James Greenhouses: New Perspectives In A Traditional Industry

James Greenhouse’s young, passionate team helps the operation stay flexible with orders and produce consistently high-quality liners.

Looking at most of the greenhouse operations in the industry, it may seem like having a long line of growers in the family is a requirement. If so, Greenhouse Grower’s Operation of the Year winners Ken and Leah James of James Greenhouses are breaking the tradition. With hard work, an eye for opportunity and insights from industry professionals, this young couple has grown a first-generation business from two workers (themselves) in 1998 to 36 dedicated employees today. The Jameses see both the pros and cons of being newcomers.

“It’s a challenge. It really is. We just don’t have that depth of experience to draw on. Even though our customers and our suppliers are certainly the best in the world, in my opinion, we just don’t have that innate knowledge of the industry and how things work. We have made some really expensive mistakes along the way,” Ken says.

“But on the other hand, I look at it as an asset because we have always had a very open mind about production methodologies, product lines and costs,” he says. “We try not to get caught up in thinking that we know how things are supposed to be done because this is the way we have always done them.”

A Guy, A Girl And A Greenhouse

Producing approximately 14 million vegetative liners per year, James Greenhouses serves a wide range of customers from major operations to mom-and-pop growers in the U.S., Canada and as far as Bermuda, but the story of how the two came to own their own greenhouse begins at the University of Georgia where Ken and Leah met. The two were horticulture students, with Ken studying golf course management and Leah focusing on floriculture.

Ken ultimately decided his passion was ornamentals and “left the turf and grass thing behind.” Although he always had the goal of being self-employed, he gained experience working for container and perennial grower Iverson Perennials Gardens. It was there that Ken began thinking, based on the vegetative materials the operation received and produced, there was room for another supplier in the southeast.

“I decided that was what I wanted to do,” Ken says. “I had always loved propagation in school, and I focused on that specialty as being a niche opportunity in the marketplace.”

Ken left Iverson Perennials and moved closer to home to work at Saul Nurseries in Atlanta, Ga. While working there for a year, he did research and looked at property on which to begin his own greenhouse company. Leah and Ken were dating at the time, but Leah concentrated on her own career. She came into the picture as Ken was looking at property.

“One day he just asked me, ‘Will you do this with me? Will you work at the greenhouse office?,’” Leah says. “And I said, ‘Sure,’ and from the very beginning we moved out here and started building greenhouses.”

Starting From Scratch

The first summer, Ken and Leah lived in a camper on the 70 acres of red-dirt-covered grounds in the Georgia heat. Add to the small home a small business where Ken and Leah worked side-by-side, first dry walling and laying the floor of their office and then sticking cuttings all day, every day for a few years, and it was a tough start.

“Luckily, we just got bigger and bigger so we could divide the responsibilities. If we’re together, we will argue about a decision,” Leah says. “Now responsibilities are split up enough that we’re not directly working together and making the same decisions.”

Leah handles the production planning and a lot of the office functions, working closely with the customer service staff. Ken handles the operations side, working closely with the head grower, production manager and shipping manager. Despite relatively smooth sailing now, Ken and Leah agree there was a large learning curve.

“It sounds so mundane but learning how to professionally run an office is a very complicated thing. Taking a college accounting class does not prepare you for that,” Ken says. “My idea of human resources when I was in college was that some Fortune 500 company has a human resources manager. Quite frankly, you don’t have to get over 10 or 11 employees before you need someone who is dedicated to the cause of hiring and managing all those things that have to do with employing people. There were a lot of hiccups on the business management side.”

“We started from scratch and neither of us had any business training. It was all horticultural training. I feel like every step along the way has been a learning experience,” Leah says. “How do you go about borrowing money? How do you handle payroll? How do you go about hiring good people? Facility and staff was a big challenge. We’re in a good place now, but it was over 13 years of figuring out the right kind of people to hire.”

Now the Jameses look to University of Georgia graduates to fill many positions at the greenhouse, and Ken says that some of their best workers come from their alma mater. The former students bring new ideas and zeal to the company. Many of the Jameses prized employees gain experience working in one position and grow into others.

Getting Help From The Industry

Despite early challenges, the Jameses were fortunate to have entrepreneur family friends and industry professionals to guide them. Ken credits Sam Rizzi, who hired Ken as a straight-from-college graduate for his first job at Iverson Perennials, Lee Heyl, whom Ken worked with at Iverson Perennials, Skeetter McCorkle and Richard and Bobby Saul of Saul Nurseries with being encouraging confidants and friends. Allan Armitage, Ken and Leah’s professor at University of Georgia, also played a role in the start of James Greenhouses as a perennial plug producer.

“When we started the business we took our first list of plants that we were going to make into our product offering and went and sat in his office and went down the list and got his opinion on what we should grow and what we shouldn’t grow,” Leah says.

