Fred Tregunno is a name that’s central to his family lore: the founder of one of the oldest family businesses in Halifax and the oldest family-run seed business in the country.
He was a seed salesman who started his career in Hamilton, Ontario, selling to farm and garden supply companies across eastern Canada in the early part of the 20th century. Halifax Seed was one of his customers, a successful business that was already 59 years old when he raised the money to buy it in 1925.
The company had weathered hard times, including economic depressions in 1893 and 1907 and the devastating explosion of 1917 that destroyed its harbour-front headquarters along with half of the city of Halifax. The business was built to last.
Fred’s new venture prospered as expected. Eventually his sons Warren and Paul joined the company and took over as owners when he died in 1960. Warren’s son Tim joined the company in the 1970s, and he too eventually rose to be an owner and manager.
Emily Tregunno and her sister Alison stepped into their current management roles soon after the death of their father Tim at the age of just 55. For Emily, taking over the family business wasn’t always her plan.
“My sister and I both went all the way through university thinking we would never be part of this business,” she says. “My father did a fabulous job not putting any pressure on us ever.” By the time she graduated in 2006 she decided to give Halifax Seed a try. Her intimate knowledge of the company was factored into the decision. “Our employees are really an extension of our family,” she explains. “Some of them have been with us for 30 or 40 years.”
Garden seeds have been the one and only constant of the business over the last 152 years. Today Halifax Seed sells an array of gardening supplies that would have baffled a young Fred Tregunno: electronic grow lights, customized greenhouses, drip irrigation systems, computer operated growing systems—all perfect tools for surviving the Apocalypse or for participating in the new urban growing movement.
“There are some cool things going on in horticulture right now,” says Emily. “A lot of people are starting to grow some of their own food. In the last 10 years we’re seeing a younger demographic, a demographic that really cares about what they’re growing and what they’re eating.” Add to that the expected wave of interest in growing small plots of cannabis at home when that becomes legal. “Legal cannabis is an exciting opportunity for us,” she adds. “We’re experts in growing, after all.”
The company has expanded several times since Fred Tregunno’s 1925 purchase. Today Halifax Seed operates a second retail location in Saint John, New Brunswick and a distribution centre in Debert, Nova Scotia. But its business model hasn’t changed much. In fact, by the time Amazon got around to changing the world in 1994, Halifax Seed had already been following a similar model for 128 years without the Internet.
“It’s been interesting to watch the business go from mail order to online,” says Emily. “We have a lot more competition than we used to have but we’ve stayed very competitive in that market. The biggest challenge for us is overcoming the expectations that Amazon has given to all online consumers. When people order the product today they want it at their door soon after they press submit. We have to make sure we have everything in stock ready to go.”
But where Amazon supplies products, writes algorithms, and compiles electronic customer profiles, Halifax Seed shares the know-how that allows customers to grow their purchases successfully from seedlings to mature plants. “We take pride in making sure the staff here are knowledgeable and trained,” says Emily. “When you purchase a plant in our garden centre and take it home to plant it, we want to make sure you’re able to grow it successfully all the way through.”
Tregunno says her progression from employee to owner was a natural one thanks to a solid secession plan, a company board of advisors, a strong management team, and help from Family Business Atlantic.
She says she has no idea if her daughter will take over the business next (she’s two years old) but the succession plan is ready if she’s interested. “I think it’s important to provide them with the opportunity if it’s something they want to do,” she says. “But if they choose to pursue other things that’s great too. Being a part of a family business is very unique. It shows a lot of stability in the company when you hit three, four, five generations. It’s a great business to be a part of and an exciting time to be in horticulture.”