02/28/2015 09:35 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Mary Pearson, Founder, Pearson Farm's Retail Division

Mary is the founder and creator of Pearson Farm's Retail Division. When Mary Pearson married Al Pearson of Pearson farm, she not only gained the love of her life, but grew to have a great love for the beautiful large trees on the Peach farm. Mary grew up in a family where gourmet, healthy, natural food was a value and cooking together was an event. The union that is now in its 42nd year was the perfect marriage of the recipes from Mary's childhood and the peach farm that produces what is arguably some of the best peaches in Georgia. In addition to maintaining the image of Pearson Farm through marketing and customer service, Mary now shares some of the old family recipes she grew up on with the world. Some of Pearson's cakes and pies are inspired by old family recipes and baked with natural ingredients and love, just like the recipes in the memories of Mary's childhood.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in Atlanta in a family of one brother and three sisters and my parents. My father served in WWII, became an attorney, married my mother late in his life, and brought a sense of dedication and character and discipline to our family that impacted me as a child and even more so today. We were taught the values of faith, education, honesty, diligent work, family, and quality of life. Though we were secure monetarily, his experience during the depression formed his approach to our family life. My mother was a constant source of encouragement and gentle correction for her four children. She was a strong, principled woman of faith in God who led us as a family to a life that was centered on a love of God, Church, family, health, and education. I think I made my father and mother happy when I married a farmer and moved to a small rural town. I moved away from Atlanta and my family, but I never left them or the city's influence on me as I experienced rural life with limited selections in food, clothing, and cultural events. But, I was in a life filled with fresh fruit and nuts, hard work, and seasons of rest. Having been exposed to life in the city, I was not hesitant to ask why could not improve our experience. After college I taught school and consistently fought for improvement in the school I taught in and later in the schools my children attended. Reading, piano, good grades, and household responsibilities were not an option, not an issue, just a way of life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Pearson Farm?
Teaching school exposed me to all levels of dedication, preparedness, respect, and honesty. Whereas all students could learn, it was obvious that those who were healthy, prepared, and interested were a joy to teach and to be with. The children,as you got to know them, could not hide their attention or lack thereof in school, so it was easy to determine what motivated them and see the qualities that inevitably formed their performance. I learned to be observant of others, not to judge too quickly, and to address when I could the issues that troubled them. This experience has proved invaluable to me in the small shop of a start-up business, working closely with employees or family doing things in ways that are important to me, to the business, and to God, always with the knowledge that we are only stewards of this world, not truly owning anything.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Pearson Farm?
We began Pearson Farm as a retail extension of the farm, taking peaches and pecans directly to the consumer in any form we thought would work. We began with blind faith that the products would sell themselves, especially during the Olympics in Atlanta. Three years later, we realized that we were not suited for the brick and mortar, 365 days per year retail business, so we closed the retail outlet and maintained the mail-order portion of the business. Since that disappointment, we have concentrated on the internet/mail order platform and have enjoyed the change.

Presenting our family and the farm with its history and beauty and healthful products has been a joy. Once, we had no relationships with our customers, but now we enjoy knowing and serving people from all over who are genuinely interested in us and what we do. Although I don't work in the production side of the farm, I can form the face, the contact, the lasting impression that tells who we are.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start a family run business?
Consider the cost! A dream, an idea, a concept can eventually be rewarding, fulfilling, and successful. Spend all the time you can researching the products, the processes, and the demands of both. I was told early on that to reach profitability, the question was not only how long would your money or credit hold out, but how long would I hold out. I was naïve about the demands on my time and energy. After 10 years we had progressed enough so that I could step back and concentrate on quality, creation, and appearance rather than production. This gave me the flexibility to spend some of my time on grandchildren, parents, and me. The journey to here has been longer than I expected, but I'm proud of where we are.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The demands of starting a business will determine the work/life balance if you let it. However, my family is too important to me to let that happen. We were fortunate that our livelihood did not depend on the retail division of the farm. If it had, we would have devoted more support to the effort and pushed it as much as possible. For me, the demands of family outweighed my responsibility to the business, and I was able to attend to both. My husband has always maintained attention to balance in the farm enterprises and has helped me keep that in focus. The balance I strive for involves faith in God and Jesus Christ, family, health, exercise, diet, recreation, education, work, and rest. At times I get out of balance, but I'm aware of where I should be.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Equal pay for equal work of course, all things being equal. But more than that, I am a woman and I expect to be treated as a woman and I expect to treat men as men, no better, no worse, just differently. As it applies, I will approach an issue from a different perspective than a man. Neither approach is wrong and both are valuable. I don't want to be coddled, humored, marginalized or dismissed. I want to be treated as an equal and respected as a woman. I fear some think we have to be a man to compete in a man's world. I think not.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The most important mentor in my life has definitely been my father, Alex McLennan. He taught through lesson and example the things that he felt were important to a exercise daily whether you wanted to or not; to cook and eat healthy foods; to read , anything and everything: to buy things of quality, even at the cost of quantity; to work, hard and often; to be self sufficient; to respect the law and your fellow man; to drive fast; to take a stand for what you believe and be willing to fight for it; to serve your country and community; to garden; to speak your mind; and to love and care for your family. He was a messy but great cook, and early on knew to eliminate fat and sweets from his diet. He knew exercise was key to a sound mind and body. He firmly believed in being totally prepared, for law and life. He loved my mother, and he loved his children. His influence has led me to insist on several things at Pearson Farm. We only use fresh, simple ingredients in our preservatives or additives. We use our best peaches and pecans in our recipes. We make a Mess! And, we clean up! We treat customers as we wish to be treated. We respect and care for our employees. We are grateful for our customers and sincerely want to share with them the bounty from the farm. We expect our customers to be satisfied and are embarrassed when they are not, and we do everything in our power to correct any problem. This is what I was taught.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Laura Bush for her passion for reading and literacy, and I also admire her for the way she handled herself as the First Lady of Texas and the United States. She was responsible for shaping her husband's character and conduct, making him into a man who would be elected twice to the Presidency. She was and is a strong woman of faith, a wise counselor, a loving wife, and an affectionate mother.

What do you want Pearson Farm to accomplish next year?
2015 hopefully brings Pearson Farm a consistency and a new look to our brand, our packaging, and our products. We have secured the services of At the Table Public Relations to tackle this. Over time our marketing decisions have not been true to a consistent theme which has resulted in a mixed bag of messages and appearances. I look forward to professionals getting us on track. We are also developing new recipes and products built around what we grow to expand our offerings from the kitchen using natural ingredients without preservatives, the same way I make things in my kitchen at home. We hope to see continued growth in sales of pecans all during the year, and with a good peach crop we should significantly increase shipments of fresh peaches by mail. These increases will come as the result of increased funding and effort in the internet marketing of Pearson Farm.