When you step in the door at C. Raker & Sons in Litchfield, Mich., you immediately feel a spark of magic, like you’ve stepped into another realm. And then, when you tour the greenhouses and see all the technology and innovation that’s been adopted and sometimes created there, you get more excited. But what brings it all home and makes you really understand how special this operation is, is when you talk to anyone who works there and feel their passion and excitement, and the way they live their work. That is what C. Raker & Sons is all about. That is what is called “the Raker Way.”
The owners of the young plant grower operation, brothers David and Gerry Raker and their nephew Tim Raker, all were raised with these morals: Honesty, trust, responsibility, communication and a good day’s work. These core principles, originating from Clarence and Nora Raker, are ones that to this day, the Rakers instill and require in their employees.
“People are smart, they don’t want to make mistakes and they are happy when they feel they are contributing,” Gerry says. “Teamwork and empowerment is the structure that allows their involvement and ensuing satisfaction.”
The Rise Of The Rakers
Brothers David and Gerry Raker were raised with three other siblings — Betty, Roy and Carol — by parents Clarence and Nora, who made their living farming. The family made it through the Great Depression selling vegetables to their neighbors and began selling produce at the Detroit Eastern Market during World War II. In the ’50s, the market began grading produce with signs showing the grade and the farm name, which the family decided would be C. Raker & Sons.
Truck farming was the main income source for the Raker family during the ’50s and ’60s. A new greenhouse was added each year with the goal to always have the first produce from C. Raker & Sons to the market before the rest of the farmers.
Later, Clarence formed a partnership with his two older sons, Roy and Dave, farming 200 acres for farm market produce and 300 acres for soybeans and wheat, and selling produce to warehouses and grocery stores, in addition to the market.
In 1970, Clarence retired and sold the New Boston farm to investors, but Dave and Roy continued to lease it for seven years. When Roy pursued another direction, Dave bought the farm in Litchfield. Gerry returned from his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala with his wife, Patty, and joined Dave in the new venture. Roy’s son, Tim, also became a partner and the three set forth in 1978, growing vegetable transplants. With Roy’s permission, they kept the well established name C. Raker & Sons.
The greenhouse operation started growing bedding plants in 1979 to supplement the produce business with spring cash flow. In 1983, when a plug supplier growing all of Vaughan’s Seed Co.’s orders ran out of greenhouse space and stopped sowing seed, the broker called around to Michigan plug producers and found Raker. Vaughan’s (now S&G Flowers) bought all of Raker’s excess plugs and doubled its orders with the operation each year until the early ’90s.
Since then, the business boomed. Now with 450,000 square feet of greenhouses and 8 field acres for comparison trials, C. Raker & Sons serves all 50 states, the Caribbean and Canada, with customers large and small.
“Small customers are just as important as large customers,” Gerry says. “We have several thousand small customers and several hundred larger customers. Revenue is about 50/50.”
To serve growers of all sizes, Raker has invented tray systems that allow more variety in small orders, including its EZ Elle QuickTurn product. Its minimum order is one tray and its minimum truck order is 50 trays.
In recent years, the operation has adopted vegetative propagation to better serve customers and make Raker a one-stop shop, says Susie Raker, marketing team leader.
“Plugs are still the majority of our business but the liner market is the growing part of our business,” she says. “To date for 2006, 80 percent of our business is attributed to plugs and the other 20 percent to liners.”
Each year Raker opens its doors and its fields to the public during the Michigan Grower Tour. At a central location in the state, the operation gets heavy traffic and this summer welcomed 500 guests. Raker’s 8 acres of field trials are a combination of hanging baskets, large containers and in-ground comparison trials.
C. Raker & Sons is well-known in the floriculture industry as inventors and early adopters of new technology. The operation patented innovative shipping cradles, incorporated radio frequency identification (RFID) on its benches to enhance traceback systems, developed robotic bench movement systems and offers real-time, online inventory with Vision software. The key is continuing to evolve, according to Paul Karlovich, Raker’s general manager of production.
“Raker invests at least 5 percent annually in new technology,” Karlovich says. “We feel the advanced use of technology gives us a distinct edge over our competitors.”
From the beginning, Raker has been very involved in customizing equipment to fit its needs and often, this leads to invention that benefits the entire industry.
“We design and build much of our own equipment and we modify almost every piece of equipment we install,” Karlovich says. “We partner very closely with our equipment manufacturers. A large amount of commercially available equipment is originally designed and prototyped at Raker.”
Karlovich says Raker is very close to applying an RFID inlay under its existing tray labels, which will be more efficient than bar code because water, dirt and other factors do not affect RFID systems. Once the price is right, Raker will make its move.
Another technology being researched is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), a data and voice technology that will allow improved communication throughout the facilities.
Team Raker Today And Tomorrow
It’s hard to even begin to describe the team structure at C. Raker & Sons, except to say that the entire corporate culture is centered on the realization that empowered and valued employees are happy employees who are motivated to succeed.
“People make things happen on a daily basis,” says Tim Raker. “If given the proper tools, the proper training, clear expectations, guidelines, and the opportunity to make decisions and learn from their mistakes, people will be successful and therefore your business will be successful. When you are a part of a business that works with a product that needs care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is crucial that you cultivate good people to help you be successful.”
A few years ago, C. Raker & Sons went through a reorganization to maximize efficiency, improve production and quality and increase employee involvement. The operation hired organizational coach Drew Lathin, who mentors employees. Today, Lathin is part of the Quality Matrix team (QMX), which also includes Drew Stella and Marc Uecker. The ultimate goal of Raker’s new quality systems and QMX is to create quality products that supply value and satisfy customers through continuous improvement processes of the company’s production teams, segmented by specific product groups, seasons and profit centers.
“As the organization matures, the Raker “Kahunas,” as they are called — Dave, Gerry and Tim — along with the Business Leadership Team (BLT) of Patty Raker, Paul Karlovich and Jim Whitehill, and input from the entire company, have developed its “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” (BHAG), a long-range plan of what the company will be doing in the next 20 to 30 years. Raker’s BHAG is: “Our achievements will be the benchmark by which other companies in our industry measure themselves.”
Part of that long-range goal is the “1010 by 2010″ strategy, part of Raker’s five-year business plan to grow sales 10 percent each year and to achieve a 10 percent bottom line profit by 2010. This strategy is also integral to Raker’s shift from owner management to organizational management, says Jim Whitehill, general manager of organizational support. Except for Dave, who is semi-retired, the “Kahunas” don’t have immediate plans to retire, but it’s important to plan now and lay the foundation for the future, he says.
Raker, like many other businesses in our industry, has reached a point in its economic life where it must begin to implement a plan to transition its leadership to the next generation,” Whitehill says. “The goal of ’1010 by 2010′ is the key to our transition plan in that its achievement will provide the revenue and profits necessary to create roles and growth opportunities for the individuals that will become the next generation of leadership at Raker.”
Raker’s current management will take the company forward, the Rakers say, including BLT, QMX and the next generation of the Raker family, Susie Raker.
“Raker is committed to continuing the Team concept and feels it is the only way to develop a business for the future,” Tim says. “We are developing many people to lead C. Raker & Sons into the future.”