Co-Founder of Calloway’s Nursery Thrives on Service
Jim Estill cultivates a life of hard work and lends his business expertise even in retirement.
At 10 years old, James “Jim” Estill ’69 (MBA ’77) mowed lawns to earn money for a bicycle. With the bike, he picked up a paper route. After completing his undergraduate degree in management, he briefly drove a laundry truck.
Before co-founding Calloway’s Nursery, a chain of gardening centers, Estill was a hospital orderly and a construction worker. He spent most of his career in Fort Worth, becoming one of the city’s top business leaders. Retirement hasn’t slowed Estill’s pace so much as redirected his energies toward philanthropic endeavors.
“There is no one with more passion and positive energy than Jim,” said O. Homer Erekson ’74, dean of the Neeley School of Business, where Estill served on the International Board of Visitors. “Especially when you think about what he did throughout his career, it’s remarkable just how grounded Jim is.”
Marce Ward ’08 MBA succeeded Estill as president and CEO of Calloway’s, which has 19 stores in North Texas plus Cornelius Nursery in Houston.
“Jim has the highest level of energy of anyone I have ever met,” Ward said. “People are drawn to him, and it is fun to see how his enthusiasm for business has transferred over to his enthusiasm for nonprofits. He’s truly one of a kind.”
Estill set his sights on TCU in early childhood. He was born at Harris Hospital — now Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth — as were his three daughters and eight of his nine grandchildren. His father, John Estill Jr. ’40, earned his bachelor’s degree in commerce, while Dorothy Finlayson Estill ’41 graduated with a secretarial degree.
“Mother was Miss TCU three years in a row,” Estill said. “She couldn’t be Miss TCU a fourth year because by then she was married to Daddy.”
The middle of three children, Estill spent most of his formative years in Independence, Kansas, where his father worked as an attorney for Sinclair Oil. During his freshman year at TCU, the Estill clan relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. During his sophomore year, he drove a freshman back to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, a trip that sparked a romance. He and Sharon (née Odell) celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June 2018.
“I loved my time at TCU and had five different majors, including undeclared,” Estill said. “Something finally clicked when I took a finance class with Dr. Stanley Block.”
After graduation, Estill secured a job with Pier 1 Imports as a manager-in-training at a new store in Detroit. A few months later, the young couple returned to North Texas when Estill joined the U.S. Army Reserve. He spent 1970-76 in the Reserve as a Huey helicopter crew chief. Meanwhile, Pier 1 tapped Estill to help run its new real estate department.
Three daughters — Tiffany Riccono ’92, Emily Garrett and Kimberly Ducic ’99 — arrived during a period when their father was traveling up to 46 weeks a year.
I realized all you had to do was take the lid off and the talent of the people who work for you would surprise you.
“Pier 1 would pay for my MBA as long as I got A’s and B’s,” Estill said. “So I went back to school and got all A’s for the first time in my life, but those were challenging years as a young father traveling and studying.”
Pier 1 Imports’ expansion slowed as he was finishing his MBA. Company owner Luther Henderson asked Estill to take over Sunbelt Nursery Group. With Estill at the helm, the division grew to more than 100 stores in five states.
“I became so fired up about the nursery business,” said Estill, a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional who lives with Sharon on 35 acres in Argyle, Texas. “I realized all you had to do was take the lid off and the talent of the people who work for you would surprise you.”
Growing a Business
In the mid-’80s, the new owner of Pier 1 had other ideas about the company’s businesses. “He actually told me that people were like light bulbs: When one burns out, you just put another in,” Estill recalled with a shake of his head.
Estill and two other veteran managers left the company in 1986 to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations. With help from the owner of Houston’s Cornelius Nursery, the trio created business plans that they then shared with Block, who critiqued their vision. With the retooled proposal in hand, the partners acquired the financing to achieve their dream.
“Luther Henderson said to come back and talk to him after we’d been turned down by 10 banks,” said Estill. “Ten banks! But each bank gave us information on what we needed to change. The 10th bank gave us the money.”
With Estill as president and CEO, Calloway’s Nursery opened four stores in 1987 and three more the following year. “At one point, my wife signed a bank note for $20 million in indebtedness,” he said, “but she was always supportive.”
Business blossomed in part because of an initial public offering in 1991. But Estill and his partners decided to create a succession plan, tapping a trio of longtime employees, including Ward, whom they sent to TCU for his MBA. A few years ago an investment firm in New England bought Estill’s stock, a deal that wrapped up in 2016.
“We started the transition in 2015 when we made [Ward] the president, and I kept up as chairman of the board,” Estill said. “But I realized halfway through the first meeting that I’m so passionate about the business and all eyes were turned to me. I knew I had to step away.”
A New Season
For a man who had hustled for more than a half-century, the idea of retiring filled Estill with dread. “I was so afraid I was going to be in a rocking chair when I retired that I think I went overboard,” Estill said over coffee at the Fort Worth Club, one of many recipients of his guidance when he served on its board of governors. Today Estill chairs the Long Range Planning Committee for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
He also has a place on the executive council of Read Fort Worth, a coalition of civic, business and educational leaders committed to improving the reading skills of young students in Fort Worth. “It’s a daunting problem, so I decided to tutor a child myself in order to learn more,” said Estill, who worked with a first-grade student.
“Read Fort Worth is just one example of Jim’s scope and influence,” said Shnease Webb ’08, chief operating officer of Lena Pope, which runs several schools for economically disadvantaged children. “His impact on the city of Fort Worth continues to be so strong.”
For the last decade, Estill has devoted time and other resources to Lena Pope. Under his leadership, Calloway’s began to donate proceeds from its December poinsettia sales to the nonprofit.
In the last five years, the retired businessman has rotated through executive roles on Lena Pope’s board of directors. He finished his term as president in September 2018 and now chairs the nominating committee.
“Jim has a unique blend of business acumen and incredible passion for the mission of Lena Pope,” said Todd Landry, CEO of the nonprofit. “He has been very consistent in balancing the vision we have for expansion with making sure we can financially sustain the growth.”
When Lena Pope built a campus in west Fort Worth in 2014, Estill also worked with the growers to provide plants for the campus landscape design, which that same year won the Fort Worth Garden Club’s annual Fort Worth Beautiful Award.
“He is one of the great examples in our community of a servant leader,” Landry said. “Despite his incredible business acumen and what he did in his professional life, Jim is one of the most humble leaders you would ever hope to meet.”