Metrolina Greenhouses: Operation Of The Year

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.

Double Harvest Update

The Double Harvest Christian mission that was founded by the Van Wingerden family continues to help those in need in Haiti. Read Double Harvest Update for the latest on the mission’s work.

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.”

Mastering Logistics

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.”

Leave a Reply

5 comments on “Metrolina Greenhouses: Operation Of The Year

  1. Sage MAS 500? Great news! I didn’t know just how much that software was able to integrate your operations. We have lots of trouble with our disconnected systems and have been looking for 1 solution.

    I’ll definitely check out MAS 500. I’m pretty excited that I may have found the possible solution to our “complexity” problems. (I’m also liking the RFID tracking…such a great idea)


  2. Practical Software Solutions has a very functional, strong system that was debuted at this year’s OFA. The video on Metrolina’s website is defintely worth watching. Hopefully we can consolidate materials the same way (hard goods/ chemicals) to see the similar waste saving results!


  3. Sage MAS 500? Great news! I didn’t know just how much that software was able to integrate your operations. We have lots of trouble with our disconnected systems and have been looking for 1 solution.

    I’ll definitely check out MAS 500. I’m pretty excited that I may have found the possible solution to our “complexity” problems. (I’m also liking the RFID tracking…such a great idea)


  4. Practical Software Solutions has a very functional, strong system that was debuted at this year’s OFA. The video on Metrolina’s website is defintely worth watching. Hopefully we can consolidate materials the same way (hard goods/ chemicals) to see the similar waste saving results!


  5. Ilike the look of your operation it seems very professional. im attending a NCCC for horticulture and I worked at H2GRO a tomato hydroponic Greenhouse for a couple years but it seems nothing like your. how do i contact you if im interested in employment?

More From Grower of the Year...
Double Whammy Merchandise Display At CAST2015

May 28, 2015

Grow Inspiration To Grow The Horticulture Industry

We need to work together as the horticulture industry to inspire and instruct consumers with our plant knowledge and marketing expertise.

Read More

May 28, 2015 And Assist Consumers With Growing And Finding Plants

The recently launched and websites offer growing and maintenance tips, where-to-buy information and design ideas to help consumers have success with growing and finding plants.

Read More
Cal-Poly fields

May 27, 2015

Cal-Poly Students And Faculty Ask Industry To Help Save Horticulture Facilities

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, has released an update to its Master Plan that indicates that almost all of its orchards, horticulture facilities and field sites could be repurposed for buildings, including residential, and/or recreational space. According to a letter from Scott Steinmaus, the horticulture and crop science department head, the proposed changes directly affect the current orchard plantings and other long term plans for the department. The department is committed to making sure that its facilities remain invaluable teaching environments that enable its students to learn about crop, fruit and horticulture production, food safety and pest protection, in addition to providing sites for externally funded research projects that benefit the industry. Industry members are invited to submit comments to the university. According to Steinmaus, a recent eMail to the Cal-Poly community from the university president indicates that all of the input gathered through the end of May will be studied by the planning […]

Read More
Latest Stories

November 11, 2014

2015 Grower Of The Year Awards Nominations Now Open

The Grower of the Year program encompasses two distinct awards: Operation Of The Year and Head Grower Of The Year. Tell us about an operation or head grower you believe we should consider today.

Read More

August 27, 2014

2014 Head Grower Of The Year Ivan Tchakarov: An Enthusi…

Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 Grower of the Year Ivan Tchakarov accepts challenges, embraces the latest technology and leads his team with a positive attitude.

Read More

August 27, 2014

Henry Mast Greenhouses/Masterpiece Flower Company Build…

Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 Operation of the Year builds long-standing, mutually beneficial customer relationships that last.

Read More

August 22, 2014

Highlights From Greenhouse Grower’s Evening Of Ex…

Greenhouse Grower’s Evening of Excellence, held at Cultivate’14’, celebrated outstanding efforts in breeding, growing and marketing, but more than that, it was a celebration of individuals and operations that strive for excellence in their daily work.  

Read More

July 15, 2014

Greenhouse Grower Thrilled To Honor 2014 Medal of Excel…

Check out the breeders, growers and new varieties that earned the Greenhouse Grower Medal of Excellence awards for 2014.

