Operation Of The Year, The Perennial Farm: Putting Customers First

Grower of the Year

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,”  he says. “That sounds like a very simple goal, but it’s a challenging one.”

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.

Starting Small
Plants were in Watson’s blood at an early age. His father and uncles ran Watson’s Garden Center in Lutherville, Md., and as a boy, Watson worked there after school and on weekends. He decided to pursue a degree in horticulture, graduating from the University of Maryland in 1980. As a student, Watson worked with renowned perennial expert Kurt Bluemel.
In 1980, armed with his degree and everything he learned from Bluemel, Watson and a partner, Ken Fowler, opened a design- build business called Exterior Design. At the time, Watson was disappointed that the only perennials available to them at the time were in quart pots and didn’t provide much impact. To address this need, he purchased 3.5 acres next to his home and began growing perennials and grasses in large, 1- and 2-gallon containers, which he sold to his family’s garden center and other retailers.

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 accounting and payroll, his daughter Katie helps with customer service and human resources and his son, Tom, has been doing marketing for The Perennial Farm’s Treadwell Plants, a signature line of easy-care groundcovers.

It is Watson’s commitment to his customers, his resolve to not only meet their expectations, but exceed them, and his willingness to take bold steps to grow his business that have earned The Perennial Farm Greenhouse Grower’s 2013 Operation of the Year Award.

Watson says two key elements are the secret to his success.

“The first is having a great team of people around me,” he says. “Good employees create success. The other thing is to have an owner who is a driving force behind what’s going on, not an absentee owner. In this business you have to pay attention to detail. Plants need care around the clock. You’ve got to be willing to commit to that type of life.”

Ed Kiley, operations manager for The Perennial Farm, agrees.

“There’s a term the aerospace industry coined — TQM, Total Quality Management,” he says. “That means when you do something, you do it right the first time. It also refers to your relationships with both your external and internal customers. Your internal customers are the people you work with. Your potting crew has got to work with the order-pulling crew, which has to work with the shipping crew, and the customer service team has to work with the outside salespeople. These people have to have good relationships in terms of doing things right and passing along good quality work, so one group isn’t sending problems to the next group. We’ve taken the concept of TQM and applied it here at The Perennial Farm.”

Price Value Leader
On its website and marketing materials, the Perennial Farm includes the tagline “The Price Value Leader.” It doesn’t just mean the lowest price.

The company continually has an eye on the ever-changing business environment and continually adjusts as needed.

“Customers have told us they want the highest quality plants at a good price value,” Kiley says. “They want a high level of customer service and support. And they want a grower who can partner with them to help grow their business.”

And while price is important, Kiley says it is not the whole picture.

“We have a lot of competitors who compete on price, and that’s all they’ve got,” Kiley says. “There’s a lot more to be considered than the price alone. When you look at the price, the quality, the customer service, the ability to get plants the day after ordering and all the resources we offer in terms of information, we really do believe we are the price value leader in the industry.”

“The Delivery Specialists”
The Perennial Farm has made it a priority to deliver plants when customers want them, not when it’s easiest for the company to deliver them. It wasn’t easy at first to set up a workable system, but Watson says, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Kiley says the initiative came about as a result of a brainstorming session in which they were looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.

“We made a conscious decision to raise the bar,” Kiley says. “We looked at things we could do culturally that would set us apart from the competition, and that was one of them. Getting deliveries from many of our competitors was very bureaucratic — ‘We’ve got to fill the truck and then we’ll let you know when we can get it to you.’”

Kiley says they use two 70-inch TVs — one in the customer service area and one at the order processing building — that allow workers to see the routing of the trucks for the following day. Salespeople have access from their laptops. Kiley works with Chuck Bayley, the nursery manager, to route the trucks, sending them to the farthest points and bringing them back toward the farm with more stops. A proprietary map program that includes all customer locations allows efficient routing of the trucks.

“At first it put a lot of stress on the organization to do something nobody else was doing,” Kiley says. “Ultimately, it became ingrained, and now we just do it.”

The strategy has paid off.

“A couple of years ago, one of our reps was talking to a competitor’s rep,” Watson says. “The competitor said he called on a mutual customer who was on the phone placing a small order with The Perennial Farm. He said he knew he was in trouble when our order was being delivered before he even left.”

Embracing Technology
Watson doesn’t hesitate to embrace technology when it can improve efficiencies. He just implemented a program from SBI that allows customers to scan in the orders as they are delivered. It puts the plant type, quanitity and price right into their system and generates the invoice.

Watson says The Perennial Farm was the first perennial grower to use QR codes on tags — on the company’s Treadwell Plants line. Initially the code led the user to a static page, but now it leads to a video of horticulture expert Allan Armitage telling about the plant.

Watson is currently looking into a novel new hovercraft introduced by Verizon that can fly over the fields and take pictures of the crops.

“It takes high-definition pictures from up to 1,000 feet,” Watson says. “It’s less than $500. Right now we’re debating if we should do it and how we would use it.”

Other efficiencies are low-tech. Potting is done at the final location of the plants, not in a central potting area.

“We set up a tent, a gigantic scoop of soil, the pots and the plugs,” Kiley says. “As fast as plants are being potted, they are being lined out in the field. The plants are only handled twice — once at potting and once being put onto the rack for shipping.”

Building A Better Mousetrap
The Treadwell Plants brand came about after Watson and Kiley looked at similar lines such as Stepables and Jeepers Creepers and believed they could raise the bar on the concept.

“We looked at the mousetrap and said, ‘We can build a better mousetrap,’” Kiley says. “Treadwell Plants are in true quarts instead of a little pot. They are chosen by landscape professionals who have told us these are the plants that work best. They are acclimated to the central Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. In addition, we don’t sell to big box stores. That’s important, because independent garden centers want plants where they aren’t going to be ambushed.”

A new line of plants was introduced this year — Perennial Farm Premium. It features large, 2-gallon perennials that are blooming and consumer-ready. They cost about $1.00 more per pot.

“Premiums are the gravy of all our plants,” Kiley says. We decide every week which plants will be Premium Plants. We look at all our retail-ready perennials, choose the best of the best and categorize them as Premium. They are ideal for an end cap or freshening the benches — perfect for impulse purchases.”

Into The Future
“One thing I admire about Rick is that he continues to invest in his business,” Kiley says. “This is his baby. He’s proud of it and he’s got his heart and soul in it.”

Watson says one of the most rewarding things for him has been seeing other people in the company succeed. “People who work well in a team atmosphere do well here,” he says. “There is no ‘I’ in team. When it all comes down to it, we’re having fun with plants.”    GG

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