Perspective: How To Make Changes In Your Greenhouse Business

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Tom Costamagna of Mid-American Growers

Change is almost never easy. But in today’s market, the ability to adapt, evolve and make changes efficiently and effectively is one of the most important qualities of a greenhouse business.

Tom Costamagna, director of plant quality for Mid-American Growers in Granville, Ill., has brought a number of changes, big and small, to this Top 100 operation over the past few years. We asked him to share some of the steps he’s taken in getting buy-in and making  change happen in an established operation. Communication, he says, is the key.

GG: You’re a big proponent of involving all the different segments of the business in making changes at Mid-American Growers. Why is that?

Costamagna: I think of our business as a team sport. I like to use stock-car racing as an analogy because many do not think of that as a team sport. Racing certainly seems like an individual sport, considering all the attention a driver gets. But while a driver is arguably the most important part of a race team, he isn’t the only reason a team wins or loses.

Dozens of people work on a race team and contribute to the performance of a car every weekend. From the owner to the crew chief, the engine builder and the guy who orders parts, everyone on a team has to work well — and work well together — in order for the team to succeed.

It’s really not different from our greenhouse team. To continue the comparison to a racing team, we have:

The Driver — In the case of the greenhouse, the driver is the grower, as he or she is holding the profits at the end of the hose. Using art and science to grow plants, growers drive our products to success or failure as they are graded by the quality, timing and specifications set by the customer.

The Owner — This position is similar in racing, greenhouses, or any business. The owner has the final say from hiring to firing and spending the necessary money on the essentials to be successful, while having to be astute and savvy businesspeople.

A Sponsor — In the case of our greenhouse operation, the sponsor is our customer: the retail stores who contract business with us so we can pay the bills. They don’t get to hang out at the greenhouse or advise us on how to do things, but they expect us to deliver what is requested.

The Team Manager — At Mid-American Growers, this is the Executive Management Committee. This committee is represented by the heads of the following departments: sales, accounting, human resources, growing, production and maintenance. Together with the owners, we collectively strategize and make decisions.

The Rest Of The Team — For a stock car racer, it’s the crew chief, car chief, engine tuner, tire specialist, engineers, mechanics, pit crew and truck driver. For us, the rest of the team is everyone who reports to the department heads mentioned above, from seasonal employees to merchandisers at the store level.

Communication is the critical component in everything we do, as every action has a reaction. To have a car run fast enough for several hours to win a race or to have our greenhouse business function smoothly and efficiently to deliver quality product to our customers, this needs to happen day in and day out. Each department is an integral piece of the puzzle and  its performance ultimately has an impact on the bottom line.

In today’s world of business, good isn’t good enough and will never result in excellence. As management, we must do our due diligence to fine-tune our team and this all begins with communication.

GG: Why is communication betwteen the departments — for example, between growing and production and sales — so important?

Costamagna: If we can’t effectively communicate as a group how can we ever expect to improve as an individual, a department, or the company as a whole? This might seem like a very easy task, but how good are we at it? How often are things misinterpreted or slightly altered when information moves from person to person or department to department? If we can effectively communicate, understand what is expected and be held accountable, this will make everyone’s job easier in the long run.

GG: What steps have you implemented to help make changes at Mid-American Growers?

Costamagna: Something that I learned from my previous employer, Pete VanderLugt of Aldershot of New Mexico, is that the steps needed to effect change don’t happen overnight. [See The Steps Needed To Effect Change.] They take time and a whole lot of persistence. This is my third spring here at Mid-American Growers, and with every season until the day I retire I will analyze, question and adjust accordingly. Like anything in life, this process will not be free of mistakes. But not trying and learning from them only leads to the same result. That is not how I am wired.

GG: What would you suggest other growers do to improve their communication — especially businesses that might not have the resources of a Top 100 Grower like Mid-American.

Costamagna: Effective communication does not rely on a company’s resources, which is a great thing!
It takes discipline and the willingness of an organization to be successful. The process can be overwhelming, so start in one area. Do not try to tackle the whole company at one time. Work on this collectively as a management group, both objectively and subjectively — not forcing a resolution but letting ideas and documentation age over time.
Even though greenhouse businesses are similar, they are not all alike, so there is no one easy answer to making changes. Like communicating, it is easier said than done. But one will be amazed how this process can evolve and show positive results relatively quickly when adapted and followed through.

The Steps Needed To Effect Change

Big changes in your business are almost always easier to accomplish if you implement them incrementally rather than try to make them all at once. Here are 10 steps I learned from Pete VanderLugt at Aldershot of New Mexico that we’re incorporating at Mid-American Growers:

1. Define the goal you want to achieve

2. Define the current status

3. Define the areas of responsibility. In our case, those areas include:
   a. Growing
   b. Sales – National/Local
   c. Shipping — Breakdowns/Sleeve/Warehouse/Transportation
   d. Production — Planting/Flow/Spacing/Maintenance
   e. Office – Accounting/Accounts Receivable/Accounts Payable/Human Resources/Administrative

4. Define the department heads/chiefs
   a. Begin the evaluation of the workforce

5. Define the team’s job duties and responsibilties (JDRs)
   a. Develop the process and procedures (PRO/PROs) for those JDRs and determine the sequence needed for the JDRs and PRO/PROs
   b. Develop a scoring system so individuals are aware of what’s expected.

6. Get consensus from the team on the JDRs & PRO/PROs

7. Implement and train

8. Police the JDRs and PRO/PROs — get everyone to engage.

9. Develop the change JDR lists and PRO/PROs to develop the escalating development of the system you are creating

10. Develop a summary/report card, reward and discipline system
— Tom Costamagna

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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