Blueprint For Success
After 50 years in business, Norman White of White's Nursery & Greenhouses in Chespeake, Va., says he has no regrets about the path he chose in the floriculture industry.
June 19, 2008
Norm still entered the training program and in a few short years became a naval architect. His career at the shipyard was very exciting, as he was working on high-profile missile programs like Polaris and Poseidon, and flying to Washington, D.C., every week to give reports to the Navy Department. But in 1972, when the shipyard halted its work on the Triton Missile defense programs and took on more monotonous jobs, Norm decided it was time to get out.
All the while, Norm had been simultaneously building his growing operation and in 1972, he had about an acre of greenhouses. He threw himself into floriculture head first and today, White's Nursery & Greenhouses ranks at No. 78 of GG's Top 100 Growers with 20 acres of greenhouses and 10 field acres.
"I have no regrets," he says. "I have fun every day. And when I was working in the shipyard, I had fun every day. But when we got out of the fun stuff and it was regular, routine work, the excitement was gone. In the greenhouse business, there's always excitement because you never know what's going to happen. Every morning there's something different."
Going To Pot
White's got its start growing cut flowers — asters, snapdragons and stock, among other crops. But one early year, Norm's pregnant wife, Hetty, couldn't stomach the smell of stock, so that was the end of it. As he took on more pot crops, Norm gradually phased out cuts, with his last crop of snapdragons in 1973. Today, White's grows every imaginable flowering potted plant from A to Z — asters, gloxinia, kalanchoe, begonias, poinsettias — about 70 SKUs throughout the course of the year. "Anything that will work in a pot and hold up in a grocery store has its merit," Norm says.
Norm and Hetty's children, Dana and Tal (short for Talmage), have been involved in the business since day one. At age three, Dana was helping Norm harvest the cut flowers as the official snapdragon carrier, and years later, the kids pulled black cloth, with Tal stopping along the way to play with the ants.
Later, Tal pursued a horticulture degree at Ohio State and then went on to pursue a meteorology degree, became a weatherman, and now he's the resident TV star, Norm says, as a fill-in meteorologist on local television.
"Everyone recognizes him and a lot of times when we fly somewhere, they'll upgrade us because they recognize him," Norm says. "They never upgrade me that way."
Since coming back to the business, Tal has taken the role of general manager and Dana is the vice president of marketing. Another key team member is Bob Bailey, the head grower.
White's built a retail garden center in 1985, where the operation has test-marketed several of its new crops over the years. For instance, Norm trialed a new plume-type celosia variety, 'Caracas,' two years ago. He grew 300 pots for the garden center and consumers picked it up. He took a few cases around to his retail customers and last year, he grew 2,000 pots that sold very well. This year, White's grew 40,000 pots of 'Caracas' and they're almost sold out.
Norm tried a similar thing with the now famous (or infamous) painted poinsettias. When a purple variety he grew turned out not purple enough, Tal went out and bought some floral paint to spice it up, and "By Jove, it sold!" Norm says. That was the beginning of an enormous trend that has swept the nation over the past five years, and this year, Norm says, White's sold out in February and 85 percent of the poinsettias the operation will ship will be painted.
But White's has taken painted poinsettias a step further. "We've given them names," Norm says. "We don't just sell a poinsettia, we'll sell 'Let It Snow,' or the 'Palm Beach Collection.' We have all these different names we've attached to them that have been patented."
Marketing Is Mandatory
Norm says in recent years, sales have gone up, but high costs have canceled out larger profits. "The past two years have been more difficult because of the price squeeze," he says. "We've lost money in other areas just because of moving product and the cost of transportation, the cost of fuel and everything that goes with running a greenhouse. If we're not able to pass on price increases, it's just very difficult."
To defray higher costs, White's is diversifying its business with Internet marketing through 1-800-FLOWERS.com, Proflowers.com and other sites. The operation also has a consumer Web site, gardenlovers.com, which will be a future focus, Norm says.
A self-proclaimed "soapboxer" on plant quality and marketing, for years Norm has been among the industry leaders working to establish an industry product standard. Norm was very active with Society Of American Florists and the Produce Marketing Association as chairman of the Grades and Standards Committee for Potted Plants. Twenty-six crops were approved by growers and supermarket buyers across the United States.
"We have such a natural product and it really makes people feel good — there's nothing like flowers," he says. "In order to promote flowers and gardening, there has to be some money coming in. The way to do that and get everyone to chip in is to have a marketing order. I really hope we can get this thing going because we need it so desperately. Look what it did for milk!"
Rising From The Ashes
Last summer, White's garden center suffered a devastating fire that completely destroyed the 5,000-square-foot area holding its hard goods inventory. The suspected cause: a computer monitor, according to the fire marshal.
While the greenhouse portion of the garden center had to be cleaned out and the product dumped, that part of the business was able to be opened up again. But Norm says the garden center lost customers because of the lack of hard goods availability over the past year. In addition, the telephone and environmental controls systems for the entire operation was fried in the fire. Fortunately, however, the growing operation wasn't further affected due to the space between it and the garden center.
To protect your business, Norm advises, take pictures not only of your product, but also of your equipment. "Pictures really are a must," he says. Also, before you go home each night, turn off your computer.
Despite the losses, Norm says the rebuilding of the garden center has allowed White's to update and upgrade its fixtures. White's invested in professional help to really bring the garden center into the 21st century.
"We have better lighting," he says. "I got the idea when I went into an airport — I didn't see any light fixtures but it was very bright. In the atrium, all the light was directed up and it all reflected down. So that's what we did in the garden center — 90 percent of the lighting is reflected up and we only have spots to accent something else. So it really is bright and cheery."
At press time, White's was hosting a preview opening of the garden center, with three grand openings in the fall. As a stop along the Fashion In Bloom trail Sept. 20-22, White's will host Biancheri Ranunculus, Farmen Seed, Murakami Seed, Plug Connection and Wollemi Pine North America, and Norm says he also plans to really promote the event to consumers in his area.
"That's who really needs to see this stuff — that's where we need to go with Fashion In Bloom, because otherwise, we're just talking to ourselves," he says. "I'd like to bring the consumers in to see the material so they can tell us what they want to see next year."