Our Ones To Watch

Our Ones To Watch

Chad Underwood, Kalamazoo Flower Group, LLC

Age–35

His Job–Before Chad became president and general manager at Kalamazoo Flower Group, he first rose through the ranks as a seasonal customer service representative for the former sales division of the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers co-op. He has now been in the industry for 12 years.

Best Advice–”Plan your work and work your plan!” Chad says you have to have a vision for what you want to accomplish, then have the guts to trust your plan. He follows Stephen R. Covey’s messages of taking a principles-based approach to life and prioritizing work that is important. “In our business, it’s hard not to get consumed by all the little day-to-day challenges we face dealing with a perishable product and ever-changing inventory, but you have to force yourself to keep an eye on the big-picture,” Chad says.

Money, Money, Money!–The increasing costs of diesel fuel, natural gas and health insurance has changed the way Chad thinks about cost containment. “The market is asking us to do more with less, so we are finding ways to do just that–but it’s not easy.”

Technology Is Tops–Chad cites the proper use of technology and focusing on improving operational efficiencies as keys to future success, and Kalamazoo Flower Group is making a conscious effort to operate in an organized, systematic fashion. “Whether it is how our growers monitor their crops or how we are tracking sales at our retail customers, we do it using technology and sound methodology.”

Twenty-Five Years From Now–Chad predicts that the industry will see at least one additional major mass retailer enter the scene, and like other growers, he believes fewer greenhouse operators will exist. The ones that do remain will be bigger than ever.

Why He’s One To Watch–Much of the vision for the revamped Kalamazoo Flower Group comes from Chad, who is building a team of professionals that will help the company continue to move forward. “We changed the way we think about running our business and also made a significant capital investment in the construction of our new cross-dock facility,” he says.

 

Todd Lighthouse, Lighthouse Gardens

Age–32

His Job–Todd is the sole proprietor and head grower at Lighthouse Gardens in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. He’s also the company’s founder, and he has bachelor’s degrees in biology and anthropology with a concentration in ethnobotany.
Craving Pressure–Whether the ideas Todd implements succeed or fail, he is accountable for everything at Lighthouse Gardens. “It is incredibly empowering to know that you control every aspect of your business and which path your business will take,” he says.

A Martial Artist–Todd practices Aikido, a modern martial art defined as the way of harmony. He even transfers the principles of Aikido to greenhouse growing. “I find that working nature, using passive ventilation and beneficial insects, (that) my crops are demonstrably superior,” he says. Todd also backpacks in the Adirondacks as a way to stay grounded when he steps away from the business.
Challenges With Organics–Conventional culture notes don’t apply to organic greenhouse production, and crop timing and nutrition requirements are much different when growing organically, Todd says, compared to more conventional methods. “After growing conventionally before starting my business, I found it difficult to monitor fertility and plant nutrition without the use of EC/pH meters,” he says. “It was hard to give up those sources of immediate feedback.”

Twenty-Five Years From Now–Look no further than organic food crop agriculture, Todd says, for a glimpse of the future of greenhouse production. He specifically envisions a combination of the efficiency of Dutch greenhouse technologies with the farming practices of organic agriculture.

Why He’s One To Watch – Lighthouse Gardens is a startup greenhouse that has an interesting business plan of providing organically grown plants that can be shipped directly to your door. “I grow ornamental plants, not just herbs and vegetable starts, using organic growing methods,” Todd says. He’s also proud of the fact that he discloses every input and spray application on the company Web site, and he’s a member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

 

Fran Hopkins, Under A Foot Plant Company

Age–43

Her Job–Fran is owner and president of Under A Foot Company, which grows more than 400 types of groundcovers, ornamental grasses, sedums, ivies and perennials–and, of course, STEPABLES.

Friendly Advice–A couple of years after STEPABLES entered the marketplace, Fran was frustrated with the number of similar plant brands that had sprouted. A good friend gave her a piece of advice, though: “Don’t get caught up in looking over your shoulder to see where the competition is. It’s at that moment that you will fall behind and lose the race.” And Fran hasn’t looked back since.

Seminar Central–The part of Fran’s job that she likes most is spreading the word on STEPABLES at seminars. “I always have a lot of fun with the crowd,” she says. “My typical seminar starts with me jumping up and down on the plants,” she says.

