OFA President Bobby Barnitz is leading the national organization to a more diversified business model, just as his family has with its own business.
July 7, 2008
In addition to being a wholesale finished grower and one of the nation's top young plant producers, Bob's operates four local retail garden centers and a farmers market in Atlanta that started out as a key customer down South.
Barnitz is the eldest of five brothers in the family business. Their father, Bob Barnitz, founded the business 38 years ago as a vegetable farmer, growing field tomatoes and vegetables. As he was getting started, he also worked full time at a chemical plant. The greenhouse side started with five small quonsets.
"We shipped South for an early season crop of annuals and used the greenhouses twice," Bobby explains. "We were already hauling fresh fruit and vegetables from the Carolinas for our farm markets and knew the demand and need. We would replant that crop for our season. By double cropping our greenhouse space, we could pay for structures quicker."
When the fall pansy craze began in the late '80s, the Barnitzes had an established Southern customer base.
Business really took off 10 years ago on the young plant side, when Bob's Market started growing plugs for Ball Horticultural Co. For the past few years, Bob's has been a rooting station for German flower breeder Dömmen and is really pleased with that growth, as well. The Confetti liners, in which several varieties are rooted together, make really beautiful baskets.
"In young plants, we're still the young kids on the block," Bobby says. "While plug sales as a whole are flat or declining in the industry, we're growing, which means our customers are growing or we're gaining new business from someone else. In 10 years, we've gone from 4.5 million plugs to more than 100 million plugs this year and we will root about 4 million liners for Dömmen.
"From a business perspective, young plants are a guaranteed sale once an order is placed. Customers are planning on those plugs and liners. With wholesale finished plants, there's more speculation."
In January, Bob's became certified to grow organic vegetable plugs, which will present another differentiation niche, both as a plug grower and finished plant grower.
The Barnitzes even have the pulse of the big box action selling plugs and finished plants to Bell Nursery in Burtonsville, Md. Over the last 10 years, Barnitz's business has grown dramatically with Bell, quadrupling in size.
Having five brothers in the business has allowed the Barnitzes to distribute responsibilities as they manage growth. Bobby's son, Alan specializes in cuttings, shipping and automated machinery. Eldest son, Tony, is outside the business finishing his doctorate in immunology.
Long-time business associate Al Druskin of East Jordan Plastics says the leadership qualities Bobby and his family have demonstrated in business also would serve him well as OFA president.
"As an individual, Bobby knows who he is and has principles that govern his actions," Druskin says. "He is unquestionably honest and will tell you what he thinks when asked. I have always found whatever he has talked to me about as having that ring of truth. He also thinks things through before making decisions, works extremely well with others and knows how to get to the heart of any issue."
Bobby's first involvement with OFA was growing plants for the big show — Short Course, held each July at the Columbus Convention Center.
"I was never really involved until the former executive director, Dennis Kirven, asked my father to run for a board seat," Bobby says. "Dad said, 'No, I'm not into that, but Bobby will do it.' I ran twice and lost against Lorence Wenke and then Bill Swanekamp. The third time when OFA called me, I said I guess if my name keeps coming up, I'll run, but this will be the last time."
The third time was the charm and then in 2006, Bobby was tapped to serve as vice president with president Doug Cole of D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H. Just serving in the officer rotation from vice president to president to past president is a big commitment — six years, two years for each office.
"It does take time but it's addictive, once you become involved," he says. "You're surrounded with good people. It has been good for me personally and for the business, and hopefully, for the association. Business comes and goes but friendships and relationships last a lifetime."
Founded nearly 80 years ago as the Ohio Florists' Association with strong ties to The Ohio State University, OFA has evolved to be a truly national organization over the last 45 years. Today, 78 percent of its 2,700 members are from outside Ohio. Bobby is OFA's first president from West Virginia, just over the Ohio border on the Ohio River.
"The change from a state to a national organization was not overnight. It has been happening," Bobby says. "Short Course is the place to be in the summertime. Hopefully, we've stayed strong as an organization in our constituents' eyes. We're not going to satisfy everyone all the time but we are looked at as a leader in a broad industry."
While OFA supports industry advocacy organizations like American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and Society of American Florists, Bobby says OFA is in the knowledge transfer business, whether that be through educational seminars and tours, the printed or electronic bulletin or industry alerts.
