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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Leave a Reply

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

  1. 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. 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).

More From Business Management...
Joe Bischoff

July 26, 2016

SAF Partners With Cornerstone Government Affairs To Advance Industry’s Policy Priorities In Washington

A new partnership between the Society of American Florists (SAF) and Cornerstone Government Affairs ensures that SAF will continue its highly effective work advocating for issues that affect the floriculture industry. “SAF and Cornerstone together provide experienced voices on Capitol Hill to protect our growers’ interests,” says SAF CEO Peter Moran. “We’ll continue to move major policy priorities forward on behalf of small business and agriculture.” Cornerstone is a public affairs firm specializing in government relations, strategic consulting, and advocacy. Its team of more than 50 senior professionals includes former senior professional staff from both authorization and appropriations committees and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as veterans of the horticulture industry. Agricultural and horticultural issues of primary concern to SAF members include access to labor, immigration, crop protection, international trade and other matters related to the day-to-day operations of growers. Before she retired this year, SAF lobbyist Lin […]

Read More

July 26, 2016

AFE Releases New Videos Highlighting Industry Successes

The American Floral Endowment (AFE) recently released five new videos, created to highlight floriculture successes through industry collaboration, support, and participation. “Each video shares real stories from industry members on career development through scholarships and internships, and true examples of research solutions that have shaped how the industry operates today,” says Laura Shinall, President of Syndicate Sales, Inc., and AFE Public Relations and Development Chair. “We’re excited to be able to share some great success stories in an effort to increase industry participation.” The introductory video “Heard of the American Floral Endowment?” helps educate those who aren’t currently aware of AFE’s programs, while other segmented videos (retail, wholesale, grower) share how Endowment programs complement each group and why it’s so important that everyone in the industry participates: Retail Florists Share Why They Turn to AFE New Resources for Floral Wholesalers and Suppliers AFE Helping Growers Profit Ready for a Career in Floriculture or Horticulture? […]

Read More
Workers

July 23, 2016

5 Reasons To Invest In Employee Training

Training and developing your employees is critical to the future success of your organization and the horticulture industry at large. Here are five reasons why your employees are worth the effort.

Read More
Latest Stories
Joe Bischoff

July 26, 2016

SAF Partners With Cornerstone Government Affairs To Adv…

A new partnership between the Society of American Florists (SAF) and Cornerstone Government Affairs ensures that SAF will continue its highly effective work advocating for issues that affect the floriculture industry. “SAF and Cornerstone together provide experienced voices on Capitol Hill to protect our growers’ interests,” says SAF CEO Peter Moran. “We’ll continue to move major policy priorities forward on behalf of small business and agriculture.” Cornerstone is a public affairs firm specializing in government relations, strategic consulting, and advocacy. Its team of more than 50 senior professionals includes former senior professional staff from both authorization and appropriations committees and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as veterans of the horticulture industry. Agricultural and horticultural issues of primary concern to SAF members include access to labor, immigration, crop protection, international trade and other matters related to the day-to-day operations of growers. Before she retired this year, SAF lobbyist Lin […]

Read More

July 26, 2016

AFE Releases New Videos Highlighting Industry Successes

The American Floral Endowment (AFE) recently released five new videos, created to highlight floriculture successes through industry collaboration, support, and participation. “Each video shares real stories from industry members on career development through scholarships and internships, and true examples of research solutions that have shaped how the industry operates today,” says Laura Shinall, President of Syndicate Sales, Inc., and AFE Public Relations and Development Chair. “We’re excited to be able to share some great success stories in an effort to increase industry participation.” The introductory video “Heard of the American Floral Endowment?” helps educate those who aren’t currently aware of AFE’s programs, while other segmented videos (retail, wholesale, grower) share how Endowment programs complement each group and why it’s so important that everyone in the industry participates: Retail Florists Share Why They Turn to AFE New Resources for Floral Wholesalers and Suppliers AFE Helping Growers Profit Ready for a Career in Floriculture or Horticulture? […]

Read More
Workers

July 23, 2016

5 Reasons To Invest In Employee Training

Training and developing your employees is critical to the future success of your organization and the horticulture industry at large. Here are five reasons why your employees are worth the effort.

Read More
BeeSmart

July 21, 2016

How You Can Get Involved In Research

The Horticultural Research Institute (HRI) supports scientific research and students for the advancement of the horticultural industry.

