Dewar Nurseries: Making The Grade

Slideshow: Dewar Nurseries

It’s not too often you find a blooming potted plant specialist who also is big in outdoor nursery production. You may find it with a specialist in a particular genus, like azaleas, but not with a full assortment of florist-grade blooming potted plants spanning roses, hydrangeas, Easter lilies, kalanchoes and more.

Dewar Nurseries in Apopka, Fla., is a strong force in two distinctly different markets–indoor blooming potted plants, which mostly revolve around holidays, and shrub roses for the outdoor garden market. As a result, the precise attention to detail and quality demanded for mass market floral carries over to nursery crop production.

“The outside garden is more flexible. Floral crops have to be ready on the day,” says Bill Dewar, president of the company. “Easter lilies, for example, have to be in bloom with one bud cracking open as they go to the distribution warehouse. You have to measure each bloom. Because of our commitment to floral, we perform better on the outdoor garden products. We strive to produce the best-looking plant in a pot ornamentally.”

Bill never ceases to be amazed at what some growers will ship in comparison. “Others will grow a landscape rose in inferior soil, resulting in smaller leaves and poorer keeping quality. We don’t want to ship that,” he says. “Ours looks like a hybrid tea rose. If you put both plants in the store, you see a difference. People want what we’re shipping. Buying better soil and spending an extra $13 for 400 pots is well worth it.”

The true art of growing resides with Bill’s father, Alex Dewar, who founded the company after working many years for another Florida grower. Alex graduated with a degree in horticulture and chemistry from the University of Florida. Bill, who grew up working for his father, holds a degree in marketing and management from Stetson University near Daytona Beach. At age 77, Alex is still very active in the business and looks forward to coming to work every day.

“We have the eye of a florist that I hope we don’t lose,” Alex says. “Sometimes it’s something of a cost disadvantage, and not always required, but it’s the finer points of quality that make the difference.”

Reaping Rewards

The investment in quality pays off as Dewar outperforms competitors in the stores and gains more business. Customers include several food chains, as well as the mass market and home improvement chains.

Ranked at No. 78 on our Top 100 Growers, Dewar Nurseries has 914,000 square feet of greenhouse production and 740,520 square feet under shade for blooming potted plants and 5.5 million square feet of outdoor production just for roses. In addition to the Apopka location, this includes a 20-acre satellite facility 200 miles south in Palm Beach County, where 800,000 of 3 million roses will be produced this year. The company has 160 year-round employees and ramped up to 225 this year.

Alex recalls humble beginnings of putting a van on the road to peddle gloxinias and then growing with supermarket chains. Big-box business began when Home Depot approached Dewar in the 1980s. “The buyer said ‘I’ll take everything you’ve got left,’ and we fell over,” Alex recalls. “There’s a lot of opportunity, but you need balance. Fortunately for us, the outdoor garden center roses and floral side are two different businesses. We were heavily into the food chains and are trying to re-establish that.”

About half of Dewar’s business is roses. Several years ago the company made a conscious decision not to participate in pay by scan–selling to retailers who only pay for plants rung through the cash register.  “Rose bushes are not good for pay by scan,” Bill says. “If you go to a Macy’s sale and see how people treat clothes, it’s a disaster. They treat plants the same way. It’s a different mentality. The item we produce, roses, are harder to shop. There can be a lot of shrink.”

Although not participating in pay-by-scan limits which retailers Dewar can do business with, opportunities continue to grow. One emerging category is edibles, producing blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and grapes for Lowe’s Grow Your Own program. The large cooling facility Dewar uses for floral crops comes in handy for setting buds and berries.

Dewar is the largest Easter lily producer in the Southeast, producing 300,000 plants this year. The million-dollar cooler in which Dewar invested in 1990 can hold 21 semiloads of finished product. “Before, we were outsourcing coolers and competing with fresh fruit companies,” Bill says. “Once we had 10,000 boxes of lilies in one room that iced up and were hosed down with a fire hose. Experiences like that led us to invest in our own cooling facility. We have the largest cold room in the Southeast for bulb crops.”

Transportation & Logistics

The Dewars realize growing a quality product is only half the job. The other half is delivering. The company has its own fleet of 52 refrigerated trailers and 10,000 racks and uses the TruckStops program to manage all its routes.

Bill recently saved $700,000 by purchasing 4,200 carts overseas from China, but he had to pay $1 million up front, which made him nervous. “We spend a lot of money on infrastructure just to move product,” he says. “We can load 35 semis at a time.”

The market for drivers has dramatically improved with the economic downturn. “Four years ago, we couldn’t find drivers, now if we need 100, we can get them,” Alex says. “Now we’re finding drivers with 10 years experience and a clean record. It’s a buyer’s market now.”
Dewar has been offered markets in territories as far away as the West Coast but the father-and-son team is careful to not over extend the company’s reach. “It doesn’t fit our model, but it’s a nice offer,” Bill says. “We could have expanded more if we wanted to. Perfect scenario is 10 percent a year, which is comfortable. Nineteen percent this year goes beyond comfortable.”

The pair also has been careful about the amount of debt they take on. “All these years in business, even in the 1950s, I saw good growers with good product but debt killed them,” Alex says. “If you lose your market, who will you sell to? Why would other growers want to carry your line? There has been so much consolidation on the grower side and retail sides. There are fewer growers with major impact and not nearly as many retail outlets. With the volume we produce, we’re geared to large retailers. But make an effort to serve independents.”

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8 comments on “Dewar Nurseries: Making The Grade

  1. I bought two plants last year from a nursery here in Birmingham, Al. I cannot remember what kind of plant it is, but they tag on the plant said Rose Premium. I don't think it is an azalea. It is a beautiful plant and I have not taken it out of the pot and I cannot remember what it is. Can you help. The plant was purchased from Dewar Nurseries in Apopka, Fl. Thanks

  2. I've bought a beautiful little fig tree from Home Depo, but the tag just says FIG. How can I determine the exact type of fig? I am asking you because the tag says grown by Dewar Nurseries.

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