MILTON GREESON: A LEGACY OF CHANGE
MILTON GREESON: A LEGACY OF CHANGE
WRITTEN BY LORIE WOODWARD CANTU
Although rich legacies shape his life, Milton Greeson Jr. is not hidebound by tradition. “Owners of legacy businesses and legacy ranches are not always open-minded when it comes to change,” Greeson said. “I embrace it. Change is inevitable. If you don’t embrace it you will get left behind. Today you can get so far behind so quickly that you’ll never catch up.”
He is the fifth generation of his family to call Victoria home and the third generation to own and manage the Atzenhoffer auto sales group in his hometown. And, he, along with his wife Bridey, represent the fifth generation of the O’Connor family to ranch in the Coastal Plains. They steward land in Victoria, Refugio and Goliad counties.
“Many times when businesses or land is passed through the generations, people get caught trying to ‘do it like Grandfather did’ either out of nostalgia or fear of change,” Greeson said. “The reality is that if Grandfather was running the show today, he couldn’t do it the way he did it then—and expect to be successful.”
He continued, “I’m always looking for new ways to improve our processes at the business and on the ranch. I keep an open mind and listen to the people around me. I try to learn what works for them and then evaluate whether it has an application for us.”
For a boy who loved the outdoors, growing up in Victoria, with its easy access to the Coast and the ranches of South Texas, was an awful lot like growing up in Heaven. Because most of the land in the region bounded by Victoria, Refugio and Goliad was settled and held by two families, the spaces remained wide open.
His father, Milton “Bully” Greeson Sr., was an avid outdoorsman who kept a kennel full of bird dogs. Together father and son hunted dove, quail, and waterfowl. They pursued whitetails in South Texas and muleys in West Texas.
His maternal grandfather, E.L. “Ed” Atzenhoffer, purchased property in Rockport in the 1940s, so saltwater fishing was also a way of life. While Greeson admits an affinity for chasing marlin and sailfish, his passion is saltwater flyfishing for tarpon, permit and bone fish, and locally stalking the flats for trout and redfish.
“It’s more like hunting because you walk the flats constantly looking for fish,” Greeson said. “Then you present the fly to them and try to entice them to eat. It’s a different kind of challenge and has always been a great source of excitement. My favorite thing about the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, is that you never know what’s going to happen next.”
While the family made plenty of time for outdoor adventures, work was also part of the mix. His maternal grandfather founded Atzenhoffer Chevrolet in 1926. Greeson’s paternal grandfather, Thomas A. Greeson, operated Greeson’s Dairy, so Milton Sr. grew up milking cows and helping produce high-quality dairy products. In the 1950s, Milton Sr. sold his interest in the dairy to his brothers and purchased an interest in the auto dealership.
By the time Milton Jr. was 12 years old, he was working at the dealership, learning the business from the ground up. As he got older, he split his time in the summers working at the auto group and on local ranches.
“I’ve always been interested in business and ranching,” Greeson said.
He joined the firm full-time in 1974 after graduating from the University of Texas eventually becoming president of the family business. These days, the responsibility of day-to-day operations rests with his nephew, Tommy Greeson Taylor, Ed’s great grandson and the fourth generation at the helm.
Greeson’s business and his family were in Victoria, so it made sense to continue to call Victoria home. In the mid-1980s, he lived next door to Marie O’Connor Dunn. When her daughter, Bridey, returned to Victoria from Dallas after graduating from SMU and launching a career in big city banking, Greeson and she rekindled their lifelong friendship. Friendship turned into romance and then into marriage in 1987. Greeson gained a life partner and an addiction.
“When Bridey and I started dating, she had just started showing cutting horses,” Greeson said. “I started riding them with her and got hooked.”
After three decades of competition, the pull of the arena is still strong because the outcome is never guaranteed.
“Every time you go to the herd, it’s a different experience,” Greeson said. “You can’t predict how the horse will feel, how the cattle will react or how the judge will score the way you and the horse worked.”
There are so many variables, cutting can never be fully mastered.
“The thing that is so challenging about cutting is that one day it seems you can do nothing wrong and the next day it seems you can do nothing right,” Greeson said. “It’s a real chicken and feathers deal—and a very humbling sport.”
The competition and challenge keep the couple coming back.
“We enjoy the high-level of competition and the challenge of winning,” Greeson said. “Unlike a race horse whose performance is gauged by a clock, a cutting horse is scored by a judge. You not only have to manage the horse and cattle well, but you have to deliver what that judge considers important in a cutting performance.
