2007 Grower Of The Year: The Plug Connection

Built On Integrity
Greenhouse Grower is proud to recognize The Plug Connection as its 2007 Grower of the Year.

There’s a saying that you’re only as good as your last sale or last interaction with your customer. For 20 years, The Plug Connection in Vista, Calif., has humbly built its reputation as the preferred West Coast young plant supplier by taking care of customers, large and small, and making them successful with each transaction, as well as bigger picture programs.

Ranked at No. 5 on our Top 25 Young Plant Growers producing 220 million plugs and liners, Plug Connection is unique in its independence. Other young plant growers of their stature are closely aligned with specific breeders and brokers. Plug Connection serves an extensive network of 27 brokers supplying a complete range of annuals, perennials, grasses, herbs and vegetables from seed and cuttings.

The Plug Connection

Owner: Tim Wada 
Founded: 1987
Size: 350,000 square feet of greenhouses 

Location: Vista, Calif. 

Main Crops: Annuals, perennials, blooming potted plants, grasses, vegetables and herbs in plugs and liners. Finished organic herbs and vegetables in the Organiks line. 

Market: Finished growers and some contract growing for breeders, brokers and growers. The Organiks line is being carried by a variety of retailers nationally. 

Web site: www.plugconnection.com

Plug Connection also has built a reputation of being breeder friendly by hosting independent comparison trials during the California Pack Trials the last seven years, which continues to lead to new business and new opportunities.

Its latest venture is producing a certified organic line of herbs and vegetables called Organiks. (See Organics With A ‘K’.) All summer, members of Plug Connection have participated in industry forums educating growers about the realities and opportunities of growing organically. Plug Connection also will be one of the young plant producers supplying the Novalis Plants That Work by Color line.

We have chosen Plug Connection as our Grower of the Year for its reputation and strength in customer relationships, dedication to quality and willingness to break new ground to serve the industry as a whole. When Plug Connection succeeds, the whole supply chain succeeds.

“The question I think we have to ask about industry leaders is their contribution to not just building their business, but their part in contributing to the success of their industry and the players who sustain it,” says Jerry Halamuda, president of Color Spot Nurseries in Fallbrook, Calif. “Plug Connection has been a company that not only produces an excellent product and has expanded over many years, but has helped many growers produce high-quality products for American consumers, as well as technically improved their benchmarks.”

Humble Beginnings

Plug Connection’s owner and founder Tim Wada literally got his start as a grower in his own backyard, when he and his brother worked in their father’s groundcover nursery during the summer and on weekends. After graduating from college with a degree in finance, he and his brother decided to resurrect the nursery business.

Plugging For The Plug Connection

“Tim (Wada) is an extraordinary nurseryman, businessman, grower and human being. It is not easy to be a very competent business person making all the very tough daily decisions to generate your margins and keep a very strong following of friends at the same time. His unparalleled integrity, focus on quality and desire to make his customers successful are keys in Plug Connection’s growth.”
— Jerry Halamuda, Color Spot Nurseries

“Plug Connection is a very high-quality organization that grows an extremely high-quality product. Tim Wada is one of the best grower managers in the country. There are just not many people who have the knowledge and character that Tim Wada has. My hat’s off to him.”
— Michael Vukelich, Color Spot Nurseries

“A simple strategy of fairness, believable concern for our business and great people who are willing to stay in touch through the good and bad parts of scheduling are what make all competitors second best.”
— James Russell, Armstrong Growers

“I have always been impressed with their willingness to host ‘non-biased’ trials on new introductions, giving growers such as ourselves an opportunity to see comparisons between breeders. In addition, they have always been forward thinking and are continually developing new lines and programs.”
— Scott Farnsworth, Colorama Wholesale Nursery

“Plug Connection has long been one of our largest and most treasured suppliers. Their product is great quality, delivery is reliable and they stay ahead of the curve with their new product experimentation. Their staff is top notch and their interest in our success has been demonstrated repeatedly. It is interesting to think of the internal culture there because at the same time there is an intense conscientious detail in their work, there is also a light and humorous approach to personal relations.”
— Ken Altman, Altman Plants

“Plug Connection’s contribution to growers throughout the Western United States has been consistently important over the past 15 plus years. Through innovation in young plant production and delivery (including their new Organiks line), dependable quality young plant supply and their more recent contribution as a valuable exhibitor at Pack Trials, Plug Connection has served breeders and bedding plant growers with great dedication and value. This recognition is clearly deserved!”
— Jeff Burkholder, S&G Flowers

“But it was the late ‘70s, during a recession. Groundcovers are tied to landscaping, which is tied to construction,” Wada explains. “My brother became a chiropractor and I grew 4-inch color for two years. Then I went to Hawaii and tried to learn the restaurant business and worked in packaged sushi for a year.”

When Wada returned to California, he visited David Sasuga of Sunrise Growers in Long Beach, who asked him if he’d like to grow plugs. “I asked, ‘What’s a plug?’ and my famous last words were, ‘Wow! That looks easy! All you have to do is buy seed. What a concept!’”

Plug Connection began 20 years ago as an extension of Sunrise Growers and Sasuga was a partner the first 10 years. The company moved to Vista four years later for the climate and land prices.

“Since then, every few years we’ve added 50,000 square feet of greenhouse,” Wada says. “Our growth has been steady, not a huge explosion. We have 350,000 square feet at one location. We did purchase land over the summer and hope to put up greenhouses next year.”

He anticipates the new facility will either be used for vegetative crops or the new Organiks line. “It’s kind of a moving target, but it gives us some options,” he says.

