It’s a difficult and crowded marketplace these days as growers everywhere struggle to find a niche that matches up well with both their size and strengths. For Riverview Flower Farms, a 25-year journey has founders Rick and Dave Brown and their team comfortably situated at the top of their game, serving their customer of choice with strong branding programs and new products, and tracking it all with innovative software programs.
A Family Affair
Like many present-day growers, the brothers Brown had farming in their bloodlines. According to Rick, “growing was where our hearts were, as our grandparents on both sides had small farms to feed large families.” Both brothers attended the University of Florida around the time of the big bedding plant boom, and Rick and Dave cut their teeth in retail and landscaping before joining up at a tomato producer in Ruskin, Fla. After helping move this company into the ornamentals market and after seeing its growing profit potential, the brothers decided to strike out on their own.
With differing interests and complementary skills, the Browns form a good team from the start, as Dave observes. “For the first several years, both Rick and I did everything, but as the business grew, we focused on our strong points. Rick works mostly on sales, marketing, propagation and new product development, while my strengths are business management, scheduling and production.” Open lines of communication are key and are a major asset of the family team as a whole. “We’re able to talk about the choices that need to be made each day and arrive at the best solution or action that needs to be taken.”
Branding Builds Business
Riverview Flower Farms’ initial success was built on geraniums, poinsettias and garden mums. However, a few years in a row of sharp declines in prices for these crops led Rick and Dave to keep searching for that elusive niche, and soon their sharp eyes spied another profitable market to tap — what eventually became the Florida Friendly Plants program. Consisting of 30 perennials and 10 ornamental grasses and based on the theory of offering the customer the right plant for the right place, this branding program for native Florida plants and other good zonal performers has been very successful, enabling Riverview to grow from a modest 3-acre operation to one that encompasses 50 acres of production at three locations just south of Tampa, Fla.
Finding A Home At Depot
Riverview’s growth has been paralleled by a comparable growth in customer size, from independents and landscapers to small and large chains to the largest chain of them all for plant sales, The Home Depot.
“Serving a customer like The Home Depot is really good if you like change, and we do,” attests Rick. “Home Depot is so progressive and open to new ideas and programs that keep this business fresh and interesting.”
Even early on, the Browns were influenced by the business formula that companies like Color Spot and Lovell Farms brought to the California and Florida floriculture markets, with a heavy merchandising emphasis and an early version of a vendor managed inventory (VMI) system called “guaranteed sales.” So it was natural that they should end up in a consignment system.
“When I saw the Lovell model for driving plant sales, I knew that was the best way to control our destiny,” says Rick. “VMI was just the next logical step, and the efficiency of not being received at the store or going through their order process is a big plus.”
However, this “next logical step” necessitated another step upwards in logic — the improvement of computerized inventory control processes. According to Rick, “Two years ago we retooled our order entry and inventory system to fit pay-by-scan. We now have all the live data to manage the inventory in the store and on the farms to maximize sales and minimize waste.”
Marketing Pays Off
Riverview pays a rebate to The Home Depot for advertising, and in return having their products on benches in Big Orange guarantees that their product will be seen by a crowd of consumers on an everyday basis. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the Brown brothers to make sure their plants get picked up and paid for. “The best marketing is still at the bench level,” says Rick. “Every time we set a bench, it gets shopped hard, so we know our efforts pay off.”
Reaching consumers through brands forms the backbone of the Brown business strategy. “Everything we sell now and have sold for the past eight years has been under Florida Friendly Plants or something equally as effective,” Rick says. “If you let the product go without brand recognition, you have lost the easiest opportunity for a repeat sale that exists. You’ve also lost the opportunity for your retail customer to become a promoter of your brand and products to friends and neighbors who admire their efforts. All our products have care info and proudly state that we have grown them regionally, and also offer more info on the Web. We make sure branded bench cards tell the story about the plant, and always put the price right in front of the customer. Nearly every time I go to my stores, customers ask me about the price of another vendor’s product and how should they care for it. If they can see the price, name, care info and a brand that they trust, they can and will make that instant and confident decision to purchase.”