American Nursery & Landscape Association’s Bob Dolibois Offers His Take On The Future Of Floriculture

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Bob Dolibois, ANLA Executive Vice President

Bob Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA), is retiring in December after 21 years with the organization. He leaves a market that is significantly different than when he arrived — in some ways better off and in some ways more challenged. Both sides of the coin, he’s quick to explain, are due to outside forces as well as decisions we have made as business owners and as an industry.

Dolibois, one of the founding attendees of the GROW Summit, sat down with Greenhouse Grower to share his view — “the world according to Bob,” as he calls it — of the state of our industry. It was a wide-ranging interview in which we discussed his career, ANLA, his plans for the future and, most importantly, his perspective on where floriculture stands today and where it is headed.

It’s a story best told in his own words. So here is the future of floriculture, according to Bob Dolibois.

We’re the goldfish that jumped the bowl. We suddenly find ourselves in a market environment that is totally different from what we used to take for granted.

The biggest difference between now and when I started with ANLA is we’re 22 years further into a maturing industry.

Robert J. Dolibois, CAE
Education
- B.A., Miami (OH) University, 1969
- Certified Association Executive, 1979
 
Military Service
- U.S. Naval officer 1969-1974
Professional Career
- Various positions, National Association of Life Underwriters (NALU), a trade association representing life and health insurance agents, 1974-1988
- President, Association Management Group (AMG), an association management and consulting firm, 1988-1991
- Executive Vice President, American Nursery & Landscape Association, 1991-2012

Dolibois also has served in various capacities with the Washington Youth Garden Council, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Society of Association Executives, the Small Business Legislative Council and the Committee of 100 of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The last 50 years of this industry have been driven by the marketplace created by Baby Boomers. From the construction of homes after World War II to the construction of schools and shopping malls and office parks.

Now that generation is tapering off. For the first time we are facing fewer people in the age [group] that’s the primary market for our products and services.

That, as much as anything, accounts for some of the struggles we’re going through right now. The lower retail customer counts. Less plant material moving. Lower home building numbers. These are directly attributable to demographics of the Gen X generation being millions of people fewer.

With the right business lessons applied and courage and risk taking on the part of our industry, we can become not only profitable again, but profitable beyond what we imagine.

The solution to a problem starts with defining the problem. For us, it is that the game has changed. We’re not going to go back. There is no rearview mirror.
The interest in gardening, the demand for our product — the things we have historically fallen back on and, in fact, take for granted in some cases — it’s a different ballgame now.

The value consumers placed on our product probably was never quite as significant as we thought, but we couldn’t see it.

We are going to have to reinvent our value proposition to our customers. I believe we can do that, with some concerted effort on the part of the industry to run its businesses as mature industry businesses. “Ma-and-Pa” business management is not going to be effective.

Dolibois On … ANLA Accomplishments
ANLA has been a source of both networking and educating owners and senior management in this industry as to the business of business. Education like the Management Clinic, the tours and Garden Center University have been focused on helping people run their businesses more capably. It’s been much imitated but ANLA modeled that kind of professional development through the years. I’m very proud of that.
 
ANLA has a long-standing reputation as a sector of American agriculture and small business that shoots straight when it comes to legislative or regulatory activity. We are nonpartisan. We focus on the issues that truly matter to our members and the industry’s businesses. I think it has positioned us as the most visible advocates for immigration and seasonal worker reform for guest workers and use of seasonal workers.
 
Another thing we can look back on is a diligent commitment to securing our industry’s reputation for wanting to do the right thing in transporting healthy plant material. When there have been problems like impatiens downy mildew or boxwood blight or other diseases in the past, we have, alongside SAF (the Society Of American Florists), supported quarantines where necessary and worked to prevent quarantines that have been more market-driven than science-driven. Supporting good science. I think we have been on the right side of all of those issues.

We need to step out of the history of how things have been — the thinking that we will cut our way to prosperity again if we do more and do it more cheaply by cutting back on inputs and capital investments and what we pay our people. You can’t cut your way to prosperity. I think there’s still some of that going on.

The marketplace has changed. On the front end of this downturn, there were some people — not just a few in the industry — who said, “We’ve been through this before.” You find out in year two, year three and year four that it ain’t the way it was. This isn’t just part of the business cycle.

This is a tectonic plate that has moved. The number of consumers, the interest of consumers in our products — even at the price points we’re charging — is not sustainable. Certainly not at the price points we’re charging.

