Progressive thinker Lloyd Traven, a co-owner of Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa., told Greenhouse Grower during our 2013 GROW Summit last fall why he’s made it a practice to hire college graduates under age 30. His hiring process and the trust he’s placing in these team members seems to be working for Peace Tree. Here’s a snapshot of the changes he’s made.
GG: Why the decision to hire only teammates under age 30?
Traven: It’s not a firm policy. It’s not like we will not consider anyone over 30 ever. But it is the reality of what we’re doing. We’re liking it a lot and we started it because we were just getting so set in our ways that we were no longer as innovative or as alive as we had been. We felt like we were a little bit stilted.
It really was driven home by our grower, Joe LaMent. When we hired him, he was very inexperienced. We took a chance on him and it worked out very well — he’s still with us. But he had an attitude that felt obnoxious to say the least. He was just so cocky about everything, but it turns out he was justified to be so.
We had this conversation once when we were going to introduce a new plant into our group of products. Candy [Traven, co-owner and Lloyd’s wife] and I had seen it at Spring Trials and we were all excited over it. We could see that he was just sneering at us and I said, “What’s the problem, Joe, what’s with the attitude?”
He said, “Well, what does it do?” So I’m sort of a little mystified by what is happening and I’m not really sure what his issue is. So I asked him, “What do you mean what does it do?”
He said, “Why are you considering adding this plant?”
And I’m looking at him like, “You’re nuts, guy, you’re looking at it. It’s pretty…”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty,” he said. “It’s got a flower on it, big whoop. What does it do?”
I said, “Well, it flowers.”
He said, “If that’s all it does, it’s not worth it to me. I can tell you that I will never buy one. None of my friends will ever buy one. They will just look at it and say is that all it does? It’s not worth it.”
I didn’t like the attitude at first but the more I thought about it, I wanted to know more. I said, “What are you looking for?”
He said, “Can I eat it? Can I smell it? Does it make dye? Is it a medicine? Does it smell nice? Does it add fall color or winter color? Can it do anything other than just flowering?”
Then I loved the attitude. He was telling me that consumers, especially young people, want plants to be functional in many ways. I thought to myself — we need to live this.
That concept of how we do things has to change. Our comfort zone is comfortable for us, but it’s not comfortable for the consumer. They’re not comfortable at a garden center. They’re not comfortable with us pushing horticultural knowledge at them in Latin. They’re not comfortable with the things that we hold dear, and they’re responding by not buying or buying somewhere else.
GG: What other factors influenced your operation’s change in philosophy?
Traven: We met Stephanie [Whitehouse, marketing director] when her class from Cornell University came through and visited Peace Tree during a horticultural field trip I helped lead down the Eastern Coast. I spent three days talking to her and not only is she as smart as a whip, she’s confident. That’s a marketing person. She just totally got it. She understood what we were all about and we spent a lot of time recruiting her.
We needed to insulate our customers from me and my constant challenges to them. We were getting pushback from my “Ravin’ Traven” columns and it took on a life of its own. As it turns out, Stephanie has provided a fresh face for Peace Tree and our concepts and ethics.
She convinced us to rethink the idea of having a printed, glossy catalog and putting it online, instead, by asking me how many bags I bring home from [AmericanHort] Short Course. I said it’s a four-bag show. That’s how I rate shows — at the quality shows, you bring home bags of catalogs. Stephanie asked me how many of those catalogs I ever look at? I started thinking about it and probably 99 percent of the stuff I grab, I never touch again. I throw it away the next year when I get a new one, and that’s just stupid.
So she said, “Yes, it’s stupid. Let’s forget about that. If you need to print a copy for someone, you’ll spend $5 on printing, not $15,000 printing 2,000 of them.”
I love the energy. I love the cockiness — the willingness to say you’re missing the point. You don’t get that instinctive, “Don’t be an idiot,” kind of reaction from people my age because we’re set in our ways. We’re going to do things the way we do it.
So then our decision was how we’re going to enhance the website, look at social media and give people a flash drive instead of a catalog. That’s where we started to change our outlook.
Now about 80 percent of our crew is 30 and under. In addition to Joe and Stephanie, we have Nate Roehrich (operations manager), Lisa Gyenes (marketing assistant), Chelsea Mahaffey (grower), Cynthia Rees (contract designer) and Alex Traven (organic farm manager). Janet Binsau (truck driver) is the only employee, other than Candy and me, who’s over 30.
GG: What do you look for when you recruit new members to your team?
Traven: We very much adhere to Southwest Airlines’ concept, hire attitude and train for aptitude. We look first at how they fit in with everyone else. Are they enjoyable to be around? Are they enjoying what they’re doing? They have to have the skill set, of course, but we’re at the point where we’re hiring only college graduates now.
We’re looking for people with attitude. We want them to be self-directed, confident, articulate and communicative. I don’t think young people are inherently smarter or more motivated. It’s not that they’re more gung ho and go get ‘em, but they aren’t jaded. They realize the possibilities are there for them.
GG: What is the key to working with under-30s?
Traven: Empower them, first of all. Compel them to take control and direct things without having to hold their hand. We let them know that they will make mistakes and we expect that to happen as part of the process. We want to be able to discuss it with them and find out what they learned from it, and we expect them to continue to develop. We do not want anyone to be shoehorned into a job and stay there forever. If you become indispensable, you never advance.
We say to them from day one, we’re going to put you in charge of this and you’re going to have to produce and justify what you do. We tell them very clearly — you have to earn your salary. You generate your own money. And they like that kind of challenge — it keeps them interested.
We have a lot of irons in the fire right now that are coming to fruition and we’re letting our people run with their passion. They have to understand that we still own the business and it’s our money that’s on the line. But we tell them, we’re going to give you as much facility and technology as you can handle. We’ll give you every chance to make this happen.
It’s working because our sales and pre-bookings are up dramatically. All of those things that we want to have happening are really working for us right now.
You’ve got to give them their due. Nobody’s walking into my company and taking over on day one. But I will give you a set of responsibilities that are yours and yours alone. Have at it and make it work.