When Wayne and Chris Mercer bought their 17-acre piece of land in Zellwood, Fla. in 1987, it held less than a half acre of Dutch glass house, 2 1/2 acres of vintage fiberglass greenhouses and several common flat-top shade structures. “We affectionately called the location ‘The Rat Hole,’ because several large rats scampered for their lives as discarded mounds of nursery debris were loaded into dumpsters,” Wayne says. The property, overrun with old garbage, brush and trees growing up through the buildings’ roofs, was given new life over the next three years. The Mercers’ mentor and family member Gene Batson “provided a military style of training and introduction to potted tropicals, turning a dental hygienist and a small-building contractor from Michigan into Florida farmers,” says Wayne. As a result, Mercer Botanicals sold its first plants in 1990 to an already established customer base.
Seventeen years later, the operation has grown to 750,000 square feet of greenhouse production with room to expand on more than 50 acres of land. With 30 employees, Chris Mercer drives all sales while Wayne Mercer consults the professional staff of growers and production managers during daily morning meetings.
With its commitment to “Worry-Free Buying” and an aggressive customer base, Mercer Botanicals has grown an average of 12 percent annually over the past 10 years and 15 percent over the last five.
“I don’t know that we are special in any way from the group of growers that focuses on listening to their customers and striving to meet their needs, but we do claim to be part of that group,” Wayne says.
Not a company to chase the latest fads, for 17 years Mercer Botanicals has excelled in growing a core group of products: syngonium, dieffenbachia, crotons and Neanthe Bella palms, as well 10 other species. “We are known for these staples and understand their challenges,” Wayne says.
This consistency, along with listening and catering to the needs of their core customers, is the reason for the company’s growth and success. “I am in constant contact with our customers,” says Chris. “I believe the dependability of our core product offerings has serviced our customer base well and will continue to do so. The changes and additions to our product line are customer driven. We serve them, not Mercer Botanicals.”
With no single customer owning more than 8 percent of the operation’s annual sales, the clientele is truly diverse and includes select garden centers, florists, dish garden growers, rewholesalers and interiorscape contractors.
Serving customers of the future, whether retailers, wholesalers or the next generation of consumers, will be helped tremendously by using the Internet more efficiently, according to Wayne. Though Mercer Botanicals’ Web site does glean some business currently, he says he feels it is behind the curve.
“There is a great untapped potential in using the Web for our industry,” Wayne says. “The MySpace generations are in or headed to the workforce and their point of purchase may be located at 30,000 feet, from their PDA as they sit on a Southwest Airlines flight. Although contrary to our traditional beliefs on customer service, there is a whole new generation of customers raised on the platform of technology who are comfortable with searching for products and answers from the privacy of their computers.”
Rising Above Challenges
According to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida, Wayne says, potted tropicals comprise less than 8 percent of the live goods market–and the category is declining. Recovering from the current housing market slump will help the market turn around, he says, but it will take dedicated growers who are willing to automate to stick with the game.
“Those of us left in the market will have to continue increasing production capacity through cost saving automation,” Wayne says. “Some growers will be strong, investing in technology and growing area. Some will continue to sell out for land values and we will continue to see more mergers and acquisitions along with contract growing with larger, stronger firms.” Meanwhile, he adds, he is convinced that the tropical foliage industry has not reached its potential.
Part of the future includes an immediate need to reduce the industry’s environmental impact, whether the changes are voluntary or mandatory, Wayne says. Mercer Botanicals is doing its part by adopting the Southern Nursery Association’s Best Management Practices (BMPs) as a guide for environmentally sound growing, aided by tools like new digitally metered controlled-release fertilizer equipment.
“We have committed to minimizing nitrate runoff by using both controlled release and liquid feed fertilizer in order to maintain an ideal EC and pH in our crops,” he says. “Our feed schedule uses minimal pounds per yard of slow-release feed in 100 percent peat mix with supplemental liquid feeds only as required. We irrigate through low-volume heads with 85 percent plus uniformity.”
Wayne adds that he hopes more growers get on board with BMPs “to help create the future we want before we have a future regulated in a direction we don’t want.”
As parents of three, Wayne and Chris Mercer say they would love to see Mercer Botanicals passed on to the next generation in the long term. “If this is not meant to be, we will pursue alternate succession plans that will offer a continuation of our core values to our customer base,” Wayne says.
The short-term plan, however, is conservative growth to preserve capital position and capital by monitoring public buying patterns, government regulations and overall industry trends.
“Our intent is to be prepared for when the market swings in our favor,” Wayne says. “We will be ready to make the investments necessary to keep our business sustainable long into the future.”