Back in 2003, we knew Dave Foltz was one to watch when we featured him as one of our “40 Under 40″ at age 32. He directed sales and marketing back then for Kurt Weiss Greenhouses, the largest greenhouse operation on the East Coast. Today, he is 40 and leading legendary Ivy Acres.
Foltz started at Kurt Weiss as an in-store service rep and rose through hard work, determination and being hands-on and engaged in the business every day. His drive was to make a difference in the organization and grow the business. Now he’s doing the same with Ivy Acres as the company expands geographically, adds new product lines and diversifies its customer base. As we went to press, Ivy Acres was acquiring Conard-Pyle’s production facilities in Pennsylvania to produce roses, perennials and groundcovers.
GG: What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned serving large retailers?
DF: Always listen to what they have to say. Truly listen to their needs and expectations, their challenges and obstacles. Understand your customer, then try to help! React quickly to find solutions that are win-win for both the customer and the supplier. Always execute and deliver on whatever you say you will. Expectation and execution are everything!
Relationships are another key element. This means relationships at all levels with your customer, from the employees at the store to the buyers and executives at the home office. They must understand you truly want to make them and their company successful and you are not just in it for the sale. Strong relationships are key to success.
GG: Over the last few years, we’ve seen large retailers dramatically reduce the number of growers they are working with. How have growers had to adjust?
DF: Growers have had to adapt and adjust quickly in order to survive and become a better supplier in every aspect–quality, service, packaging, innovations, shipping and overall logistics; anything to differentiate our products and companies from our competitors.
We’ve also had to do additional things such as consolidate different types of product and branch out into other categories and product lines to become a one-stop shop for retailers. This includes outsourcing and brokering various products until we can ultimately produce them ourselves.
It’s sort of a Darwinistic approach where only the strongest will survive with the large retailers. And by strongest I mean the best in terms of quality and execution.
GG: What does it take to be the primary plant vendor in a region for a large retailer? How would you describe the level of commitment and investment required?
DF: It requires a tremendous amount of dedication and loyalty. You’re basically on call 24/7, especially in the Northeast where the selling season is so short. You have to be prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty at any given time. It’s all about having the right mix of product in the right store at the right time to optimize the potential for driving sales. You have to do whatever it takes to execute that. It’s pretty intense at times.
Also, you have to remember, with some retailers we are partners until that plant leaves the store. Thus, our service, quality and execution have to be exceptional. In many ways, we have essentially become the retailer and we have to think of the end consumer as our ultimate customer.
GG: What strategies do you recommend for growers who aren’t the primary vendors and have become contract growers?
DF: Really listen to the needs and concerns of the growers you are providing products to. Be proactive. Ask them how you can help them have better success with the product they are purchasing from you. Try to find out the retailer’s expectations. Determine if there are any adaptations or enhancements you can make to your product so all parties are more successful. Take initiative and show them you care about the success of their company, too.
Another suggestion is it is very important to see how the end consumer reacts to your product. Don’t be afraid to visit it in the retail environment. Stand back and watch and study consumers as they pick up your product, pass by it, read the labels, are drawn or not drawn to it, and who ultimately purchases or does not purchase it. (Of course, it is always better to inform the grower you are supplying before you visit the retail store.)
Then, most importantly, use what you’ve learned and experienced to make recommendations and work with the grower you’re supplying to enhance your product so it is more successful in the future.
GG: How has the big grower become the big customer?
DF: Well, that’s easy. The more each big grower expands their product lines and becomes more diversified, the more we depend on contract and specialty growers to provide various goods. Essentially, we are becoming not only the big grower and big customer but also the big retailer in every aspect you can imagine. Where we used to just focus on producing, selling and shipping a great quality plant, now we are focused on every aspect of the retail environment.
In regards to packaging, presentation and service, we analyze each plant or category as if we were one big retailer not only focused on how our customers will react to it but how the end consumer views it. In many retail arenas, we have more responsibilities than in the past and so much more is at stake until that finished product ultimately hits the consumer’s shopping cart.
GG: How big is too big? Any insights on managing very large operations?
DF: I don’t think it’s a matter of ever being too big. I think the larger you get, the more important it becomes to continually invest in people and infrastructure. You have to put the right people in the right positions in order to sustain your growth. You need a strong base of managers and employees to focus on the day-to day operations while at the same time having key personnel focusing on long-term strategy and vision. The key is to successfully bridge and integrate the two sides. In terms of infrastructure, you have to keep investing in technology, equipment, education, logistics and innovation to sustain and support your organization and its growth. The biggest challenge occurs when a company grows too quickly and does not add the proper support. You have to invest in your people and your infrastructures.
GG: How important is it for growers to be diversified in their offerings and customer base? Are more putting all their eggs in one or two baskets?
DF: It is extremely important to be diversified in both your offerings and your customer base. As a matter of fact, that was my number one priority when I joined Ivy Acres as a consultant. Ivy was primarily an annual and perennial grower who mainly shipped and serviced The Home Depot. My goals were to first diversify our product lines and then use this as a catalyst to diversify our customer base and ultimately capture more marketshare.
For the first time, Ivy Acres as an array of product available in the following categories: tropicals, indoor floral, orchids, cacti, tropicals, hibiscus, sod and holiday plants throughout the year. Additionally, in the last 18 months, we started producing and shipping container roses, a complete fall line including pumpkins and gourds, and various Christmas greens. All of this added together really completes us, as we are no longer just an annual/perennial supplier, but rather more of a well-rounded company providing product and services throughout the year. We are providing almost every item for our customers with the exception of trees and shrubs.
In terms of our largest customers, it allows us to push more product, which ultimately means more dollars, through the each store front. This enhances synergies including shipping more freight to the same location and allowing us to staff a more permanent well-trained service team in the field. Increasing our sales throughout the year helps offset fixed costs and assets throughout the company.
In addition to offering more products, diversifying our customer base helps lower the risk factor. If sales in one customer slows down, there is another outlet for moving product. Increasing volume with additional customer bases enables us to develop new products and packaging and test them in multiple retail outlets. Most importantly, it allows us to have more control over our own destiny. The closer you get maxed out in production, the more you can pick and choose where to send product to and ultimately become more profitable.
It’s also just as important to expand into new markets and territories. This year we are shipping to multiple customers in four additional states. By capturing more marketshare in different states, it allows us to have more regions to ship to. If the weather is bad in one, you usually will have another outlet for your product.
GG: What excites you most about this spring season?
DF: I would have to say for us it is hands down the growth and expansion we are experiencing. That, along with the new facility. It’s exciting to be part of a growing company and taking an entire organization to the next level. We have a lot of great people here at Ivy Acres and you can see and hear the excitement each season as we continue to get larger.