It’s hindsight, but even though there were strong pressures accordingly, we have failed to protect the profitability of this industry and of our businesses.

As a result, we are really challenged to provide careers in this industry for younger people. Instead, what we’re able to give them is jobs, and those jobs are largely seasonal. They’re failing to attract the kind of talent and dedication and commitment we need, even among next-generation family businesses. And it’s affecting the ability of our older business owners to have an exit strategy.

Look at some of the other industries whose products and services are more directed to younger people. They were experiencing 20 or 30 years ago what we’re experiencing now: the large Boomer market giving way to smaller Generation X for the products they offered. We can look at what they did that worked.

Were Nike and Starbucks the big brands back then? No. But Folgers was. And Converse All Stars was. Converse was selling $12 gym shoes. And when the number of 17-year-old smelly feet declined, somebody had to do something.

Nike came up with the $120 shoe to compensate for fewer stinky feet. And Starbucks figured out they couldn’t keep selling a 25-cent cup of coffee. They had to do something different, too.

Dolibois On … Containerized
Plant Material
Containerized plant material is the biggest innovation I’ve seen in my time in the industry. It fundamentally altered the power structure of the marketplace and changed the nature of trade shows and associations.
 
Previously, producers drove the market. The summer and winter trade shows were primarily for placing orders for field-grown product. In a bad digging season, the grower determined which customers were going to get the full complement and which were not.
 
Container-grown plant material came in and leveled out some of the supply and demand challenges, which in turn has leveled out pricing.
 
The net effect is this is no longer as much of a producer-driven marketplace. It has empowered a stronger retail unit — I’m talking particularly about the big boxes — to become dominant in some corners of the market.
 
Containerized plants also altered the premise that the summer and winter trade shows should be order-placing shows [since growers no longer needed to take orders in advance of fall and spring digging]. These trade shows are slowly becoming relationship-maintenance shows.
 
That has affected the viability of the trade association community. For most of the state associations, the proceeds from these trade shows have funded everything they do. I believe that shakeout is still occurring, even though we’re talking about a whole generation since the containerized trend started to unfold.

It’s still intrinsically a foot covering and it’s still water running through some ground up nuts. But they created a different value proposition.

We have to quit feeling guilty. Be bold about our product. Don’t apologize. Don’t be afraid to throw it away rather than sell it at half price.

People say to me, “Bob, you just don’t know how it is out there.” Maybe so. But I believe if Howard Schultz had listened to advice like that when he was thinking about expanding Starbucks we’d all be drinking dollar lattes now. He said no. Same with Phil Knight and Nike.

There are organizations that have done this. There were a few bold innovators that did it and now everybody’s doing it. And everybody’s profiting as a benefit of that kind of innovation.

It’s easy for me to say, but sometimes it’s the guy who’s watching who can tell why the golf swing is not working better than the guy swinging the club. You sometimes feel like you’re in the groove when you aren’t. And the problem could be very, very obvious.

Much of what we’re doing in the way of retailing our plants is still built on the notion of gardening as a hobby. We need to acknowledge we are not a hobby. The new consumer does not have hobbies. The younger consumer has certain interests and those are going to be divvied up by the limited time they have. If they are confronted with an opportunity to indulge in an activity and the time commitment appears to be too great, they will go somewhere else.

The future of garden retail is packaging gardening in a way that conforms to future customers at a price point they are willing to pay. And that has to be higher than what we are charging right now.

The garden retail establishment needs to have the characteristics of both the nature of the product and service we’re providing. It needs to be welcoming. There needs to be a sense of nature or natural surroundings.

It can’t be hard finishes with shiny bright lights — an Apple Store design, even though that’s the way everybody thinks it needs to go.

Dolibois On … Influences
My father came to this country from Luxembourg as an immigrant at the age of 13. He did not speak the language. Through the help of some community-based organizations, the Army and some very caring individuals, he ended up with a sterling career in university development and alumni relations. That ultimately lent the opportunity for him to became the U.S. ambassador to the country from which he emigrated.
 
He has an absolute commitment to integrity in all things at all times and an uncompromising belief in the American dream and what that still stands for. I think you can still see traces of that kind of opportunity happening in America today and he has remained ever grateful. He’s been a real role model for me.

Anthropologie is a better example. Think about the way that product is presented, the color combinations and the other things Anthropologie is known for.When you go in their store, it’s just like one big product. There is a consistency between what their product is consciously or unconsciously appealing to, and they have taken that and made it real to the walk-in customer.

