We lost one of our industry’s greatest visionaries when Tom Van Wingerden, founder of Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, N.C., died in a utility vehicle accident in December. He was 63.
Born in Holland, Tom was one of the eldest children of Aart and Cora Van Wingerden, who are credited with building the modern greenhouse floriculture industry in the United States. Tom started Metrolina Greenhouses in 1972 and the company has grown to be ranked at No. 6 on our Top 100 Growers. It’s the largest single-site greenhouse location with 5.4 million square feet of greenhouse production on a 150-acre site.
Beyond size and excelling at serving the nation’s largest retailers, Metrolina has been on the cutting edge of greenhouse automation and technology. Tom sold the business to his children in 2006. He is survived by his wife, Vickie, children Art, Abe, Helen, Michael, Rose and Thomas and 14 grandchildren. Art and Abe lead Metrolina as co-CEOs. About 1,700 industry members, family members, friends and employees attended Tom’s funeral services Dec. 22 and 23.
“We really appreciate the outpouring from the industry being there for us and showing their respect and concern,” says brother Nick Van Wingerden of MidAmerican Growers in Illinois. “We saw plastic manufacturers, seed companies, plant people, professors, employees and bankers. The whole industry came together because Tom affected their lives. He was an innovator, a doer, inventor, driver and pusher. He never let the grass grow under him. He kept moving and was most like my dad out of all of us.”
In addition to being close growing up, for the last 40 years Nick, Tom and brother John of Green Circle Growers and Express Seed in Ohio traveled extensively together all over the world to industry shows, visiting fellow growers and suppliers. Their children are close and have enjoyed many extended family vacations together.
“All our travels together were spontaneous. We’d say let’s give Tom a call and he never said no,” John says. “For me, the number one thing my brother Tom shared is what is most difficult to share, his time. He always had time for you. It didn’t make a difference if you were his brother, nephew, niece or business associate, Tom always had time for you.”
A Grower At Heart
Brother-in-law Jim Gapinski of Heartland Growers in Indiana says Tom was very generous with his “time, talent and treasure” and was a true grower at heart. “He was always willing to answer phone calls from other growers concerning growing issues, and if need be, jump into a plane to visit anyone to give advice on a problem crop,” Gapinski says. “He had the passion and knowledge of how plants grew and he would walk into a greenhouse and immediately figure out what was right or wrong with a plant or group of plants. Whether it was a commercial greenhouse with multiple crops or his own hobby greenhouse growing Tom’s tomatoes or an agricultural farm in Haiti, Tom was in his element working with the soil.”
Metrolina’s doors have always been open to visitors and fellow growers. Louis Stacy of Stacy’s Greenhouses in South Carolina recalls visiting Tom when Metrolina began. “He constructed two 3,000-square-foot greenhouses and started producing bedding plants. I was amazed! He grew beautiful plants in plastic flats and inserts. I was growing in peat cup strips and wooden flats that my father and I had built. Tom mentored me more than anyone before or since.”
From those humble beginnings, Metrolina emerged as one of the most modern greenhouse operations in the world. “In our industry Metrolina is the most innovative in the United States. The place is magnificent,” says Russell Weiss of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in New York. “When it comes to innovation, Tom has anybody beat. He put his money where his mouth is and made it work. He put together a great organization. Above it all he gave back time, money and effort.”
Emeritus Professor Royal Heins, who is now president of Oro Farms in Guatemala, says Tom had the unique gift of being equally talented in mechanical engineering and horticulture. “Tom had the uncanny ability to see what was wrong or could be improved with anything mechanical or floricultural and he always had a suggestion or idea to solve or improve,” Heins says. “This ability led him to design and build much of the mechanization at Metrolina Greenhouses.”
Tom was not tied to a design or investment if it did not work, he adds. “It was amazing to see a significant investment being installed during one visit only to see it being torn out and replaced with a better design a short time later. Tom realized the best way to innovate was to think of the best way to do something and then try it.”
Putting Family First
Gary Mangum of Bell Nursery in Maryland also has a high regard for Metrolina’s production prowess, but what impressed him even more is Tom’s devotion to his family. “Tom made my partner and I feel very welcome when we visited Metrolina, and his passion for the business, his family and sharing with others was so obvious,” Mangum recalls. “We were invited into Tom’s home, where the family was gathered for a regular morning coffee. Seeing the nursery was a real eye opener, but seeing how the family interacted through Tom’s teaching was even more inspirational.”
Bill Swanekamp, who has known Tom since their fathers formed Kube-Pak in New Jersey in the 1960s, believes Tom’s greatest legacy is his children. “Tom was able to build a powerhouse of a business but at the same time raise children that any of us would be proud to call our own,” he says. “Not only did he leave them a material inheritance, but more importantly, he instilled in his children the importance of hard work, honesty, integrity, spirituality and respect for others.”
Paul Ecke III, of Paul Ecke Ranch in California, agrees one of Tom’s greatest accomplishments was passing the torch to his children way before most people do. He also considers Tom to be one of the most generous men in our industry. “There were many tales of him leaving a $100 tip for a waitress on a small bill,” Ecke says. “He felt something like that could change someone’s life and he could just go earn more. Another thing I admired was Tom was very active in a mission in Haiti called Double Harvest. He and other Van Wingerdens have made a lot of progress in a very tough environment and have positively impacted people’s lives there.”