Remembering Tom Van Wingerden

Remembering Tom Van Wingerden

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.”

Leave a Reply

4 comments on “Remembering Tom Van Wingerden

  1. I just would like to say: I’m so glad to have met this Great Man while I was an intern student at Metrolina Greenhouses. I had the opportunity to join in the 2008 Christmas’ Night with the Van Wingerdens’ family. That was an amazind time spent, time that I learned much from Tom’s talks and I’m sure it will last forever in my mind.
    From Brazil,
    Lucas Silva.

  2. I was blessed to meet Tom and his family, I was an intern at Metrolina Greenhouse and I personally talked to him about his great work in my country Haiti ( Double Harvest ). He was a wise man with a great heart.

    Josue- Toledo, OH

  3. I just would like to say: I’m so glad to have met this Great Man while I was an intern student at Metrolina Greenhouses. I had the opportunity to join in the 2008 Christmas’ Night with the Van Wingerdens’ family. That was an amazind time spent, time that I learned much from Tom’s talks and I’m sure it will last forever in my mind.
    From Brazil,
    Lucas Silva.

  4. I was blessed to meet Tom and his family, I was an intern at Metrolina Greenhouse and I personally talked to him about his great work in my country Haiti ( Double Harvest ). He was a wise man with a great heart.

    Josue- Toledo, OH

More From Top 100 Growers...
crider-rd2-internal_Rough-Brothers_featured

July 1, 2015

Rough Brothers Is Acquired By Gibraltar Industries

RBI Solar Inc., Rough Brothers Manufacturing Inc. and affiliates have been acquired by Gibraltar Industries, a manufacturer and distributor of products for residential and industrial markets, for $130 million. Capitalizing on its 80 years of design-build experience and leadership as the largest greenhouse manufacturer in North America, Ohio-based RBI has established itself during the past five years as North America’s fastest-growing provider of photovoltaic (PV) solar racking solutions. The transaction will enable Gibraltar to leverage its expertise in structural metals manufacturing and materials sourcing to meet global demand for solar racking solutions. The company also announced that it anticipates its second-quarter 2015 financial results will be in line with its previous expectations. “Acquiring RBI is an important step in the transformation of Gibraltar into a company with a higher rate of growth and best-in-class financial metrics,” says Gibraltar CEO Frank Heard. “This acquisition directly aligns with key end markets and product platforms […]

Read More

June 30, 2015

Opportunities Abound For Women In Horticulture, Says Dosatron International’s Lela Kelly

My love for horticulture goes back to my grandparents who were farmers in upstate New York. My family’s involvement in agriculture left a lasting impression that has spanned decades, and still drives my passion for our industry today. I started my career in horticulture when I owned a greenhouse, nursery and garden center in Sayville, Long Island, N.Y. We specialized in ground cover production, later branching out to producing perennials and bedding plants.     I then went onto wholesale hard goods distribution. In the 1980s, I was the first woman salesperson on Long Island. What an eye opener that was! New York is a very special place, different from anywhere else in the country. You cannot imagine how difficult it was walking into greenhouses and nurseries as a woman, in a man’s world. Luckily, I grew up in New York City in an Italian family, who taught me great […]

Read More
Medal of Excellence Award

June 30, 2015

Get To Know The 9 Variety Finalists For Editor’s Choice And Industry’s Choice Awards

Greenhouse Grower‘s Evening Of Excellence reception is rapidly approaching. Here, you can learn more about the varieties that are finalists for the Medal Of Excellence Editor’s Choice and Industry’s Choice Breeding Awards. Thank you to the 2015 sponsors of Greenhouse Grower‘s Medal Of Excellence Awards, Landmark Plastic, Nufarm and Stockosorb. Editor’s Choice Asclepias ‘Monarch Promise’ (Hort Couture) Basil ‘Balsamic Blooms’ (EuroAmerican Propagators) Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (Sakata Seed) Dianthus Jolt Series (PanAmerican Seed) Salvia Grandstand Series (Green Fuse Botanicals) Scabiosa ‘Kudos Pink’ (Hishtil Nurseries) Industry’s Choice Basil ‘Balsamic Blooms’ (EuroAmerican Propagators) Bidens BeeDance Series (Suntory Flowers) Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (Sakata Seed) Dianthus Jolt Series (PanAmerican Seed) Lobelia ‘Starship Deep Rose’ (Kieft Seed) Vinca Valiant Series (PanAmerican Seed)     Join us Monday, July 13 in Ballroom 2 at the Columbus Convention Center to find out which varieties will receive the coveted awards. The reception begins at 5:15 p.m. and the ceremony […]

Read More
Latest Stories
Top 100

May 8, 2015

2015 Greenhouse Grower Top 100 Grower List

The 2015 Top 100 Growers list represents the largest greenhouse operations in the United States. Greenhouse Grower magazine puts out a list annually based on environmentally controlled greenhouse space.

Read More
Top 100

May 8, 2015

The Top 100 Growers Tackle Crop Protection Challenges

We asked the Top 100 Growers how they have changed their production practices to address consumer concerns about pollinator health, as well as how integrated pest management and the use of biocontrols have changed their operations.

Read More
Top 100

May 8, 2015

2015 Greenhouse Grower Top 100 Growers: Reading The Ran…

For the second straight year, Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers survey shows the largest growers are rapidly expanding.

Read More
40

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Young’s Plant Farm (No. 40)

Learn more about Young's Plant Farm, No. 40 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
39

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Dewar Nurseries (No. 39)

Learn more about Dewar Nurseries, No. 39 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
36

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Garden State Growers (No. 36)

Learn more about Garden State Growers, No. 36 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
35

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Plant Marketing (No. 35)

Learn more about Plant Marketing, No. 35 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
48

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Van Wingerden International Inc. …

Learn more about Van Wingerden International Inc., No. 48 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
50

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Bailey Nurseries (No. 50)

Learn more about Bailey Nurseries International Inc., No. 50 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
26a

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Bela Flor Nurseries (No. 26)

Learn more about Bela Flor Nurseries , No. 26 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers List

Read More
34

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Battlefield Farms, Inc. (No. 34)

Learn more about Battlefield Farms, Inc., No. 34 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
44

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Post Gardens, Inc. (No. 44)

Learn more about Post Gardens, Inc., No. 44 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
43

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Grower Direct Farms (No. 43)

Learn more about Grower Direct Farms, No. 43 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top 100 Growers list.

Read More
2015 Top 100 Growers 75

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Harts Nursery (No. 75)

Learn more about Harts Nursery, No. 75 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top Growers list.

Read More
2015 Top 100 Growers 71

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Van de Wetering Greenhouses (No. …

Learn more about Van de Wetering Greenhouses, No. 71 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top Growers list.

Read More
2015 Top 100 Growers 71

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Welby Gardens Co./Hardy Boy Plant…

Learn more about Welby Gardens Co./Hardy Boy Plants-Hardystarts, No. 71 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top Growers list.

Read More
2015 Top 100 Growers 65

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Corso’s Perennials (No. 65)

Learn more about Corso's Perennials, No. 65 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top Growers list.

Read More
2015 Top 100 Growers 64

May 1, 2015

2015 Top 100 Growers: Bob’s Market And Greenhouse…

Learn more about Bob's Market And Greenhouses, No. 64 on Greenhouse Grower's 2015 Top Growers list.

Read More