"For instance, ANLA is holding its annual meeting in Columbus this year," Bobby says. "This opens our part of the industry to people who may have never been to Short Course."
OFA also stays on top of key issues, like monitoring the proposed national standard for sustainable agriculture and industry discussions surrounding national promotions.
Looking At A Bigger Picture
For the past two years, the OFA board has been investing in strategic planning. The organization has hired a consultant through American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) to help facilitate this process. For many years, OFA's chief executive officer and chief elected officers have attended ASEA's CEO symposiums to learn how to lead a professional organization. It was here that past president Cole realized OFA's board was not spending enough time on strategic governance issues, according to Executive Director John Holmes. This was the trigger, or "Aha!" moment which led to the strategic planning sessions.
"The number one thing was for board members to be willing to accept the role and understand they are more than just a body sitting there listening to me," Holmes says. "They are asking questions and engaged in the strategic vision of the organization. The goal was to re-establish the board as the elected governing body of OFA. They are driving OFA, not committees and not the staff. Committees are not elected, the board is and has the legal and fiduciary responsibilities for the organization."
Investing in education related to association management and strategic processes has helped the organization move forward, Holmes says. "Any elected leader is not 100 percent prepared for the role," he adds. "Leading an association is different than running your own business. It's a different set of dynamics."
OFA's 19-member board, committee chairs and key staff have spent full 8- to 10-hour days focused on strategic thinking and visioning. "We wanted to make sure we were not just rubber stamping," Bobby says. "We all wanted to be involved in making decisions."
One critical strategic question was whether OFA should offer management services to other horticultural organizations and events. For seven years, OFA has been managing America In Bloom (AIB), a nonprofit organization that promotes engaging communities in beautification and revitalization activities. (See Big On Beautification.)
"AIB made it a somewhat simplified process, knowing the staff had experience to manage another organization," Bobby says. "The questions we asked were, 'Is this a viable opportunity?' and 'Is this something we can do?' It was the consensus of the board to go in this direction and make good use of our good, experienced staff and challenge them to do more and be all they can be. We're broadening our horizons managing other events while not losing focus on our own event."
Since then, OFA has taken over the management of Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association and the Southeast Greenhouse Conference and will have a strong role in managing three Ball Publishing conferences this year. "We all felt that OFA could offer more to our entire industry by being available to manage other associations or events," Cole says. "This adds to the value of OFA and our stakeholders. It is not a perfect process and we can only take on so much at one time. At the moment, the staff is handling this role well."
Maturity wise, OFA is reaching its stride with great opportunities ahead, says Vice President Danny Takao of Takao Nursery in Fresno, Calif. Opportunities are presenting themselves because of OFA's track record.
"OFA is in a unique position in regard to running a must-go-to tradeshow," he explains. "It is well staffed under the direction of our Executive Director John Holmes and has many veteran staff members who know how to run a tradeshow and put on seminars. OFA was being recognized as a good management company in the horticulture and greenhouse trade, so the board along with our executive director made the decision to pursue the management of other events and associations to diversify our position and expertise. It is quite exciting as this helps strengthen OFA's position on the national scene. OFA is continuing to forge ahead when other associations/tradeshows are declining."
Keeping OFA On An Even Keel
Bobby says it's humbling to be in a leadership role at such a key time. He sees his role as challenging the board to think big picture, embrace change and not accept status quo.
Holmes says Bobby's even-keeled personality has helped guide OFA through this critical time. "He doesn't let much ruffle him, which is an important trait of every leader, especially for an organization in transition," he says. "He asks questions, is very thoughtful and likes to get all the right information and think through the appropriate response. He takes personalities out and focuses on what's best for the organization. He brings issues to the table in a nonthreatening way and helps consolidate consensus. A lot of people could misread Bobby as an, 'Aw, shucks' West Virginia boy. He's not. The guy is smart. His whole family is smart, running a huge business."
Cole, who also likes Bobby's accent, says, "Bobby brings a very professional demeanor to the position. He is well respected and always willing to hear someone's opinion. He is a humble person, yet he is upfront in his opinion and wants others to freely offer theirs."
Takao, who will succeed Bobby as president in a year, says he appreciates his patience, family values and honesty. "Each president brings their best to help OFA continue as the premier tradeshow and event. We all donate our time and each new group of officers and board does their best to continue the OFA tradition. I know Bobby, then myself, will do our best to keep OFA out front and evolving with the times."