“Allan Armitage, to this day, is someone I trust completely with business and employee relations and marketing questions. He is a pretty well-rounded person to bounce ideas off of,” Ken says.

For Armitage, the feelings of respect are mutual.

“Without a doubt Ken is a terrific plantsman, but he is also very much a perfectionist. He wants to do it right. And he and Leah are an absolute team together,” he says.

Building Customer Confidence With Quality

Starting small, Ken and Leah did much of the footwork to become established within the industry. Drawing on the contacts Ken had made at other nurseries before going out on his own, he and Leah met with potential customers in person.

“We just represented ourselves. There were no brokers. We went and sat in people’s offices and talked to them about what our ideas were, what we were doing and what our philosophy was about young plants and perennials. There is no substitute for that personal visit,” Ken says. “We just had some people that really believed in us and trusted us. We got our start from there. Word of mouth, to this day, has been our biggest asset.”

The first companies to give James Greenhouses business opportunities were Saul Nurseries, Iverson Perennials Gardens (now Hines Horticultural), Classic Groundcovers, McCorkle Nurseries and Layman Wholesale (now part of the Costa Farms family).

“In this industry, you’ve got your reputation and nothing else,” Ken says. “As a young plant supplier specifically, you don’t get a lot of second chances, and there are precious few first chances. They would give us a little bit of an order, and we would deliver and exceed their expectations.”

Now James Greenhouses works with the Proven Winners brand marketing program, as well as with Blooms of Bressingham on new introductions. The operation is also a rooting station for Darwin Perennials’ premium genetics, and Ken is proud of the Heuger Helleborus breeding program. The operation also works with brokers and other customers include Conard-Pyle, Danziger, PlantHaven, Syngenta, Terra Nova Nurseries and more.

These aren’t the only companies that are fans of the way the Jameses do business.

“Both Leah and Ken understand where they are going and drive their business plan to meet those goals. They are smart, articulate, business savvy and just a pleasure to work with,” says Nexus Southeastern Sales Manager Jerry Bleckley, who recently worked with the Jameses on approximately an acre of Dual Atrium, glass-covered greenhouses. “They are well-educated growers and are not afraid to try new things.”

Cut And Grown To A Higher Standard

As James Greenhouses grew, Ken and Leah changed their tagline from “Cut and Grown to a Higher Standard” to “Perennial Plugs, Specialty Propagation.” Despite the change, the mission to grow high-quality liners — and go after opportunities for growth — continues.

“When we started, we were so small that we could be completely flexible. So if a customer had a special request or a special cell size, we could fill that,” Leah says. “I can see that becoming a challenge for us. It’s easy when you’re small, but when you get bigger and you’re not personally responsible for watching over every little plant that’s growing, that has gotten harder. We try to fill our customers’ needs and fill their special requests.”
And James Greenhouses fills each order with product every grower can be proud of.

“I have a very clear picture in my mind of what it is that I want a grower to receive when they open the box or the truck doors open,” says Ken, who had the job of growing young plants into finished product at Iverson Perennials. “There is sort of a sinking feeling when you’re looking at material that you know is going to be really hard to work with. I know that feeling today. My goal is for growers to never have that feeling when they see a product that comes from our company.”


Leave a Reply

More From Grow Initiative...
Cape Fear Botanical Garden

November 27, 2015

National Garden Bureau Awards Grants To Three Therapeutic Gardens

The grants, totaling $10,000, are through the organization’s Growing For Futures program, which supports the growth of therapeutic gardens across the country.

Read More

November 26, 2015

2015 Metrolina Greenhouses (Huntersville, NC) Field Trials Results

See the 2015 field trials results for Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, NC.

Read More
Yoshimi And Grace Shibata

November 26, 2015

American Floral Endowment Establishes Fund To Honor Legacy Of Yoshimi Shibata

Yoshimi “Shimi” Shibata, a flower grower and wholesale florist, passed away in October at the age of 100.

Read More
Latest Stories
Giving Tuesday

November 24, 2015

Giving Tuesday On December 1 Is An Opportunity For The …

Organizations such as American Floral Endowment and others are encouraging industry members to participate in the generous spirit of the holiday season.

Read More
Random Acts Of Flowers

November 24, 2015

Random Acts Of Flowers Partners With FTD And Pro Flower…

The organization, which recycles and repurposes flowers with a volunteer team that delivers bouquets to health care facilities across the country, made its 100,000th delivery to a health care facility in Chicago.

Read More
Kate Santos Operations Director Dummen Orange

November 18, 2015

Kate Santos Presents New Opportunities For The Horticul…

Dr. Kate Santos is a scientist, an artist, an advocate, a traveler, a dreamer, a visionary and a go-getter. Well-known for her work managing Dümmen Orange as Operations Director, Santos has taken on a new role as co-founder of Luxflora, an organization for women in horticulture.

