Petitti And Eagle Creek Unite

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Sometimes, the best career move one can make is to take a step back. Jill Bonner Cain reached that point with the birth of her baby boy in May and decided to sell the retail operation she founded in 2002, Eagle Creek Garden Center in Bainbridge, Ohio.

“The biggest thing was starting a family for me,” Cain says. “There are not enough hours in the day and  I want to raise my child, not just put him in daycare. With retail, it’s a 365-days-a-year, 24/7 kind of business.”

When Cain and her family began to discuss the idea of selling the upscale, destination garden center, one local garden center chain came to mind as a possible buyer: Petitti Garden Centers. Owned and operated by Angelo Petitti and his family, the Petittis had seven garden centers located throughout Northeast Ohio.

“There was really only one person who could take over an operation of that size and stature,” Cain says. “Petitti came to the forefront and was first on our list.”

A Quick Transition

Cain sat down with Angelo and AJ Petitti to discuss the deal in June, thinking a November 1 takeover date would work best for everyone, she says.

“Then Angelo suggested Aug. 1 to AJ and I, and our heads were reeling,” Cain says. “We only had about 15 days to make the transition. But then when we thought about it, and it made sense for them to take over sooner so they could bring merchandise in with enough time to have a good fall and Christmas season.”

The Petittis offered positions to all Eagle Creek retail employees and, in the end, kept 25. “We didn’t want to create any hardship,” AJ Petitti says. “It’s really been wonderful so far over there. It’s a great team.

Local Reaction

We asked local Cleveland garden centers for their reaction to the sale of Eagle Creek Garden Center to Petitti’s Garden Center. Here is what two retailers said:

“Petitti’s aggressive marketing will bring new customers to the area. This excites us because Breezewood is such a unique garden center and is very different. We are confident customers will recognize Breezewood’s outstanding quality, large selection and boutique apparel as brand strengths. We are a lifestyle store with great events and knowledgeable staff members that customers new to the area will find remarkable.” – Whitney Ickes, vice president, Breezewood Gardens, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

“Anytime a business comes into a new area, even if it’s a name change, there are always going to be people going to check it out. This year, it’s hard to tell, because business has been so slow during the end of summer and beginning of fall that I’m not sure if the transition from Eagle Creek to Petitti’s ownership has had any effect. I’m not too worried about it because I’m focusing on what we do well and what our customers want.
“I think (Petitti’s Mentor store annoucement) is great for them. Mentor is a great place. There are not many garden centers up there that aren’t box stores, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that turns out to be one of their more popular stores.” – Jeff Griff, Lowe’s Garden Center, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Petitti’s plans to supply the majority of its needs at the Bainbiridge location from its own production  facilities in Columbia Station and Madison, Ohio, for the next year, and it will buy some plants from Eagle Creek Wholesale. But there are no plans to change anything about the facility.

“We’re going to go with it,” Petitti says. “AJ Pettiti says. “It’s a nice facility and the store was in great shape. We changed merchandise to mix in what we carry, plus a little refixturing but nothing earth-shattering. It was a great opportunity and truly a win-win for Jill and us.”

Cain says she gives Petitti’s credit for all they do, and that she was impressed with the way they handled the transition.
“When they moved in and started taking over our place, there was some overlap when we were both there,” she says. “They are a great family, great to deal with and they’ve really got a lot going on.”

Focusing On Wholesale

Now, Cain and her husband, Todd, run Eagle Creek Wholesale in Mantua, Ohio, which Cain founded in 1998. Jill works with the growers and runs the office while Todd heads up operations and expansion. The operation is adding an acre of MX glass greenhouse this year to help maximize the capabilities of the biomass boiler installed in the fall of 2006.

The expansion will also help Eagle Creek Wholesale change its mix of crops to accommodate current customers, adjusting from the 25 percent share it grew for its retail operation.

The wholesale operation sells to a wide breadth of customers now, including local grocery chains, independent garden centers, landscapers and farm markets.

“In talking with some of our customers, I think there’s a lot of room for growth,” Cain says. “Selling the garden center brought about an interesting change in that some people in retail who didn’t want to deal with us before started talking to us. I don’t know if they thought they were our competitors before, but it’s been interesting.”

Cain’s brother, John Bonner, who set Eagle Creek Wholesale on its path as an eco-friendly operation, recently left the business to pursue another career. The former general manager of Eagle Creek Wholesale was instrumental in pursuing grants to install a biomass boiler, as well as the first of the operation’s wind turbines. Cain is currently awaiting two grants to fund the operation’s second wind turbine, which she expects will go up sometime this year.

And Mentor Makes Nine

One month after taking over the facility in Bainbridge, Petitti’s announced it will open its ninth garden center March 1, 2011, in Mentor, Ohio, about 20 miles east of Cleveland.

“It’s going to be a 75,000-square-foot garden center with full selection,” AJ says. “We will offer a full selection of trees, shrubs, outdoor living and the whole gamut. The bulk of our plants will be supplied from our own growing facilities, but we have reached a point that we’ve maxed out our production. We’re going to have to order more from other growers.”

The facility will include an existing 19,500-square-foot building with a Cravo structure constructed next to it, by L.L. Klink. The Mentor location will hire about 35 full-time people, along with the same number of seasonal employees. “We’re going to be hiring from outside for the first time in about 10 years, and moving people around inside the company,” AJ says.

Adding a location near Mentor is an opportunity his family has been working on for years, AJ adds. “There really is not another great garden center out there, other than Gale’s Garden Center, which is all the way in Willoughby. The market was underserved.

We’ve been looking at it for a while and the opportunity presented itself and worked out very well.”
AJ adds that the current economic climate, while challenging, has provided opportunities that otherwise might not have come along.

“We will probably never see the opportunities we have with these two new stores again,” he says. “The economy is tough, but it’s going to get better eventually. We wanted to make sure we jumped all over these opportunities while we could. It’s really exciting – 2011 is going to be an awesome year.”

Laura Drotleff is editor of Greenhouse Grower.

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