The State Of The Head Grower

“Head growers today should have more and closer contact with sales and ownership, and more emphasis on customer contact and relationships.”–Dennis Crum, Director Of Growing Operations, Four Star Greenhouse; Greenhouse Grower’s 2013 Head Grower Of The Year

All of the management positions in a greenhouse business contribute to the overall success of the operation. Perhaps none has a more direct hand in the ultimate quality of the company’s product, however, than the head grower. It’s a position that has evolved over time from skilled plantsman to grower, trainer, communicator, business manager and leader.

We asked the four finalists for Greenhouse Grower’s 2013 Head Grower of the Year award — Dennis Crum, Four Star Greenhouse; Rob O’Hara, Rainbow Greenhouses; Ivan Tchakarov, Metrolina Greenhouses; and Corwin Graves, Rocket Farms — for their opinions on what the job is today, how growers can improve and how prospective head growers can prepare for the position.

GG: What is the job of the head grower today? How has it changed over the years?

Corwin Graves: In its simplest form, the head grower’s responsibility is to finish a crop or set of crops according to schedule and to a set of harvest specifications. Those might be generated internally, externally or both. The head grower ensures customer expectations are met in terms of overall crop quality and quantity, often within a narrow time frame.

Ivan Tchakarov: I think it’s a very broad prospect today. It includes not only growing but also crop modeling, production, scheduling and interaction with people. In my case I have 80 people reporting to me. So I don’t only grow plants. I interact with people and I teach and train. Most importantly, I give them freedom to decide. In a big place like ours, you cannot do it all. You rely on the people on your team to come up with the ideas and come up with the execution. It is more guiding, nourishing, advising and leading them in the right direction rather than telling them hour to hour and day to day how to do their job.

Graves: Apart from these core responsibilities, the head grower can be heavily involved in new product development, line extensions, employee development, operations management and strategic planning. As a head grower, I might be walking crops with section growers, facilitating cross-functional meetings around a specific topic, space and crop planning, and visiting with various suppliers and plant breeders.

GG: Are there special skill sets that help make a good head grower?

Dennis Crum: A good head grower has to have an openness to possibilities and an ability to be flexible and adaptable. He or she has to be a good listener and observant and proactive to situations as they develop. You need to be organized and a thorough and realistic thinker. A problem solver.

Graves: Attention to detail is obviously important. You need to be an advocate for responsible change and continuous improvement. You need to be a solid communicator and have a willingness to learn from and listen to others.

Tchakarov: I am extremely flexible. I am very willing to try new things. Each one of us has to have leadership skills. I have worked on a couple of continents and have learned to interact with different cultures and nationalities. That really helped me.

Rob O’Hara: You have to be able to get along with a lot of different personalities. You’re dealing with truck drivers, salespeople, administrative people, offshore labor from different countries. You have to be able to interact with all of those people because at the end of the day you have to be able to grow good quality and deliver good quality plants to your customer.

You can be the best grower in the world, but if you can’t communicate with people you’re not going to get anywhere. You’ll get pigeonholed as somebody who’s only good for holding a hose and watering plants because nobody can stand him. You have to be a people person as much as a plant person.

GG: How much should a head grower be involved with the overall business beyond just focusing on growing a great crop?

Graves: I believe strongly that the head grower should interact with all segments of the business and understand how their role and the decisions they make impact the overall organization. Horticultural companies produce plants, so it makes sense for the head grower to have a strong voice within the larger organization.

Crum: The head grower should be an integral part of the operating team. Head growers today should have more and closer contact with sales and ownership, and more emphasis on customer contact and relationships — more involvement with the company’s big picture needs and plans.

O’Hara: I think it’s imperative. It has to be a partnership. If a head grower isn’t heavily invested in the company in all areas, it’s not going to work. I have the best interest of the company in mind all the time.