Showing cutting horses is not a casual pursuit for the Greesons. In 2012, Bridey earned the amateur division world championship title at the National Cutting Horse Association World Finals. In December 2015, Greeson qualified his mount for the World Finals.
“The challenge is to deliver a consistent, perfect run every time you enter the arena regardless of the variables,” Greeson said. “No matter how hard you work, you can always be better. I like to be driven to be my best.”
Bridey is a descendant of Thomas O’Connor, the pioneering cattleman who amassed more than 500,000 acres in six South Texas counties. When the couple married, Greeson began managing their portion of the historic ranch lands. In hindsight, his relative lack of experience in ranching was a benefit.
“Because I didn’t bring a lot of ranching experience to the table, I had to learn as I went, but being in business had already taught me to adapt to change,” Greeson said. “It had also taught me to find experienced people and listen to what they had to say.”
As a result, he sought out technical assistance to develop the best management practices for the property. Then, he implemented the practices while constantly monitoring the results. If something wasn’t working as well as it could, he changed it.
“Some of those early practices that were developed are still in use today,” Greeson said. “And some of them have been replaced. You can’t afford to fall in love with your ideas especially if they’re not working.”
From the beginning, he has managed the land for both cattle and wildlife.
“We maintain high-quality, diverse wildlife habitat, but we also run a profitable cattle operation,” Greeson said. “In our operation, one doesn’t take precedence over the other.”
Today, he is the general partner in Sarco Creek Cattle Co. and raises Hereford and Brahman crossbred cattle. Each herd is set up on a five-pasture annual rotation, so that each pasture rests 80 percent of the time. The rotation is varied each year, so that each pasture gets grazed during a different season, ensuring that different plant communities are grazed during each annual rotation.
“Even during drought, we never graze so close that it damages the quail habitat,” Greeson said.
They use a stockers, either native or Mexican yearlings, to bring flexibility to their forage management.
“In the years, we have extra grass we bring in stockers and run them on the gain,” Greeson said. “This allows us to maintain our cow herd at a sustainable stocking rate, meaning we don’t have to sell our ‘factories’ when the weather turns dry.”
Brush management is a constant battle.
“It’s our biggest expenditure,” Greeson said. “If brush, like change, gets ahead of you, it can be too expensive to ever catch up. I’ve seen ranches that have lost so much of their productivity to brush that they’re basically gone.”
The family relies on a combination of brush management tools including prescribed burning.
“Well-managed forage also provides a good quality fuel load to support prescribed burning,” Greeson said. “Prescribed fire works well for us because it keeps brush in check, but also creates secondary succession which benefits our wildlife and cattle.”
The land has responded to their multi-faceted stewardship. In 2006, Milton and Bridey were the recipients of the Lone Star Land Stewardship Award from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
While Greeson, like many landowners, is inspired to leave the land better than he found it, he has another goal as well.
“Part of my stewardship responsibility is passing this land along to our son, Parke, in a financially stable manner,” Greeson said. “My goal, through planning, is to ensure that he can take over the ranch without having to sell an acre or without taking on a huge burden of debt.”
Parke recently graduated from the TCU Ranch Management program after completing a Bachelor of Science in animal science at Texas Tech University. He will have the legacy of being a sixth-generation rancher.
“I want Parke to be aware of ranching history—both the good and the bad—so he can avoid the potential pitfalls,” Greeson said. “In South Texas, there are some land challenges. After the discovery of oil and gas there were generations of our forefathers who didn’t have to rely on the land’s productivity to continue ranching.”
He continued, “While ranching is exponentially easier when you have plenty of oil and gas production, you better be prepared for the land to stand on its own productivity—or be prepared to lose it.”
The Conservation Connection
Greeson supported TWA long before he became an active member.
“From the beginning, TWA advocated for private property rights,” Greeson said. “It was this foundation that attracted me.”
Initially, he and a group of four other rancher-sportsmen from the Victoria-Corpus Christi area brought their sons to the TWA Convention each year. The fathers thought the convention would help the boys understand the conservation issues and responsibilities associated with hunting, fishing and land ownership. Plus, the boys just thought it was fun.
“We all got together for hunting and fishing trips, but the convention was always an annual high point,” Greeson said.
Eventually, he joined the TWA Board of Directors where he serves currently. He is also a long-time director at Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers. Both organizations play a critical role as the collective “voice of landowners.”
“TWA is vital to landowners,” Greeson said. “It represents our interests in the legislative and regulatory arenas, but it also works to educate the general public about natural resources. Both facets are crucial to our future.
“If we don’t stay engaged in the process and give back to our communities, we’ll lose what we’ve worked so hard to gain and maintain.”