Read More
Bell Nursery reaches out by supporting projects that help children connect with plants

November 12, 2015

Bell Nursery Is An Advocate For Outreach In Its Communi…

In a heavily regulated society, growing relationships is just as important to our industry as growing beautiful flowers. In environmentally sensitive states like Maryland, outreach has become mandatory, says Bell Nursery’s Gary Mangum.

Read More
Dave Armstrong Sakata Holding Corp.

November 5, 2015

Why Lobbying For Plant Breeding Is Important

Horticulture industry members who take the opportunity to advise Washington legislators on agricultural policy will find a surprisingly receptive audience.

Read More
GrowIt! App Wins Gold At Design100 2014 US Mobile & App Design Awards

November 3, 2015

GrowIt! Announces Its 2015-2016 Plantastic Idea Scholar…

In 2014, GrowIt! was founded by two aspiring young horticulture professionals, Mason Day and Seth Reed. Their goal was to inspire more people to engage with plants in their daily lives. In the past year, more than 50,000 people have signed up for GrowIt!, using the app to find plants that will work well in their areas. With the app’s help, they have identified mystery plants identified and even made friends with other plant lovers around them. GrowIt! founders say their vision is coming true, and now they want to know about other young professionals’ ideas. GrowIt! announces the 2015/16 Plantastic Idea Scholarship, giving $1000 to three students. Reed and Day want to promote young minds that have big ideas in the world of plants. “Maybe as a student you want to work to promote high school horticulture programs around the nation,” the GrowIt! founders said in a press release. […]

Read More
AFE Scholarship

November 2, 2015

American Floral Endowment Awards Scholarships To 17 Flo…

The American Floral Endowment recently awarded scholarships totaling more than $37,000 to 17 undergraduate and graduate students across the country. The scholarships are intended for students pursuing degrees in floriculture and horticultural fields.

Read More
American Floral Endowment Emerging Leaders

October 23, 2015

American Floral Endowment Develops New Floriculture Bus…

The program offers a chance for floriculture companies to host an intern and help enthusiastic students contribute to both the organization and the floral industry.

Read More
A Modern Take On The Classic Garden Party

October 21, 2015

PlantNite Offers A Modern Take On The Classic Garden Pa…

PlantNite is a company that brings plants to the people by organizing 2-hour social events in local bars and restaurants.

Read More

October 21, 2015

Dümmen Orange Creates Fashion With Flowers At Fashion W…

As a feature sponsor for Fashion Week Columbus in Ohio, Dümmen Orange North America made a statement with its flower genetics in the spotlight. This was the first time Dümmen Orange partnered with Fashion Week Columbus in its 2015 events, held the week of October 3-10, 2015. Fashion Week Columbus is a non-profit organization showcasing local and emerging fashion designers while providing scholarships to fashion design students. Each year, Fashion Week Columbus hosts a week of fashion-related events to feature local talent in the Columbus, Ohio area. “A leader in the floriculture industry, Dümmen Orange is committed to breeding, distributing and promoting superior flower genetics,” says Dümmen Orange Operations Manager Kate Santos. “To do this, we strive to be in touch with contemporaries in the lifestyle industries. A large focus of this mission is to translate trends from fashion.” With more than 500 working fashion designers in the Columbus market, […]

Read More
Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow, Peace Tree Farm

October 6, 2015

Generation Y’s Reluctance To Garden Linked To Fea…

The Rookie Gardener is easily spotted at a garden center by her nervous and unsure energy that’s as glaring as a scarlet letter, or by his exuberant, self-assured confidence that is only otherwise seen at a college fraternity party. They are our industry’s enigma, our Kryptonite, the treasure chest we cannot open. The Rookie Gardener’s reluctance to garden isn’t from our industry’s lack of targeted marketing or encouragement but from Millennials’ Fear of Failure (FOF). It is obvious that failure is a part of life, but we as a generation have been programmed to not expect or accept failure. Since early childhood, we were encouraged to always win, to do our absolute best at school every day, to beat the competition. “Focused on getting the grades or winning the game, these children have internalized the pressure, (which) paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks,” writes Holly Korbey in an […]

Read More

October 6, 2015

NASA Scientists To Discuss Indoor Agriculture Innovatio…

The University of Arizona’s Controlled Environmental Agriculture Center (CEAC) will host Dr. Jacklyn Green, CEO and founder of Agate Biosciences, and Dr. Roger Kern, president and founder of Agate Biosciences: Science & Systems Engineering, on October 30, as part of its seminar series. Both Green and Kern are former NASA scientists and engineers, and they will discuss their continuing efforts to develop technology and seek innovations to address issues concerning urban indoor agriculture, with a potential for application on Mars. Through the creation of Agate Biosciences LLC, Kern and Green have turned their attention to earth-bound issues of food production, to provide advanced technologies for plant nutrition, biosecurity and the undertaking of scientifically based research in greenhouse design and controls systems, and in plant health under controlled environment agriculture. A recent NASA news release reports that the Mars Rover 2020 mission is planned to deliver an extensive array of instruments designed to explore the habitability […]