Everything is so linked to how we can grow plants. You have to be involved in labor decisions and looking at labor requirements. If you don’t have enough people, things don’t get done. You have to be working with people who purchase the pots and the tags because it can affect how things are grown. If someone buys a pot that doesn’t have the right holes in the bottom, it can affect my crop.

Tchakarov: Growing, scheduling, production, sales, labor — all those pieces need to become one. It makes a huge difference. All of my peers are up to speed on what the other departments are doing. I need to know what they’re doing in order to get my job done. We have weekly meetings with all the department heads. We are there to advise and to take the information and make it work for us.

GG: How much of your day is spent training and communicating with your team as opposed to spending time in your crop?

O’Hara: Sometimes you get people who come to work in the greenhouse and they say, “I love plants.” I always worry a little when I hear that. At the end of the day, we’re a plant factory. To an owner, every one of these plants on the floor is cash. You have to enjoy plants and enjoy growing them but you have to realize, the owner has invested in these plants and you’re managing his investment. It’s my job to make sure everyone recognizes what’s on the line. It’s a big responsibility. I hate losing money. Every plant that dies,  it’s like you’re just throwing away money.

Tchakarov: You do have to learn to work with people. It takes more than just knowing plants. Those are the people who are going to take your vision and execute it. It’s very important. I would say it’s 50-50 now. Before, if you knew how to grow plants you were fine. Now if you know how to grow the plants but you don’t communicate with the rest of the team, or if you don’t teach and coach, it just does not work.

Graves: Apart from technical growing skills, it’s critical that head growers understand how to relate to their employees in a positive and constructive way. Wherever possible, the head grower should challenge their employees, listen to their needs and concerns, and trust that they can make important crop-related decisions without direct oversight. Like other managers, they should spend a considerable amount of time on employee development and leadership. A confident, motivated and appreciated employee is one of the greatest assets that any company can possess.

GG: How do you keep up with your own training and education? How do you get better at your job?

O’Hara: In the old way of doing things, a grower would be in his crops and spend all day looking at his plants. Now, our industry has changed so much and there’s so much to learn, you have to spend a decent amount of time behind a computer researching and eMailing back and forth with other growers to stay on top of things. I think that’s equally important to being out in your crop. If you’re not reading up on this kind of stuff, you’re going to get behind.

Graves: Some of my most important training has come through visiting with other growers and seeing how they handle similar challenges. I would encourage other growers to get out as often as possible to trade shows and to other nurseries, particularly those that are willing to share ideas and answer questions.

Crum: There is so much you can do. Speak to various groups. Give presentations to customers and industry members to develop your speaking skills and comfort level. Write training manuals, care guides and articles. Attend trade talks and seminars. Get to know and learn from people more experienced and possibly smarter than you. Study cost accounting and business strategies. Travel with owners or sales people to meet and learn from others and their operations. Observe and listen to people in other areas of your company. Get the best understanding possible of what your company stands for and is trying to accomplish.

GG: What advice would you have to help someone develop as a great head grower?

Crum: Don’t be afraid to ask for help or say, “I don’t know.” Be a “we” person and not a self promoter. Measure your success through the success of the company and others. Strive to do your very best but accept failures and learn from them. Be open, honest, fair and consistent with your thoughts, actions and words.

O’Hara: You have to put in time. You can’t just walk into a greenhouse with a horticulture degree and say, “I am qualified to be a head grower.” I think you learn about 20 percent more every year. It’s probably five years before you’re capable of taking care of an area by yourself without any help. It may be 10 years before someone is fully qualified to be a head grower.

Tchakarov: You have to love your job. It is a very difficult position. You have to have the passion for growing and to figure out issues and challenges.

You cannot linger. With plants, you only have one shot. You cannot say, “Tomorrow is another day and I’ll figure it out next week.” With our market, everything has to be precisely timed and delivered on a specific day because of ads and requirements from the stores. You don’t have much time to react. You have to be proactive.

And work on management skills and working with people. Your team is the one that will deliver. It will not be you. GG

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