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The Lavender Farm Effect: Lessons in Leadership & Empathy


The Lavender Farm Effect: Lessons in Leadership & Empathy

Sometimes there is a specific plan to success and other times there is serendipity. NYC based Rita Robbins, Founder and President of Affiliated Advisors in her role as a Super OSJ, always loved culture and beauty and brought it to her office desk with a rare Goodwin Creek Grey lavender plant that she loved. One day two years ago, she got a call from Michigan from one of her advisors who proposed a seemingly hairbrained idea, “Do you want to buy a lavender farm?” She didn’t hesitate and surprised herself by immediately answering: “Yes!” She gazed at the plant on her desk and knew it was serendipity or karma. She didn’t do any analysis as she would have likely advised others, but went with her gut, sight unseen, and bought a lavender farm with her new partner, an action that changed her life.

Lavender Hill Farm is 36 acre working lavender farm with 24 varieties of plants in Boyne City, Michigan. It’s a community not unlike an older version of the Hamptons from long ago, Robbins says, surging in the summer and becoming more of a ghost town in the winter. Similarly, the drive to get to the farm is about 4 hours from the Detroit airport. When asked about the connection to this place she’d never been to Robbins said, “I’m a city girl and didn’t know the first thing about running a farm, but my partner and I were determined to make it work; we had to because it was important to the community.” Many of the 3,000 year-round residents of Boyne City relied on the farm as a source of income and feared that this city slicker, with no connection to Michigan or the area, was going to convince her Michigan based partner to develop the land for homes and condos. She states firmly that was never a consideration, “We felt a responsibility to the community and we took that very seriously.” That first Christmas, they went around with $50 bills and wreaths to thank everyone for working and to let them know they appreciated and needed them. This seemingly small gesture was impactful and slowly they integrated themselves into the community. For the farm to be successful they needed the community as much as the community needed them.

Their first plan of attack, beyond understanding the workings of the farm, was to treat the farm like a business and do a financial evaluation. Robbins says, “We took stock of everyone that worked on the farm, what they were making and developed individual business plans to help them prioritize so they could develop sustainable businesses.” Because she and her partner are in the advisory business, they made it a priority to have meetings with everyone on the farm, from the candlemakers to the lavender sachet makers, to talk about how to run their businesses better. Rather than letting someone go into hock buying supplies for their materials, the farm loans them the money. Now they’ve also set up an area in a barn on the farm where purveyors can come and make their local wares using the lavender. There’s all kinds of ‘lavender infused’ products, from the oil the farm distills from its own copper distiller, as well lavender soda, soaps, lotions and other products.  They’ve also gone out to the farms in the area for additional product and even have one that helps them produce a lavender ice cream. Additionally, they’ve also worked with those other farms to help them diversify their offerings by having some lavender product to sell as well.

If this sounds like they are currently turning a big profit, think again. Robbins says that their goal is by next year, which is year 3, they hope to be able to make that happen. However, the satisfaction of being able to make a meaningful impact to this small community has been priceless. She talks about when living in NYC, it’s rare that one is able to see what they do in the advisory business as making an impactful difference in someone’s life. In addition to community building, these Boyne City families have the ability to make the income to sustain their lifestyle. Robbins’ family has gotten enjoyment and learning out of it too. The joke is that when her son, the youngest of two, went to college, “mom went nuts and bought a lavender farm.” Last summer, her son worked for a month on the farm along with the local kids. One day he told his mom about one kid who was always asking what time it was, and he found it annoying. Robbins asked, “Did you notice that he doesn’t have a phone or a watch?” “Why not?” he said. “Because he can’t afford it.” She says she hopes her kids are getting an experience beyond their education, a priceless lesson in gratitude and humility.

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As it relates to her business, ‘the lavender farm effect’ jumps to the top of the list. “I’m never going to move to the farm,” she says, “but the empathy I’ve been able to experience by working with these people has made me even better at what I do best.”  She now understands business and small business owners in a deeper way and can parlay that experience to the advisors she’s been supporting since 1994 in her leadership role in her advisory business. “The ultimate lesson is that if I can learn how to run a lavender farm, then you can really do anything you set your mind too.” The experience of Lavender Hill Farm is a story that she holds dear and wants to have everyone experience it themselves. 

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