Read More
Rebecca Lusk

September 22, 2015

Trailblazer Rebecca Lusk Of Luxflora And Dümmen Orange …

Rebecca Lusk of Luxflora and Dümmen Orange is no stranger to breaking new ground, whether it's in her own company or in forming an organization that gives women in horticulture a united voice.

Read More

September 14, 2015

Smith Gardens Is Developing Growers With A New Initiati…

Finding enough qualified growers has long been a problem in the industry, but it’s one that Smith Gardens is working to solve, at least locally. The operation, which ranks No. 22 on Greenhouse Grower‘s Top 100 Growers list, is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and spans more than 50 acres of greenhouses and 50 acres of field growing over four locations in Washington, Oregon and California. As a 112-year-old family business that recognizes the need to invest in its future, Smith Gardens has made its Cultivating The Future initiative a corporate priority to attract young people to careers in the horticulture industry. Don Spence, the production manager at Smith Gardens’ Aurora, Ore., location, started working with local schools years ago. The operation expanded its program to local community colleges, and this year Smith Gardens worked with the American Floral Endowment to set up an internship program, and hosted an […]

Read More
Smartphones may influence kids’ decisions about food

September 12, 2015

To Understand Your Next Consumers, Look Beyond Millenni…

There seems to be a constant stream of content in the media about Millennials and their habits and characteristics, particularly as consumers. But, what if they’re not the ones to be focusing on? A recent article in Food Business News is saying that they’re not. Instead, it suggests shifting the focus to the next generation. The article states that, according to bestselling author Matt Walsh, the most disruptive group of future food consumers was born in 2007. With gardening consumers becoming increasingly interested growing their own food, changes to the food industry will likely impact the horticulture industry, as well. “If you understand how an 8-year-old thinks, you’re a long way toward really understanding a transformative change in consumer behavior,” says Walsh, CEO of innovation research lab Tomorrow, during a July 13 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago. When an 8-year-old makes […]

Read More

September 2, 2015

Delegation Is Key To A Successful Greenhouse Operation

In a packed room at Cultivate’15, speaker Bernie Erven presented key steps growers need to take to improve their delegation skills, the benefits of delegating and the dangers of not learning how to delegate. This is a skill, he says, that everyone needs to learn. “For all of you who are part of a family business, you are choosing not to do things the easy way,” Erven laughed, as he presented a list of ways to know whether or not you’re an effective delegator. The owner of Erven HR Services, LLC, Erven has been working with and observing family businesses for many years. In his presentation, he said, he didn’t share anything that he hasn’t seen first-hand. You might not be a good delegator if you: Tend to be a perfectionist Work more hours than anyone else Lack time to explain clearly and concisely Are often interrupted Enjoy what you used to […]

Read More
Marc van Iersel

September 1, 2015

GROwing Floriculture Research And Extension

Research and outreach efforts help keep floriculture production profitable. With seemingly continuous budget cuts to university and federal budgets, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to sustain their programs and to keep making a positive impact on the industry. So what can be done to ensure that the industry will keep getting the research and outreach support it has come to rely on? There already is a variety of funding programs that support research and Extension programs in our industry. This funding is critical for many floriculture research and outreach programs. What can we do to leverage that funding and make sure it has the biggest possible impact? A program that I was part of in 2010 may serve as a model. LAUNCH was co-founded by NASA, NIKE, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State as a program to help make innovative ideas become a […]

Read More
september_grow_rodale institute

August 25, 2015

Hospitals Are Getting Into The Organic Food Business

Growers investing in the organic food movement could serve a growing new area with vegetable transplants and starts, as well as produce, as hospitals begin to prescribe healthy diets and nutrition, and even go so far as to grow their own food. As part of a new phenomenon among progressive hospitals, health professionals are beginning to realize that without health and nutrition, programs and techniques may be done in vain or worse — obsolete. As more patients seeking a healthy diet turn to nutritionists, who recommend sugar-free, alkaline diets to prevent disease and aid in recovery, hospitals recognizing this trend are taking action. St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., recently contracted with the nearby Rodale Institute to manage an organic farm, established in 2014. The hospital, part of a six-campus network, aims to provide excellent healthcare, part of which includes educating patients about the benefits of a plant-based, organic diet. […]

Read More
[gravityform id="35" title="false" description="false"]