George and Louise Lucas combine the best in high tech and high touch by mixing modern production with mom-and-pop values. We are proud to recognize Lucas Greenhouses as our 25th Grower of the Year.
September 1, 2009
George and Louise Lucas just seem to bring out the best in everyone they interact with, whether it's nurturing employees, partnering with fellow growers, learning with suppliers or going the extra mile to serve independent garden centers. They set high standards through their actions, dedication and hard work. Their faith, honesty and trust inspires you to be the best you can be.
"George is a very kind person. He becomes a brother or a father and you want to make him proud," says Les Evans of TrueLeaf Technologies, who has worked with George and the staff at Lucas Greenhouses on many integrated construction projects. "I've learned so much from him and thank George for the trust factor that goes back and forth and hope it oozes out of me when I visit customers."
From humble beginnings 30 years ago, Lucas Greenhouses in Monroeville, N.J., has emerged as one of the fastest growing, well-diversified operations in our industry. Ranked at No. 90 on our Top 100 Growers, Lucas serves independent garden centers and has become a young plant grower of choice, contracting for leading companies in addition to being a rooting station for Syngenta Flowers.
"Lucas Greenhouses has steadily grown over the years because of its devotion to excellence," says Jeff Warschauer of Nexus, who nominated Lucas for the award. "George and Louise have surrounded themselves with a great team, built state-of-the-art growing ranges and made the right changes as the market changed. They surrounded themselves with good companies and don't have all their eggs in one basket. They don't let any one market dominate."
A Labor Of Love
George and Louise are our third husband-and-wife team to be honored as Grower of the Year. They join Ken and Deena Altman of Altman Plants in Vista, Calif., and Lloyd and Candy Traven of Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa.
Growing up in rural communities, George and Louise met through 4H Club. "He was in the hogs and beef club and I was in the home ec part," Louise says. "I remember being at summer camp with his sister when I was 12 years old and told her I was going to marry George someday." George laughs and says, "Yeah, she was 12 years old and I was doomed." They dated off and on through high school and took horticultural courses.
Louise's parents were farmers who grew fruits and vegetables - peaches, apples, tomatoes, peppers, squash, Indian corn and pumpkins. George discovered he enjoyed growing plants at age 15, when he worked for a small greenhouse operation eight miles away. After high school, he attended Delaware Valley College and finished in Cumberland County. He and Louise started their business in 1978, soon after they got married, while he was still working at the other greenhouse. Their early crops were foliage, tropicals, succulents and annuals.
"The owners of the other place, who were retired teachers, didn't want to expand the business and I did, so I started out on my own," George says. "Louise worked at the greenhouse during the day and I worked at the other place to have an income. We built benches together. Our first greenhouses were quonsets, which were an inexpensive way to get started. Our first loan was $22,000 for the structure plus an $18,000 operating loan. It seemed we'd never pay it back."
The last seven years have been a tremendous growth trajectory, with Lucas Greenhouses building 530,000 of the 770,000 square feet of greenhouses. George and Louise have invested in state-of-the-art facilities complete with retractable roofs, flood floors, computer-controlled fertilizer injection and water filtration to recycle excess water.
"We're always trying to build high-tech, diversified greenhouses to grow top-quality plants," George says. "If the growers need something, I buy it. I give them every tool they need to do a perfect job. We invest in the best equipment and technology to do the job right."
George's latest project has been putting in a UV and ozone water treatment system. "Our goal is to get to be zero runoff and we're close," he says. "We want to be ahead of the regulations, figure out what works and have input versus being told what to do."
George looks out for growers' interests by serving on county and township agricultural boards and First Pioneer Farm Credit committees. Commercial greenhouses are a leading segment of agriculture in New Jersey.
Another industry initiative Lucas Greenhouses supports is the Young Plant Research Center directed by Paul Fisher at the University of Florida and John Irwin at the University of Minnesota. They and their colleagues work with growers in Florida, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, California and Washington on applied research to improve the production of plugs and liners. Lucas Greenhouses is a founding grower in the group and helps set research direction. The growers collect data and assist with onsite research while providing feedback.