That’s what the retail garden center needs to emulate.

Another thing we need to do is monetize the value of landscaping.

Plants both inside and outside the house have a critical role to play. They both save money and contribute to our sense of health and well-being.

A well-designed and maintained landscape can continue to add value to a house over time. We’re the only aspect of a house of which that is true.

Everything else, whether it’s the cooktop stove or the refrigerator or the shower, the brick patio — all those things deteriorate over time and their value does not increase.
The value of our product is not like eating a Big Mac. Whether it’s cut flowers over five days or bedding plants for a season or an oak tree that lasts for generations, the gratification is protracted. We need recognition of that value.

Bob On … Service
I was in the Navy ROTC program in college and ended up with a three year commission in the Navy. That put me on ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. I was in Vietnam from ’69-‘72. I was stationed on ships offshore doing shore bombardment, disrupting troop movements north to south. I was on a destroyer.
 
We also did “plane guard” duty. That was moving quickly behind an aircraft carrier when planes were taking off and landing because every once in a while they would miss. The planes would sink but because we were there to help, the pilots would hopefully survive.
 
I really like working for a small businesses association. In my earlier years I was deeply involved in the association of association executives, the American Society of Association Executives. Between my own professional experience and that ASAE experience — where I lived vicariously through a lot of my peers’ experiences — I concluded pretty solidly that serving in this industry for these people is what I wanted to do.
 
Having small, family owned businesses that are affected by very unpredictable things like weather creates a community of people that are dependent on each other rather than at each other throats. For the way I am built, frankly, I prefer that to being involved in an industry that is hypercompetitive and laboring under some pretty big egos. The members of ANLA are the type of people and businesses I want to serve.

If we’re going to get the price up, we have to figure out how to increase the ease and success of owning that product. When we can demonstrate that kind of success and package it in a way that people are not overwhelmed or feel like they’re being like grandma, I think we stand a chance of seeing the kind of increased value proposition that will result in profit.

We need to have a unified mission, and that mission is to increase the perceived value of our products and services. If you’re asking if we can come up with a motto or a single program or a silver bullet or holy grail, I think that’s a tougher challenge. It could come, but it will come when we see ourselves as one industry.

ANLA and OFA coming together can be a down payment on our recognizing that, as an industry, we make distinctions among ourselves that the marketplace does not make. We are weaker for that.

We are like a family with a bunch of children that spend an unnecessary and greater amount of energy in sibling competition than they do representing the interests of the family as a whole.

I would rather see us rally as an industry around the mission of increasing the perceived value of plants. We have to agree that’s what needs to happen and that the success of the people around us is as important as my own personal success against the guy down the road by cutting the price of my product. Once we figure that one out, exactly how we go about it is going to be easier.

What is it about an iPhone that makes that product worth what they charge versus a $19 throwaway phone?

We’re pricing eight-year-old conifers — they have taken eight years to grow — as though they are a throwaway. That’s just ridiculous.

Bob On … The Future
What’s next for me is a story unfolding. I don’t have a whole bunch of things in the queue. I would like to have some kind of involvement in the industry simply because I love it so much and have so many good friends but I will not be the retired preacher that sits in the front pew every Sunday. On the other hand, if there’s a role or roles for me to continue to be involved and still give me time with my family and some of the ambitions I have personally, all the better.

The unified vision has to be we do not need to apologize. We need to be bold in our conviction in what we are doing and that the marketplace better come around to our way of thinking rather than the other way around. We are producing a unique and extremely valuable product and services to maintain it that are worthy of more money than people are now choosing to put into it.

If we’re all unified on this message, everything in our behavior toward each other and toward our customers — and equally important, our suppliers — changes because we all have the same mission. We have to make sure our customers and suppliers are strong too.

The best days for this industry are ahead of us, but it’s up to us to determine them.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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2 comments on “American Nursery & Landscape Association’s Bob Dolibois Offers His Take On The Future Of Floriculture

  1. Wayne Mezitt

    Once more, truly insightful comments from one of the best in the business — thank you Bob for all you've done for the nursery industry, benefitting all of us!

  2. Sharee Solow

    An excellent article. I sat here in my car with the heater just so I could read the entire thing on my iphone. Bravo. I am looking forward to the new retail shopping experiences where I can supply my developing dream garden (nurseries are so boring).