C. Raker and Sons (Raker), a leading commercial wholesaler of custom-grown young plants based in Litchfield, MI, has entered into a definitive agreement with grower-retailer Roberta’s Unique Gardens (“Roberta’s”) of Waldron, IN, in which Roberta’s will acquire 100% of Raker’s business.
And while it’s not business as usual, because business will likely change over time, Raker’s core business as a grower and supplier of plugs and liners is solid, and Raker customers can rest assured that the sale will not affect Spring 2018, says Raker’s General Manager Susie Raker-Zimmerman.
“I think there will be some new directions that we follow, but young plants are our core business – they always have been and it’s what we do really well,” she says. “That business is safe and secure. Place your orders!”
Roberta’s CEO Eric Wallien agrees, saying Raker will continue to focus on growing the quality young plants that the operation has gained a reputation for within the industry, though some of the changes might mean focusing on fewer skus.
“Raker is known for its quality, and in my business with QVC, quality is the main thing,” Wallien says. “I don’t have to go in there and blow it up, we’re just going to simplify things, so Raker can continue what it does best and do a lot of it. (The business) has a lot of really good customers; I talked with a few of them and they want to grow their business (with Raker). You love to hear that from your current customers.”
The transaction between Roberta’s and Raker is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2017. As part of the deal, Roberta’s is expected to retain the Raker name in some form.
Behind the Acquisition
The sale comes after the operation’s financial situation had placed it into unfavorable category with its lender after a number of contributing events over the past several years, and as a result, the operation had to find a solution, Raker-Zimmerman says.
“We had a debt issue, is what it comes down to, and it wasn’t something that happened yesterday or last year,” she says. “It’s been a series of events that have happened over the last 10 years that have put us into the position that we’re in. It’s market conditions, it’s several untimely bankruptcies, it’s the recession of 2008, it’s the continued consolidation in our industry. All of those things added up and put us in a debt situation with our lender. So we needed to do something to get us to a healthy place, and this (sale) has helped to get us there.”
The agreement enables Raker to enter the 2018 growing season with a healthy, restructured balance sheet, and renewed overall energy from its young and talented management team. And although it’s bittersweet to sell the family business, Raker-Zimmerman says she could not be happier than to work with Wallien and his team.
“The acquisition provides us with opportunities and lets us move forward as an organization, so it’s a very good thing,” she says. “Eric and I have a very good relationship and a good partnership, and I think we can make some good things happen here.”
Roberta’s is a fourth generation, family owned grower-retailer, and has become a premier commercial exhibitor for more than 50 years at flower and garden shows in the U.S. and beyond. Situated on about 20 acres of land in Waldron, IN, with 100 greenhouses, Roberta’s grows and sells leading-edge finished perennials and annuals that are suitable for garden and home through online and televised shopping channels, and about 95% of its current business is conducted through QVC. The operation has been a customer of Raker’s since 2011.
“We’ve always had a great working relationship with the Raker team, and this opportunity was one that we felt was in the best interest of both parties,” Wallien says. “For our business at Roberta’s, we’re partnering with one of our main suppliers and gaining a great foothold in the young plant sector. We couldn’t be more excited.”
Next Steps for Raker and Roberta’s
Raker-Zimmerman will stay on “for as long as they’ll have me,” she says. Her uncle and aunt, Gerry and Patty Raker, who previously led the Raker business, will officially retire in early December. Meanwhile, the team at Raker is energized by the promise of opportunities this new partnership offers, and from a structural standpoint, the blending of the two organizations is a good fit, Raker-Zimmerman says.
“The organization is excited about the opportunity to move forward and do what they do, which is produce plants,” she says. “We are very fortunate to have some of the best and most loyal employees in the universe. We made it through this whole debacle with no major holes from an organizational standpoint, which is a feat within itself. And our team is in tact and we’re ready to tackle the future.”
Wallien says the two businesses will not have a lot of integration, though Roberta’s will likely order more from Raker, which was happening anyway. He says he will have Raker-Zimmerman continue to oversee the whole operation, though he will be on hand often to learn the business.
“Keeping Susie on was a big selling point for me. Like I said, I’m not blowing anything up,” he says. “My family had a nursery in Hawaii for 30 years, and we recently purchased Cunningham Gardens in Waldon in 2012. So I’m going to have a fresh perspective, but I think a fresh set of eyes can’t hurt. We’re not changing just for the sake of change, and hopefully we’ll make some good changes. We’re going to make it work.”
Key offerings from C. Raker & Sons, including the Trial Gardens, which have become a source of pride for Raker, showcasing more than nine acres of plant varieties and hosting more than 2,000 people annually, and the proprietary Living Color fundraiser program, will continue to be an integral part of the organization, Raker-Zimmerman says.