Jeremy Brunner ’94: Growing a fourth-generation family business

Since 1929, Jeremy Brunner’s family has been in the business of manufacturing environmentally friendly gardening products, from fertilizers to lawn food and potting soil. Brunner followed a different path, earning a bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1994 and a juris doctorate from Rutgers Law School in 1997, before setting out to be an entrepreneur. Now, fourth-generation president of The Espoma Company, the largest manufacturer and marketer of organic fertilizers in the United States retail lawn and garden industry, Brunner is growing his family’s business.

A plant wall in the Espoma Company office.

Credit: Provided

A plant wall in the Espoma Company office.

How did your entrepreneurial journey begin?

When I was growing up, my father intentionally kept me away from the business, knowing that children raised in a family business tend to lose interest by the time they are ready to lead. While I knew that joining Espoma was always an option, I never seriously considered it until I started taking entrepreneurship classes at Cornell. Most of my peers at Cornell wanted to work for investment banks. Going back to the family business almost felt like a copout at the time, and I wanted to keep my options open. After an internship at the international headquarters for American Airlines during a semester abroad and a summer internship through the Entrepreneurship at Cornell program at a real estate company in California, I became more interested in owning my own business. While ‘fertilizer’ never sounded glamorous to me, I did become more curious about it, and I liked the fact that I could take something small, stable and successful to the next level, from regional to national.

After graduating law school, I returned to Espoma full time. Initially, I worked in the plant to learn the manufacturing side, while I also managed a small territory to learn the sales side. Two years later, my father was diagnosed with cancer and unable to work for about six months. I was pulled into the office to do what was needed to get us through that time. Once my father was able to return, he decided that he did not want those responsibilities back, so the transition to the fourth generation began.

What problem does your business solve?

Since 1929, The Espoma Company has been dedicated to the craft of transforming natural ingredients into the highest quality organic fertilizers. This proud tradition began with my great-grandfather and continues 95 years later. We are the leader in our industry, and our products can be found in the finest garden retailers nationwide. We have provided nearly a century of gardening joy and satisfaction to our customers by enabling them to grow healthy, beautiful gardens in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, without the use of harmful chemicals.

Entrepreneurship is all about taking calculated risks. What is the most pivotal risk you have taken, and how did it change your path?

We have faced many challenges in my 27 years at the company, including seeing our biggest customer and key suppliers go out of business and defending ourselves against knockoffs and multi-billion-dollar competitors. One of the biggest risks and investments we have taken to date is to vertically integrate our company, so that we no longer have to rely on a few key suppliers for our major ingredients.

Currently, we are building a state-of-the-art processing facility that will help to ensure a continuous supply of key ingredients, provide us with ample capacity for future growth and improve the physical quality of our products. This facility will take millions of pounds of raw materials from local farms and divert them from land application, thereby reducing potential nutrient runoff in nearby waterways. While it is an exciting project and close to completion, we have never done anything remotely close to this level of investment and cost.

How has your experience at Cornell impacted how you approach business?

The Entrepreneurship at Cornell program helped steer me back into the family business. I still enjoy networking with other entrepreneurs. Business is about relationships, whether they are with your employees, vendors, customers or fellow entrepreneurs.

Espoma production line in Millville, New Jersey.

Credit: Provided

Espoma production line in Millville, New Jersey.

Was there a particular faculty member or class that influenced you the most?

I think the first class that really energized me about entrepreneurship was the business plan competition class. It was the first course where rather than just listening to lectures and reading books, you were brainstorming with your partners, contacting potential vendors and ‘doing’ things rather than just reading about them. As an athlete, I also enjoyed the competitive aspect of this, and I enjoy that in my business as well.

What has been your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?

I have taken great pride in seeing how the business has grown over the years. For example, we have expanded our geographic distribution nationally and have gained efficiency by automating our manufacturing facilities. It is rewarding to see new lines of products go from concept to retail shelves and to celebrate major anniversaries for our company or an employee (we have had many employees celebrate 30 or 40 years with us).

If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out, what would it be?

Try to figure out what career path would make you feel happy and fulfilled. Running the family business has done that for me. It gives me control over my work/life balance, and I have enjoyed working with and learning from my father for all these years. I do not think we would be as close if it were not for our company.

Cornell’s expertise in research, technology, and business education translates into meaningful impacts in communities around the world. Our mission extends beyond the classroom, helping entrepreneurs access the research and mentorship they need to start and grow successful businesses. Learn more.

/Public Release. View in full here.