Read More

July 15, 2014

Ivan Tchakarov Of Metrolina Greenhouse Named Greenhouse…

Metrolina Greenhouse's Director of Growing Ivan Tchakarov was named Grower of the Year at Greenhouse Grower's Evening of Excellence, held July 14 at Cultivate'14 in Columbus, Ohio.

Read More

July 15, 2014

Henry Mast Greenhouses Named Greenhouse Grower’s …

Henry Mast Greenhouses is named as Operation of the Year at Greenhouse Grower's Evening of Excellence on Monday, July 14 at Cultivate'14 in Columbus, Ohio.

Read More

June 13, 2014

Ron Godden of Wenke Greenhouses Is A 2014 Finalist For …

Ron Godden of Wenke Greenhouses enjoys the challenge of growing and has a genuine love for the intensity of the spring season.

Read More

June 12, 2014

Andy Buist of Micandy Garden Greenhouses Is A 2014 Fina…

Head Grower Of The Year Finalist Andy Buist is a hardworking grower with over 50 years of experience who encourages his employees and spreads his passion to everyone around him.

Read More

June 10, 2014

Jill West Of Al’s Garden Center And Greenhouses I…

Innovation and strong leadership skills make Jill West a worthy finalist for Head Grower of the Year.

Read More

June 10, 2014

Ivan Tchakarov Of Metrolina Greenhouses Is a 2014 Final…

Ivan Tchakarov's contagious enthusiasm, technical knowledge, drive for innovation and deep passion for his work make him a deserving finalist for the 2014 Head Grower of the Year.

Read More

June 10, 2014

Agri-Starts Is A 2014 Nominee For Operation Of The Year

See why Agri-Starts unique products and services has made it a finalist for Greenhouse Grower's Operation of the Year Award.

Read More

June 10, 2014

Creek Hill Is A 2014 Finalist For Operation Of The Year

See why Creek Hill Nursery's sustainable growing practices and strong customer relationships has made it a finalist for Greenhouse Grower's Operation of the Year.

Read More

June 10, 2014

Henry Mast Greenhouses Nominated As 2014 Finalist For O…

See how Henry Mast Greenhouses’ commitment to quality crops, customer success and sustainable practices has made it a finalist for Greenhouse Grower’s Operation of the Year Award.

Read More

June 10, 2014

North Creek Nurseries Is A 2014 Finalist For Operation …

See why North Creek Nurseries' commitment to sustainable horticulture practices has secured its nomination as a finalist for Greenhouse Grower's Operation of the Year.

Read More

February 19, 2014

Two Ways To Show Your Staff Members How Important They …

Participating in Greenhouse Grower's Grower Of The Year program is a great way to show your appreciation to your staff, co-workers and company leadership.

Read More

August 19, 2013

Operation Of The Year, The Perennial Farm: Putting Cust…

Rick Watson, owner of The Perennial Farm in Glen Arm, Md., has a simple goal. “I want to make sure our customers have all the plants they need when they need them,â€�  he says. “That sounds like a very simple goal, but it’s a challenging one.â€� Challenging indeed. With that objective in mind, Watson has built a business that spans more than 50 acres of highly efficient greenhouses and outdoor production, growing more than 1,000 varieties of perennials, ferns, grasses, groundcovers and flowering vines. A fleet of 16 trucks delivers to customers throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, and a staff of 75 employees pot, maintain, sell plants and track orders. After Fowler’s death in 1998, Watson made the difficult decision to close the landscaping division and change the name of the nursery division to The Perennial Farm. It is still a family business — Watson’s wife, Gail, does the […]

Read More

August 19, 2013

Head Grower Of The Year Dennis Crum: The Grower’s…

Dennis Crum values relationships. It’s a trait that has served him well over the years and it defines his career. And it’s those relationships that have stood the test of time and remain important after the excitement of the day and after the applause dies down. This was illustrated perfectly at Greenhouse Grower’s Evening of Excellence reception at OFA Short Course. The ballroom was abuzz with excitement, as 17 companies and individuals were nominated for awards at the prestigious ceremony, including four finalists for the 2013 Head Grower of the Year Award, sponsored by BASF. When Crum, the director of growing operations at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Mich., was announced as the winner, the room erupted with applause and cheers from his many supporters. Crum accepted his award with humility. Through jokes and a few tears, he thanked owners Tom and Sharon Smith and his team at Four Star […]

Read More