"When I think of George Lucas, words that come to mind are understated, very astute, innovative, efficient and a very pleasant guy," Fisher says. "George is a very clever businessman, has an excellent handle on his overall profitability and costing in the business. We worked together on financial analysis for the young plant business. Joe Moore also is one of the finest technical growers in the country."
George has enjoyed his five-year involvement supporting this research. "I've learned so much. It has been a really good experience," he says. "Because I don't have a lot of time, I can help the industry this way, by supporting good research we have a stake in, whether it's controlling fungus gnats, optimizing greenhouse lighting or improving water quality. It helps us to be sharper, improve the bottom line and be more environmentally friendly."
Striking The Right Balance
For the last 20 years, Lucas Greenhouses has been diversifying into producing young plants while growing its finished plant business with independent garden centers. Today, the company produces 25 million liners for Syngenta Flowers, Pleasant View Gardens, Gro'N'Sell and Four Star Greenhouse.
The relationship with Syngenta began when geranium breeder-producer Fischer USA was looking for an Eastern rooting facility. "Karl Trellinger had visited Lucas Greenhouses with a broker sales rep in 2000. When he came back, he said I just met the best grower - Joe Moore," says Gary Falkenstein, who now directs Syngenta Flowers. "Joe is an excellent grower with his level of attention to detail. It's not new science or a special recipe but everything turns out great. He gives us tremendous feedback on trialing new products, like a high-density liner program for garden mums."
Around that same time, Lucas started rooting liners for Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, N.H. "We were expanding and growing like crazy and looking for someone to help us support that growth," says Pleasant View's Henry Huntington. "He was already buying a lot of Proven Winners at the time and was a great propagator. They're excellent growers and we work together to bring plants up to new specifications. Year after year and shipment after shipment, they produce the excellent quality that we're looking to ship."
Even with dramatic growth on the young plant side, 60 percent of production continues to be finished plants for about 800 independent garden centers, one regional grocery chain and custom growing for a few landscapers. "The growth hasn't been just young plants," George says. "It's driven by both the young plant side and the finished side. Without both, there wouldn't be enough turns to build what we're building. In our newer greenhouses, we get eight or nine turns a year."
Lucas Greenhouses is positioned to serve the East Coast very well being a half hour from Philadelphia, two hours from New York City and Washington, D.C., and five hours from Boston, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Va. While most of the liners and prefinished plants are grown to order, the finished plant side for independent retailers is 100 percent speculation.
"We send out our availability every Friday night and sell on a first-come, first-serve basis," George says. "It drove us a little nuts because retailers were ordering six or seven carts versus 15 or 18. It stretched us more on our deliveries but products were fresher and we got better sell through."
Another fundamental difference between the young plant and independent retailer customer bases is the need to chase accounts receivable. "Young plants are all sold through brokers, so there's a low chance in not getting paid," George says. "The last two years we have clamped down on receivables, kept a closer eye on it and spent more time chasing money. We are more careful who we give credit to now. We got legal advice and it took a year and a half to make sure all documents on file were up to date."
When asked if he was ever tempted to serve the box stores as his operation got bigger, George says, "We did supply Home Depot and food chains for a long time. They didn't appreciate or want to pay for the quality I was growing. It was always about price. I even conducted quality demonstrations two years in a row to prove our plants would outsell and they still wouldn't pay what we needed. This was also before Home Depot adopted pay by scan, which presents too many aggravations at the store level, and related to unloading trucks and losing carts.
"Because our main business is supplying independent garden centers, and we couldn't effectively serve both, we chose the independent garden center route. I like the diversity of having 800 independent garden center customers. If Home Depot is your dominant customer, your risk of exposure is great. If you are a box guy turning local retailers away and then one day Walmart walks away, how do you bridge the gap and return to the independents? They're not stupid. They know why you're coming back."
