property, where Pete and Gerry’s is currently headquartered, was purchased in 1914, but Ward took a brief hiatus from farming to serve as a dive-bomber in WWII. When he returned to the U.S. and picked up operations with Stanton, the co-founders had about 5,000 hens.
Pete and Gerry’s was passed down to Laflamme’s parents, Carol and Gerry, who continued to partner with the Stanton family by working with Rodney’s son Pete (the company’s name celebrates the second generation of farmers). By the late 1990s, they had about 20,000 hens–and severe financial troubles.
Pete and Gerry’s didn’t adopt the industrialized, factory-style farming that was common for egg farmers, and by the late 1990s, it didn’t have the scale to supply eggs to supermarkets or large chains. What’s more, the company couldn’t compete with other businesses in the market. But these struggles were unknown to Laflamme, who was enrolled at Bates College and shielded from his parent’s financial woes.
“Like a naive kid, I didn’t quite grasp how bad things were and found out after,” says Laflamme. “You always appreciate how your parents protect you from things, but they were really up against it.”
Working from scratch.
After graduation, Laflamme moved home to take on the family business full-time. He worked seven days a week, receiving a salary that matched what his parents were putting toward his college tuition, and dabbled in every aspect of the company.
Laflamme woke up at 4 a.m. to rouse stubborn hens (who would sit on eggs all day instead of getting food), go on sales calls trying to get buyers, and constructing parts of the family’s barn. “As an entrepreneur, you end up doing everything,” he says. “You have to have some level of expertise in everything early on because you’re it. If you don’t do it, nobody else is going to.”
Laflamme also served as Pete and Gerry’s accountant in the early years, pulling what he learned from a five-week finance course and the leftover reading materials. “It was the realization that we could go out of business tomorrow if something goes sideways,” he says. “It was stressful, but incredibly motivating.”
What saved the business was the family’s decision to go fully organic and move away from the conventional style of farming. He described the strategy as a “hail mary pass to save the farm, since the organic market was practically nonexistent at the time.”
The family created new barns to support the organic methods, bootstrapping where they could by building their own nests–instead of purchasing manufactured ones–and buying used feeder systems. Laflamme says utilizing these thrifty methods gave the business breathing room and increased its cash flow.
Within a year or two, the business started to flourish. The company was expanding, and to facilitate growth, the team decided to partner with family farms instead of building new barns throughout the country. Pete and Gerry’s now works with more than 125 family farms across 14 states, according to the company.
“There were a lot of times where we could have just given up,” Laflamme says. “There is a lot of hard work and a lot of luck, and you never know when an opportunity is going to come around when you think things are the most bleak.”