Growing With The Industry

Twenty years ago, Plug Connection had the first-mover advantage as the first flower plug grower in California. With the exception of Tagawa Greenhouses in Colorado, most of the plug growers were in the eastern United States.

While seed-based crops continue to be 90 percent of the business, Plug Connection has been a contract grower for vegetative crops for 10 years. This was the first year the company produced liners for its own sales. Wada also hired another grower to focus on vegetative crops so that his head grower can remain focused on seed.

Plug Connection discovers some of the best new opportunities from its grower customers. For instance, a perennials grower in Utah was interested in a drought-tolerant product line because water rationing was a key concern, as it is in many parts of the country now.

“The Rockies had low snow pack and the customer asked if we’d work with him on Water Wise Perennials,” says Juan St. Amant, who wears many hats but is in charge of product development. “The drought tolerant collection is a selection of perennials we were already growing but this was an additional marketing piece. Water rationing will continue to be an issue. It’s a background program that has helped our perennial program.”

Gerbera and cyclamen programs also came from customer requests. “On the young plant side, we can diversify more readily, which is a big plus,” St. Amant says. “It seems like the industry has reached a plateau, but we’re experiencing growth and can look at other markets. We have opportunities to keep growing.”

The Personal Touch

Some may argue young plant growers don’t need to be as close to their grower customers because all the orders are booked through brokers, who have representatives calling on growers. Brokers handle the transaction. Plug Connection invests in traveling with brokers and breeders to visit growers, along with a four-person customer service department to make sure all supply needs are taken care of on both ends of the order.

“Lisa Finnegan, our customer service manager, has been with us 10 years,” St. Amant says. “It’s nice that even though the order is placed through a broker sales rep, a grower could call myself or Lisa with a special request or shipping problem.”

Many would consider St. Amant the face of Plug Connection. Before becoming a grower, he was teaching fifth grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. His sisters worked at Sunrise Growers.

“Juan has been with me for 19 years. I always ask what his title is,” Wada says. “He handles key accounts and new product introductions. He’s done every aspect of the business. He makes a lot of customer visits with sales reps and builds relationships with customers. We always like to make sure we know the ship-to customer. It’s made a big difference. We fully support the broker network but want input from the end user.”

Plug Connection caters to customers of all sizes and prides itself on selection, flexibility and service. “We sell to operations as big as Color Spot along with small mom and pops and service them equally well,” Wada says. “We have low minimums, and even custom sow requests are only three trays per variety. We bring a total package to our customer base and try to be price competitive while bringing value.”

St. Amant adds, “When we were small, we were competing against large companies. It helped us get a share of the business and we’ve continued in that vein but revised processes.”

Plug Connection also provides resources through its Web site by providing references for key crops and by posting five-week availability, which is updated every 15 minutes. Although orders are not placed directly through Plug Connection, these resources are helpful to growers.

Organics With A ‘K’

To demonstrate there is a market for organically grown herbs and vegetable plants, The Plug Connection launched a new division and a brand called Organiks this year. Retailers received ready-to-display units in environmentally friendly cardboard, full of herb and vegetable collections in biodegradable pots.

“We became certified organic as a grower a year and a half ago, but most of our ship-to customers, the growers, are not certified,” explains Juan St. Amant, who is in charge of product development at Plug Connection. “The process was not being carried through. That’s why we started the finished program.”

The intent is to spin out Organiks as a separate company supported by a network of regional growers. Retail customers include independent garden centers, grocery stores, FTD.com and trendy lifestyle chains including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Smith & Hawken.

Industry veteran Joe Messer joined the company as president in July but has been working with Plug Connection owner Tim Wada on the program for about a year. Messer grew up in a fourth-generation family greenhouse operation and has had dual careers working for flower breeders and in the medical industry for orthopedics equipment companies. Past employers include S&G Flowers, Daehnfeldt and Oglevee, all of which were purchased by other companies during his tenure.

“I told Tim, you’re gonna hire me and somebody is going to buy your company now!” Messer says.

Next year, the Organiks brand will expand to include ancillary earth-friendly products, such as fertilizer, pots, soil amendments, cooking utensils and even pet supplies. “Retailers are asking us for more products,” Messer says. “All of us are more concerned about the environment. Organic plants is just one thing. People talk about the light bulbs they use, the trash they recycle. Organics are just part of that.”

Satisfied Customers

Color Spot counts on Plug Connection for key crops, such as cyclamen and gerbera. “Their plug quality is excellent; always consistent in terms of matching top and bottom root growth,” Halamuda says. “Our facilities have always ranked their product as superior to all plug suppliers we use.”

James Russell of Armstrong Growers, which has the largest chain of independent garden centers in the United States, says, “We made the decision to not grow our own plugs because they are so good at what they do. Not only do they grow consistent quality to our specifications, but they do it like it is a part of Armstrong. Our plugs are grown and delivered as if they were produced by our own company. This is done by a caring concern the staff at Plug Connection has for our orders, constant communication and the willingness to try almost any idea we can throw at them.”

Colorama Wholesale Nursery, which has its own plug division, Cal Agri Transplants, also relies on Plug Connection as a supplier.

“Plug Connection supplies many of our difficult, critical and financially important crop starts,” says Scott Farnsworth, director of sales and marketing. “We would not trust that responsibility to many other growers. We have always been able to rely on their performance, and on the rare occastion where something goes awry, they go out of their way to make it right.”

On the broker side, Jeff Burkholder of S&G Flowers views Plug Connection as a good business partner. “Their support in our distribution of our products and others they produce is consistently helpful and available,” he says. “They provide very good communication with the grower regarding cultural and order-related needs. It is this level of personal service that clearly endears them to their grower customers.”

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