Metrolina Greenhouses: Operation Of The Year
As a business grows really large, there’s always the concern it will become too big to move or capitalize on opportunities and adjust to market forces. Size can kill you if you can’t manage it. But that has never been the case with Metrolina Greenhouses, which has fully embraced its role as a mega grower and created a team culture that is nimble and alive to embracing change and innovation.
Even 10 years ago, Metrolina was considered a very large operation with 50 acres of greenhouses in Huntersville, N.C. The company has since nearly tripled in size, becoming the largest single-site greenhouse production facility in the world. Metrolina ranks at No. 6 on our Top 100 Growers with 134 acres of covered greenhouse production and an additional 5 acres outdoors. The two large retailers it serves driving this growth are Walmart and Lowe’s. Peak season, Metrolina has nearly 800 employees at the facilities and an additional 1,000 merchandising plants at the stores through its Plant Partners division.
When asked what sets Metrolina apart from other large greenhouse operations, Mark Yelanich, the company’s director of research and development says, “Metrolina has a very high level of intensity for the day-to-day operations of the business. Every plant going to the store is important and the execution to get it from a plan on the computer to the customer’s cart is driven in high gear. While we have a lot of technology and some big greenhouses, it is the day-to-day pride by the people working here that helps Metrolina succeed.” (Read Metrolina’s Flower Trials Go The Extra Mile)
A Visionary Legacy
Co-presidents Art and Abe Van Wingerden are the grandsons of the legendary Aart Van Wingerden, who emigrated from Holland and revolutionized greenhouse production in the United States. Their father, Tom, took Aart’s vision to the next level when he founded Metrolina Greenhouses in 1972 with his wife, Vickie.
“He turned his energy and vision into one of the premier greenhouse businesses in North America,” says Bill Swanekamp, who knew Tom as a teenager when their fathers started Kube-Pak in Allentown, N.J. “Tom was a mechanical wizard and capable of pushing the benefits of mechanization far beyond his peers. A visit to his facility was in many respects overwhelming, even for those of us in the same industry.”
Many are missing Tom, who died in a utility vehicle accident on the property last December. More than 1,700 industry members, family members, friends and employees attended his funeral services.
Tom had a gift in being equally talented in mechanical engineering and horticulture, says Royal Heins of Oro Farms in Guatemala, who has worked closely with Metrolina as a production consultant. “It always amazed me what Tom would see riding around the greenhouse and that he caught problems in the back of a greenhouse or several bays away,” he says. “He 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. 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, Heins adds. “It was amazing to see a significant investment being installed during one visit only to see it being torn down 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. Tear out, throw away and improve what did not work perfectly.”
Yelanich recalls Tom telling him the story behind building the first MX greenhouse. “This was a huge undertaking, 50 acres in one year, with a lot of new, untested equipment and new ways of growing,” he says. “At one point there were many things going wrong at once and it was looking pretty bleak that it was going to work. But he didn’t give up and kept working out the problems one by one until we have the great facility we have today.”
One of Tom’s phrases that sticks with Growing Director Sim McMurry, who has been with Metrolina for more than 20 years, is “Do something – inaction or no action is worse than making a mistake. He drove that home almost daily. Problems are not going to fix themselves.”
Another is to not be afraid of change. “Regardless or whether it’s a new marketing program, a change in who we’re selling to or the product lines we grow, we need to adapt to change and move on,” McMurry says. “Don’t worry if it’s different than before. As soon as we learn a piece of equipment, we change it out and get the next edition. With our group, we want change. We want to stay up-to-date with the best equipment, people and strategies.”
Ushering In A New Era
The transition to the next generation of leadership at Metrolina was not abrupt. Tom handed over the reins to Art and Abe as co-presidents five years ago. This also coincided with Metrolina switching its orientation to a market- or customer-driven focus from a production one. While Art is focused on the facilities and operations, Abe, who gained experience outside the industry working for Proctor and Gamble, is focused on customer relationships, sales and marketing.
Although their mother, Vickie, retired as full-time chief financial officer in 2009, she still works full time as Metrolina’s financial advisor. Sister Helen works part time in information technology and data analysis, writing product orders for stores and watching over Metrolina’s electronic information systems.
Brother Michael manages shipping and the full logistics of getting product up and out the door. During peak season more than 350 people work in the shipping/trucking department. Sister Rose does not work at the company but her husband, Joey, works on transportation initiatives, such as cart tracking. Brother Thomas manages maintenance and construction and up to 50 people who are continuously working on the facilities and expansions.
“Abe and Art are both pretty amazing,” McMurry says. “From day one, Tom instilled an incredible work ethic in them. I’ve seen others in the next generation of growers and all they want to do is play. These guys work morning, noon and night and are involved in the nuts and bolts. They are also working smart, cutting costs but also investing in technology so we can do a better job. They are always looking at ways to be more efficient and make the company more profitable. Just like Tom, they are conscious of employees and making their jobs more pleasurable and efficient, which leads to a better product in the long run.”
Ivan Tchakarov, who came to Metrolina from Bulgaria in 1999 through The Ohio State University’s foreign exchange program and worked his way up to head grower in 2006, enjoys the team spirit and corporate culture and looks forward to the weekly horticultural meetings with the owners and growers each Wednesday.
“It’s more like a dialogue and sharing any kind of issues, or most importantly, new ideas on how to get better and serve the consumer well,” he says. “Our research director, Mark Yelanich, leads the show. It is great. We show pictures like a grower of the month or a crop that was turned around from the ashes like the phoenix. Sharing experiments and achievements among each other recharges us.”