Fun Facts–In college, Fran’s first major was wild animal training–but she changed it after a lion bit her. She also claims to have the world’s largest collection of colored markers, and she loves salt water aquariums. “I love my tank and wish it was bigger so I could squeeze in it and swim with my fish,” Fran says.

Twenty-Five Years From Now – The strongest plant brands today will be the cornerstone of the garden center success in years to come. “I think we will also see a massive surge of new brands coming into the marketplace as companies see branding as an easy way to promote their own product lines,” she says. At the same time, most of those brands will be one-hit wonders. Oh, and plants aside, Fran sees herself on an island sipping a margarita while listening to Jimmy Buffet in 2033.

Why She’s One To Watch – Fran developed the plants-that-you-can-walk-on concept that is STEPABLES, and she has built the brand to its current recognizable state. Educating consumers is high on her list of things to do, too, and STEPABLES’ information can be found on tags and on the company’s extensive Web site. “Our Web site hit an all-time high of 250,000 hits in May this year,” Fran says.

 

Alex Fell, Kraft Gardens

Age – 35

His Job–Alex is sales manager at Kraft Gardens, his uncle’s greenhouse operation in Florida. He graduated from Florida State in 1996 and held a sales management position outside the industry before joining the family business in 1999.

Satisfaction–Rolling out new products with success is gratifying to Alex, especially because the indoor foliage segment of the industry doesn’t enjoy as many new introductions as the color or outdoor landscape segments do.

Staying Up To Speed–In the last few years, the development of Lean Flow manufacturing processes has improved productivity in all areas of operations. Optimizing efficiency in plant movement and production has also kept Kraft Gardens focused on the future, Alex says.

Poised For Change–The opportunity to be ready to serve the industry when the economy stabilizes is another focus at Kraft Gardens. “If you scale back too thin in tight times without regard to future ramifications, you could miss the opportunity to maximize your rebound efforts coming off a tough year,” he says. “The easy way to stay current with trends is to set them.”

Making Commitments–Being involved with the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association has always been important to Kraft Gardens. “I’ve served on our local chapter’s board of directors for the past six years, two as chapter president,” Alex says. Currently, he is an FNGLA foliage division leader and serves on the board of directors of the National Foliage Foundation.

Twenty-Five Years From Now–One thing is certain about the future of the industry, Alex says: “It will be heavily influenced by trade agreements with other countries, and whether or not restrictions like Q-37 and other plant import laws are still prevalent.”

Why He’s One To Watch–Alex is very visible in the foliage industry as the outgoing sales manager for Kraft Gardens. Kraft has received awards and recognition for its dedication to quality, service and innovation, specializing in interiorscape and independent retail markets.

Charlie Cole, Cole Gardens

Age – 26

His Job–Charlie is general manager at Cole Gardens, the retail location. His job in New Hampshire is to take care of day-to-day operations, marketing and advertising and purchasing trees and shrubs, hardgoods and perennials. The most important part of his job, he says, is customer service. “It is exciting to help customers find solutions to their garden problems or find the perfect plant to finish a garden,” Charlie says.

Learning Early–Growing up, Charlie and his dad, Doug, had discussions about the business and changes in the industry. Charlie got involved with OFA during college because of his dad, and he learned the notion from his dad that “respect is earned and not given,” as well.

Give In To Your Gut–The best advice Charlie has received thus far is to increase prices. “A lot of us are scared to try and squeeze an extra dollar or two from our customers,” he says. “It is only going to get harder to make money. We raised our prices and have not looked back on the decision.”

In The Works–Cole Gardens is in the process of developing a layout for the entire store, focusing on customer flow and better organization of the outdoor departments.

Twenty-Five Years From Now–The term “garden center” will cease to exist. Customers now want to decorate their outdoor areas for entertainment rather than garden, and that means more furniture, garden art, decorative structures and ready-made containers will have to be available. So garden centers will become backyard decorators, in a sense, and that’s why the Cole Gardens store slogan is, “Helping you decorate with living color.”

Why He’s One To Watch–At 26, Charlie isn’t afraid to take risks or try something new in the business. He is involved in two of OFA’s planning committees, and he has played a key role in shaping Cole Gardens into the successful retail operation that it is.

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