Read More
Luxflora Flower Run

July 20, 2016

First-Ever Flower Run Was A Big Success, Luxflora Says

Kicking off Cultivate’16 on Sunday, July 10, Luxflora’s first annual 5K saw nearly 150 participants racing through the picturesque Scioto Audubon Park in Columbus under clear blue skies and perfect conditions. It was a great way to start the week, participants said. Congratulations to the winners of the first-ever Flower Run: First Place: Jacob Griffith Gardner Second Place: Mike Goyette Third Place: Jack Ford The top three winners — and all of the Flower Run participants — were showered with flower petals when they crossed the finish line, making for a colorful and fragrant finish to an invigorating experience. “Personally, I would consider it a grand success,” says Luxflora President Rebecca Lusk. “The overall mood was fantastic, from start to finish. There were many high fives and group hugs, numerous duo phone selfies and postings to social media, while participants enjoyed their bananas and bottled water donated by Experience Columbus. Most […]

Read More

July 19, 2016

Do You Grow Young Plants? Only 4 Days Left To Take Our …

If your operation produces plugs or liners for wholesale growers, please take a few minutes to participate in Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Young Plant Grower Survey. We know you are very busy and we value your time and input. This survey should only take a few minutes. Greenhouse Grower’s Young Plant Grower Survey has played a key role in building our Top 20 Young Plant Growers list over the years. The information helps us zero in on trends taking shape and the challenges you’re facing as young plant growers. If you have any questions about this survey or you are not the right contact for this at your operation, please email me at [email protected], or please forward the survey link to the appropriate person. We would like to wrap up this survey by July 25, so please take it soon! Thank you in advance for your participation. We value your opinion! » […]

Read More

July 9, 2016

Market The Experience Of Gardening, Minus The Fuss

Greenhouse Grower editor Laura Drotleff says the industry should promote plants and gardening in bite-size chunks that help consumers build skills.

Read More
Grower Education

July 7, 2016

Two Industry Veterans Discuss How To Meet The Challenge…

Two industry players have a conversation on how we can deliver the level of grower education needed to address complex issues associated with production practices and pest management strategies.

Read More
Briscoe White, Growers Exchange

July 6, 2016

The Grower’s Exchange Unlocks The Secret to E-Commerce

In the Internet era, Briscoe and Kenan White knew they had to adapt or die and specialize to survive. Here’s how they took The Grower’s Exchange online.

Read More
Brie Arthur

July 6, 2016

5 Can’t-Miss Events To Watch For At Farwest 2016

Whether it’s classes on biocontrols and gardening trends, or networking opportunities in and around the trade show floor, there’s plenty happening at Farwest 2016 in Portland, OR, in August.

Read More
'Violets Pride' from Week's Roses Downton Abbey Garden Rose Collection

July 6, 2016

6 Key Insights From The Generations Of Flowers Study

Being local and offering expert recommendations are hidden opportunities in the floral business. This was one of six insights during a recent webinar analyzing the Generations of Flowers study from the Society of American Florists and the American Floral Endowment.

Read More
Joe Lamp'l

July 1, 2016

Gardening Personality Joe Lamp’l Will Be Keynote Speake…

Lamp’l, who hosts the PBS series “Growing a Greener World,” will discuss effective ways to build your business and keep your customers.

Read More
Cannabis states 2016

July 1, 2016

Adult Use Of Cannabis On The Ballot In 2016

25 states have legalized cannabis and public opinion is increasingly positive. Here’s where things may be headed as we move toward the fall elections.

Read More
Robert Conrad, Ball Seed Technology Research Manager

June 27, 2016

Ball Premier Lab Wins Medal Of Excellence Award For Its…

Over the past 30 years, the Ball Premier Lab has set the standard for high-quality seed in the industry, earning it Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Medal Of Excellence for Industry Achievement, for its dedication to advancing seed and helping growers improve their margins.

Read More
North Creek Nurseries lower trials

June 24, 2016

North Creek Nurseries Is A Finalist For 2016 Operation …

North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, PA, is one of three finalists for Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Operation Of The Year award and winner of the Excellence In Sustainable Production award for 2016.

Read More
Vic Frey, Kurt Weiss Greenhouses Feature

June 23, 2016

Vic Frey Named A Finalist For 2016 Head Grower Of The Y…

Vic Frey, a finalist for the 2016 Head Grower of the Year and recipient of the 2016 Excellence In Production award, was always willing to trial and experiment with the latest technology. He loved the constant change in this industry, and turned every opportunity into a teaching moment.

Read More
Albert Grimm, Jefferys Greenhouses

June 19, 2016

Albert Grimm Named A Finalist For 2016 Head Grower Of T…

Grimm, winner of Greenhouse Grower's Excellence in Outreach and Leadership award, is always willing to listen, continuously learn, and improve. He is a role model and empowers his employees to strive for excellence.

Read More
Practical Software Grower Vertical

June 18, 2016

Practical Software Solutions Increases Accessibility, E…

Practical Software will demonstrate Grower Vertical, its customizable and scalable enterprise management system for the horticulture industry, at Cultivate’16 in July.

Read More
[gravityform id="35" title="false" description="false"]