Driving along the rapidly developing main stretch in Sandusky, Ohio, you’ll pass a number of hotels, retail stores and restaurants, all to accommodate the city’s main industry of amusement parks. And by a stroke of luck or misfortune, depending on the opinion, Corso’s Perennials is located just a few doors down from Cedar Point, the “rollercoaster capital of the world.” The wholesale growing operation specializing in perennials and herbs, also has its own retail garden center, Corso’s.
Founded in 1941 by August Corso and his three sons, Phil, Joe and Michael, the operation was forced to relocate to its current location when the government built a TNT plant on Corso’s original site during the war effort. The plant is now a NASA facility, says Gus Corso, the grandson of August, who runs the operation with his cousins, John, Mickey and Michelle Corso, and his sons Chad and Brad Corso.
With competitors like The Home Depot, Lowe’s and Meijer down the street and a Menard’s store beginning construction right next door, the Corsos say it’s challenging to keep margins high enough and bring customers in.
“The struggle for independent garden centers is competition for that everyday dollar,” Gus says. “Anymore you have to decide whether you want to put money in your gas tank or buy flowers and if you buy flowers, how are you going to get them home without gas?”
Despite the competition, Corso’s plants still sell themselves, including cutting edge perennials varieties, spectacular hanging baskets and custom container plantings that set the retailer apart. In the spring, Chad says, customers swarm to the garden center and grab several of the huge, premium hanging baskets without even looking at the price. Unique as a one-stop shop, Corso’s also offers a floral shop, landscaping and excellent service from veteran industry professionals.
“We adjust to what our customer wants,” Chad says. “We take a lot of pride in growing a good quality product, listening to our customers and providing them with what they need.”
A second growing location is 10 miles away, and the wholesale operation feeds Corso’s garden center with a constant supply of high-quality perennials, herbs and vegetables, as well as supplying other independent and big box retailers in Ohio and a seven-state area. Corso’s Perennials also uses contract growers to supply its own retail needs and acts as a contract grower for other growers. Contract growing and supplying big box retailers has allowed Corso’s to grow sales and extend its season significantly over the past 10 years, shipping from the end of March into September.
With 90 full-time employees and 200 at peak, Corso’s attributes its success to five experienced growers and many loyal employees. “Our staff makes it all happen–without them, we wouldn’t exist,” Chad says. “We try to be fair employers, keep their jobs enjoyable, thank them when they deserve it and don’t ask them to do anything we wouldn’t do.”
Raising The Roof With Branding
Corso’s recently joined the green movement with its participation in the LiveRoofs program from Hortech. The brand includes a national network of about 20 growers so far, and is receiving a great deal of interest.
“LiveRoofs is a modular system of plants that are fully vegetated when they are delivered to the job site and produce an instant green roof when they are installed,” Gus says. “We have had a lot of interest–not a lot of jobs yet but it’s new for us; it’s coming on strong.”
This summer Corso’s will install a large LiveRoofs job at Lorain Community College in Ohio. Only two years into working with the brand, Gus says a number of manufacturers, office buildings and hospitals have expressed interest, getting quotes through architects for jobs one or two years in the future.
“There is big growth potential: green roofs are already big in western Michigan, Chicago and Indianapolis,” Gus says. “There are several municipalities that require businesses to install green roofs. Once businesses see the benefits, there will be a strong demand for LiveRoofs.”
Corso’s has also experienced success with Herb Herbert’s herbs since the mid ’90s, and STEPABLES creeping perennials since 2003.
“When Herb Herbert approached us, we were looking to upgrade our herb program, which was pretty generic at the time,” Chad says. “They had all the information and packaging we wanted and it fit right. Once we saw the benefits of that program and branding, we jumped when STEPABLES came along. It’s a very good concept and a good product for us to get in the door of a lot of independent garden centers.”
Corso’s own Perennial Perfections brand for independent garden centers was started to complement the core perennial business, more to streamline marketing efforts and provide consumers with a larger, more descriptive label with large photos, than to push a consumer recognized brand, Chad says. “It hasn’t reached the level of Coke,” he laughs.
Efficiency: Growing Smarter
Like all growers, Corso’s is working to streamline its operations in the face of rising energy and labor costs. A year ago, the operation suffered a large electrical fire that leveled several production barns, but an opportunity rose from the ashes.
“I never want to go through that again, but it allowed us to redesign our production barns, get new, up-to-date equipment and make our planting lines much more efficient than they were in the past,” Chad says. “It’s a rough way to get it, but after going through that experience, it makes us look at everything in a different way: how many people does it take for a certain job; the cost of one upgrade versus how much more efficient it will make us over the years. It’s made us smarter as far as our equipment is concerned.”
Corso’s will approach escalating fuel prices in the same manner with research into alternative energy solutions for the future, including wind energy at its second growing operation.