May 19 2010 12:00 AM
PRIMED AND READY TO ONE DAY assume her father’s business, Meredith DeWitt faces not only the pressures of maintaining a $30-million a year corporation, but the pitfalls of being a young woman in a predominately male industry.

For many children, the expectations to follow in Dad’s footsteps can be overwhelming, especially when their parent built a successful business from the ground up.

But for DeWitt, there was never any hesitation in her mind that she would one day run the company.

Born and raised in Sikeston, Missouri, DeWitt grew up as an only child. But it was as though she always had a sibling, her father’s business—born just one year before her. Whether he was in his daughter’s nursery or in his garden nursery, Larry DeWiit, founder of The DeWitt Company, always treated his business just as he treated his child—with care, love and affection.

As DeWitt grew, so did her father’s small company, and he soon developed the first permeable landscape fabric. “We’ve always been known as having the only product guaranteeing no weeds,” says DeWitt.

While offspring of entrepreneurs often balk at the notion of one day taking over,” DeWitt always knew the landscape industry was what she wanted to pursue. “I have always been inspired by my father’s accomplishments, and wished to follow in his footsteps,” says DeWitt.

Shortly after high school, DeWitt entered college, adhering to her father’s wishes: “Either you go to school or you go to work.” DeWitt attended Arkansas State University, where she majored in horticulture. But her passion for the landscape business soon outweighed her academic pursuits, and after three years, she traded in her pencils and papers for power tools and plant material. She went to work for her father at The DeWitt Company.

Mr. DeWitt definitely had a plan to give his daughter “special treatment,” but not in the way one might think. Just as her father built his enterprise from the ground up, so would be the case with his daughter. Literally. DeWitt spent her first two years with the company mowing lawns, raking leaves and emptying trash. She was no longer comforted by air-conditioned classrooms, but pounded by heat and stressful work areas. “Day after day, I’d come home exhausted,” DeWitt recalls. She often wondered if quitting classes to cut grass had been a wise decision. But she persevered, even when given some of the grungiest of duties. Dad’s punishment, perhaps? Hardly, but rather grooming her for a promising career.

In time, DeWitt took a filing position with the company, then moved into customer service. Gradually, she became a sales representative. She was given the company’s toughest territory, the Northeastern region, which was comprised of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A country girl tossed in a den of city wolves—it was a scary time for DeWitt, and she had to grow up fast. “I learned quickly that, as a sales representative, when you promise something, you really have to stand behind it,” quips DeWitt. “This is an industry of business people with strong ethics, demanding not only quality products, but proof that your word is your bond.” Again, it was all just another character-building experience.

The company flourished and so did DeWitt, eventually becoming vice president. A young business professional in a traditionally male environment, DeWitt is not inured to the occasional “vibes” she gets because of her age, gender and experience. “Once in a while, I’ll face older folks who feel a bit uncomfortable dealing with a female,” says DeWitt. “Of course, I’ve always had an upper hand because of my father’s strong rapport with people. But because the lawn and garden industry was originally made up of ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses, the whole idea was of a family working together, and most people in this business welcome everyone.”

There is a learning curve that every person, in any business, has to go through. DeWitt is no different. “I must continually sharpen my knowledge of the industry and stay abreast of what’s happening in the market, she says. “I read every trade publication I can get a hold of. That’s the key.”

Aside from manufacturing and selling a variety of textiles to the landscape and nursery/garden markets, The DeWitt Company has diversified itself. It now offers a product line to the erosion control market as well as those geared to pet stores.

Not one to let grass grow under her feet, both father and daughter are exploring other market niches as well. One area that stands out is the pond business. The Company sells pond netting comprised of sturdy material to install over ponds to prevent leaves and other debris from entering its environment.

In addition, they have just recently partnered with Firestone to work with their pond liner. DeWitt will build a large clear span structure to construct these products in a controlled environment.

Another area they are pursuing is the capture of rainwater. “Capturing rainwater is the future,” says DeWitt. “We want to be one of the leaders in that area.” She continues, “With this new facility, it will allow us to also build large shade or solid covers to prevent evaporation and airborne debris from getting into the water shed.”

A single woman who loves the outdoors, DeWitt’s hobbies include boating, hunting and anything daring and adventurous. She holds the same adventurous spirit for her company, and hopes that one day landscape fabrics will be accessible everywhere.

“I am very blessed to be in this industry,” says DeWitt.” I am excited about the future; I see opportunities wherever I turn. People in our industry are truly concerned about the environment. I only hope that I can make my contribution.”

As women continue wearing the drill-sergeant patch, police-trainer badge and pilot instructor wings, it is equally inspiring to see them become company CEOs despite the odds, especially those who have been groomed all their life by one of the best mentors of all—a believing father.