Moving Full Steam Ahead
So what has Metrolina Greenhouses been up to lately? Next month, the company will fire up its new biomass heating system from Belgium. The four wood boilers will cover 100 percent of Metrolina’s heating needs most of the time. Wood chips are being sourced locally and the facility has two acres of wood storage.
Metrolina also was able to secure a $390,000 grant working with Viability, which specializes in helping growers seek funding for alternative energy and energy conservation investments. There may also be potential to receive carbon credits and clean energy credits down the road.
Based on today’s natural gas prices, Art estimates the return on investment is 12 to 15 years. “If natural gas becomes $15 a therm, then the payback will be as short as five years, but right now it’s $7 a therm,” he says.
With an operation as large as Metrolina, even relatively simple things can have a big impact. One new initiative is recovering plastic pots and trays from the stores. Most of the trays can be reused and are sorted by type, cleaned and checked back into inventory on shrinkwrapped pallets. The pots and trays that don’t get reused are taken to a nearby plastic recycler in Asheboro, N.C.
“The stores sell the plants and then give us the trays back,” Abe explains. “They have to do something with them and it was costing them to throw them away at store level. Each tray we get back and reuse saves us money. Our carts are coming back anyway, so it’s free transport. It‘s a rare trifecta – a win for the stores, for us and the environment.”
Metrolina also has been working on a plantable pot derived from recycled materials. “This project has been challenging, since most recycled materials fall apart when they get wet, but we are getting close to a commercial product,” Yelanich says.
He adds the company has a history working toward sustainable practices. “Several years ago, Metrolina moved to shipping poinsettias on carts instead of in corrugated boxes. This simple move saved 50,000 pounds of corrugated cardboard a year from going into a landfill. This was a good business decision but also good for the environment. The sustainability trend allows us to get credit for good business decisions.”
Metrolina was one of the first bedding and potted plant growers to become VeriFlora certified. Yelanich also is the sole grower representative for our industry on the committee working on the National Standard for Sustainable Agriculture.
Enterprising New Systems
Beyond sustainability initiatives, Metrolina has been upgrading and integrating its information systems and platforms through a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. For most growers, accounting systems are disjointed with separate systems for financials, sales, inventory and production. Metrolina has worked with Practical Software Solutions, which has experience in the textiles industry, to develop the Sage ERP MAS 500 for larger greenhouse operations.
The robust system integrates a series of enterprise applications covering all areas of business – financials, distribution, customer relationship management, manufacturing, human resources, payroll, project accounting, financial reporting, electronic commerce and more. Growers can add modules to address ISO weeks, scan data, patch-area management, capacity planning and grow cycle management.
This sophisticated system goes hand in hand with a newer, 100,000-square foot warehouse barn Metrolina built to centralize all its hard goods supplies. All pallets have RFID chips, which are automatically scanned in and out of inventory as they enter and leave the barn.
“We reinventory our plastic trays that come back from customers. In the future, pot manufacturers will be putting these RFID tags on their shipments,” Art explains. “This helps us with production planning for next year, as we inventory chemicals, seed and pots and have the information all in one system. These are cost centers to work on. We can’t waste money. Business isn’t like it used to be, when we got away with higher levels of waste.”
For instance, Metrolina has been able to reduce its tag inventory by 28 percent. “Before, when we’d need 1 million, we’d buy 1.1 million and weren’t taking into account what we have,” he says, adding that consolidating four chemical storage rooms into one has reduced chemical usage by 29 percent. “We’re constantly improving the product flow in and out of here,” Art says. “But you can’t automate everything and not go look at it. You still have to check and inspect.”
When contemplating the focus of the next decade, Abe says it will be all about logistics – in-store service; smaller, more frequent deliveries; cross docking; contract growing; wider product assortment; in short, providing fresher product turns faster to benefit retailers and consumers. (Read Metrolina Is Revving Up Retail)
Metrolina currently buys in more than 20 percent of its production from 35 contract growers, which really represents more than 30 percent of its spring sales. It all began with buying in ferns six years ago. Metrolina buys in 1.2 million ferns a year from six suppliers in increments of 5,000 and also provides them to other growers. Art manages the contract grower relationships.
Peak season, Metrolina brings in as many as 50 trailer loads a day from contract growers to be shipped to stores. Metrolina provides the shipping, racks and plastic pots, trays and tags. The contract growers focus on producing high-quality plants.
When asked why a company as large as Metrolina would buy so much in, Abe says, “We never want to be big enough to handle spring. It would be a financial disaster because the greenhouses wouldn’t be as full the rest of the year. We’re investing $22-26 per square foot in our facilities and turn it four to five times a year while contracting out one or two turns.”
The shift toward grower exclusivity has also made it more worthwhile to provide the full assortment to the stores. “If we’re carrying more products, we can still be efficient delivering more lines with minimums met,” Abe says. “Our stores are going from four vendors to one vendor but still receiving 1,000 units.”
The next step has been customizing deliveries by store demographics and sales volume classes. “For instance, a store might be an A on hanging baskets but a C on flats of annuals because it’s an urban area,” Abe explains. “A rural store may take more six-packs.”
Industry consultant and GG columnist Jerry Montgomery says Metrolina stands out as a leader in merchandising, new products and distribution. “They have a clear, concise understanding of the consumer. They arguably get the most accurate feedback from the marketplace through their merchandising group and are capable of acting quickly when they see demand changes,” he says. “In my mind, Metrolina is one of the few growers who integrates all the business disciplines and does not just focus on being a good grower.”