Serious About Service
Growing the best product you can will only get you so far. True success in business comes from meeting customers' needs and exceeding their expectations day in and day out. As Lucas Greenhouses continues to grow, George's main concern is not losing the personal touch. "The key is to not lose our level of service as we get bigger, which is hard," he says. "People are afraid I won't talk to them anymore. Right now, I pick up the phone and talk to customers many times a day. I don't want to get to the point where you have to go through four secretaries and two armed guards to talk to me."
He adds that he has been very happy with Joe Moore's brother, Tim, in marketing and customer service roles in addition to inventory control. "Tim is very good and it was easy to pass the ball to him," George says. "He's very customer friendly."
Before Lucas Greenhouses, Tim worked for start ups and small companies that were looking to go to the next level. "In all of those cases I had taken the lead in creating and communicating the brand and image of that company to the public," Tim says. "When I came to Lucas, one of the first things I noticed was we really weren't taking full advantage of all the avenues we could be using to reach current and future customers. We started with our logo and slowly worked on putting together print material and building our website. The site is being used by our customers more each season and we have already had new customers come through and place significant orders."
Most of the customer service aspects Tim works on are related to independent garden centers. "I really enjoy working with our garden center customers, letting them know what looks great in the greenhouse and making sure they get what they need," he says. "It's easy to work with our independent garden centers when you know the growing department is consistently giving you a superior product to sell, the shipping department is fast and dependable and ownership really cares about the customers and responds to their concerns. It gives me a great amount of confidence to promote our product to our customers."
While Tim and George may be the ones who talk to customers the most, it's Lucas Greenhouses' truck drivers who are the face of the company with each delivery. "There are customers we've been serving for 20 years that I've never met, " George says. "We have no sales force. Our business is driven by reputation and word of mouth. I tell the truck drivers, 'You are the image of me to the customer.'"
Louise adds, "If our logo says excellence is our standard, we can't have dented-up vehicles delivering plants. That would not represent our product well."
Lucas Greenhouses has 17 straight trucks and four trailers. Most of the drivers are Lucas employees and include part-time farmers. The company has really invested in its transportation capabililties the last five years with 90 percent of all deliveries being made by truck. Lucas also is enhancing the efficiency of each load by delivering plants for growers in the region who have not invested in truck delivery, including business partner Gro 'N' Sell in Chalfont, Pa., and Peace Tree Farm.
"The larger customer base definitely helps," says transportation manager Tim Priore. "If a new customer brings us into a different area, we can now serve others who may have been going FedEx in the past. On the finished end of the business, I can't tell you how many new customers we have gained just because they see our beautiful trucks driving down the road and place an order based only on this."
Priore is a driver at heart and still likes to get out and meet customers. Each week he plots out all the deliveries and groups them as if he were making them. "I take all the orders for the upcoming week, and if there is any chance of it going on the truck, I put it on a map," he says. "I use different colors to signify different product, so I know how much room it will take on the truck. Then I look at each area and break the country down into truck 1, 2, 3, etc. If there are small orders or something too far out of the way, I erase it and send it FedEx.
"I am not a technology person at all. I use Mapquest to verify information or seek directions to a new customer, but if I am not 110 percent sure those directions are accurate, I still call the customer for insight. We deal with so many mom-and-pop businesses that a computer can't tell you to turn at the old general store or the street sign has been down for years, look for the oak tree."
A Winning Team
It's this level of attention to detail and a personal touch that sets the team at Lucas Greenhouses apart from their competition. When asked what's best about working for Lucas Greenhouses, Tim says, "Every day I get to work for an owner who is actually working just as hard as you are," he says. "Plus we have a great team of highly talented individuals who take great pride in their work. Collectively, we all bring something different to the table. Our personalities are different, our skills and talents are different, but we all respect what each of us can do and how each of us fit into the overall success of Lucas Greenhouses."
Our past Growers of the Year - the Huntingtons of Pleasant View Gardens and Tom Smith of Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Mich. - welcome George and Louise to the club. "They are a great, hardworking couple who have a vision and passion for our industry," Smith says. "It's great to see them rise to the top."