Customers Come First at Prides Corner Farms

Prides Corner Farms is in the people business. The Connecticut-based company is one of the leading plant producers in the New England area, stocking more than 3,000 varieties and shipping around 4 million plants a year, but plants take second place to the 2,500 customers it serves.

Working successfully with a diverse customer base that includes independent garden centers, landscapers and wholesale yards often calls for setting aside rigid rules in favor of putting the customer first. Prides Corner Farms excels at this and takes pride in making a difference in the lives of its customers by providing more resources that allow them to sell more and make their businesses more profitable.

Welcoming Change Leads to More Effective Service
It all started humbly in 1978 with, according to the company website, 50 acres, a handful of greenhouses, and little else besides Peter Sellew’s dream of producing shrubs for local garden centers. Today, Prides Corner Farms is a regional nursery distributing trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers, grasses, and more from Maine to Virginia and west through Northern Ohio. The operation spans   more than 450 acres in Lebanon, CT, including in excess of 55 miles of greenhouse space and a 5-acre arboretum.

Mark Sellew, Peter’s son and current owner of Prides Corner Farms with his wife Lisa, joined the company in 1980, eventually taking complete ownership within a few years thereafter. Sellew’s oldest son, Paul, works as the company’s sales representative for the Massachusetts area, while his youngest son, Jack, runs the company’s newly purchased wholesale yard and 50-acre growing operation in Cromwell, CT.

Prides Corner Farms’ state-of-the-art logistics allow it to deliver retail-ready plants acclimated to its customers’ environments the same week the order is received. It recently completed the installation of anenergy-efficient shipping and loading dock at its Lebanon location (see sidebar) that allows it to do this more efficiently following lean flow principles.

Lean Flow principals, brought to Prides Corner by FloVision, represented a monumental change in the way Prides Corner shipped to customers. Before 2015, Prides loaded all plants via conveyor belts onto wooden shelved trailers. It was a slow, inefficient process for the nursery and for its customers that ultimately became a bottleneck to increasing sales.

With its Lean process, Prides now shops all plants from a plant supermarket on rolling carts that are then pushed directly onto trucks for delivery. Since drivers then have to merely roll off these same carts at the customer’s location, as compared to individually unloading each plant in the past, drivers are happier and easier to find in the current tight trucking market. Even better, customers love the convenience of receiving carts, too.

Moreover, the company found it could increase its payload using fewer trucks and load products quicker. Marketing and Inventory Manager Tim Kane says over the last three years, this new system has been key to spurring the company’s growth. The company’s commitment to lean flow has paid off in other ways, as well. Kane says simple changes such as re-organizing the tag room according to lean flow principles have resulted in work-flow efficiencies that have reduced overtime by 80%.

At times in Pride Corner Farms’ history, meeting challenges has meant embracing unexpected change. In 2011, a federal Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) documentation audit resulted in the loss of 50% of the full-time workforce at Prides Corner during its busiest season, even though the company had been hiring by the book. It was a devastating loss, but the company bounced back. Since the audit, Prides Corner has grown a new middle management team of close to 20 area growers along with a seasoned group of managers running different departments across the company.

“It was a stressful time that made us stronger in the end,” Sellew says. “We recruited a middle management team of local workers that is strong and complemented 100+ H-2A workers giving us a dynamic, smooth running, fully engaged team. I am proud of what this group has accomplished. You can’t survive in this business without a strong, dependable team behind you.”

Satisfying a Diverse Customer Base Calls for Give and Take
Serving the independent garden center market has both its rewards and challenges for the team at Prides Corner Farms. It’s a continual juggling act to manage the complexity of its customer base while meeting their needs and helping them grow their businesses.

One of Pride Corner Farms’ goals is to never say no its customers, which presents a monumental challenge. How do you become a one-stop shop without developing a one-size-fits-all mentality? It starts with listening, to be able to innovate and change to meet customers’ specific needs, says Sellew, and it helps to be flexible and agile.

“Growers often have a set of firm rules that they have to enforce,” he says. “We have guidelines because we want to be as flexible as possible and show our customers that we truly have their backs, that we are not just a transactional supplier.”

The Power of Brands
Prides Corner Farms is no stranger to adapting to new situations. In 2008, when the shrub market flattened out, the operation branched out into green roofs, edibles, and native plants. In an effort to give its independent garden center and landscaper customers an edge in the market, the company embraced branded plant programs. Sellew says the company has seen a lot of success with its brands, which account for the highest growth in its sales.

To date, Prides Corner Farms carries 15 national brands like Endless Summer and Proven Winners along with their own regional brands, including highly successful ones such as Sara’s Superb Herbs, Pink Ribbon Plants, Goodness Grows Edibles, and White Flower Farm. Each brand has a story to tell that differentiates it in consumers’ minds, ultimately driving sales. More importantly, Prides Corner has found a way to use its brands to give back to the community. The company has donated more than $250,000 to various charities from sales of Sara’s Superb Herbs, and its Pink Ribbon Plants program helps raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.

Several years ago, Prides Corner partnered with North Creek Nurseries to create American Beauties Native Plants, a branded line that focuses on native plants with ornamental characteristics that work well for the landscape. This million-dollar brand has become one of the company’s fastest growing categories, accounting for a 16% increase in sales last year. A portion of sales from American Beauties Native Plants have gone to support environmental education programs for the National Wildlife Federation and other programs, such as the Pollinator Partnership and the Wings Over Ohio program.

Prides Corner started with building interest in the American Beauties brand at the garden center level. At times, that has been a tough sell, but with mounting public interest in pollinators and momentum building for using native plants in the landscape, retail interest has picked up. In addition, an unexpected bonus has been the thousands of American Beauties plants Prides Corner sells to commercial landscapers every year.

“We were so focused on retail, we were clueless as to how much of an influence the American Beauties brand would have on not just big landscapes, but also smaller landscapers looking for an edge with household landscaping for customers,” says Tim Kane, Prides Corner Farms Marketing and Inventory Manager. “It was something they could bring to the table that was different. We were surprised at how much it has resonated on the landscape side.”

Prides Corner Farms Leads Through Its Actions
In March 2017, Prides Corner Farms cut the ribbon on its newest project — the completion of an open-sided greenhouse range with 725 solar panels on top. The new facility will house the company’s plant shopping area and loading dock. The solar panels now provide 25% of the operation’s electricity and will produce 240,000 kilowatts of electricity annually.

Prides Corner Farms’ owner Mark Sellew says one of the motivators for the project was the company’s desire to lead with its actions in sustainability. Working in partnership with the USDA’s Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Area, the Connecticut Farm Energy Program, and USDA Rural Development, Sellew committed $1.6 million of the company’s funds to make the project a reality.

The new facility gives 100-plus workers a comfortable, efficient place to work that protects them from the elements. A hidden bonus is the frost protection that the structure provides for the plants. Previously, the loading and shipping area was uncovered, so plants had to be stored in another area until they were ready to ship, which resulted in a scramble to get plants down to the dock and trucks loaded on the day of shipping.

Syn-RG Handpicks Better Consumer Choices
Prides Corner Farms is part of a group of growers and retailers taking an innovative approach to plant marketing, with the goal of encouraging consumer success. The company, in collaboration with Overdevest Nurseries (NJ), Saunder’s Brothers (VA), Willoway Nurseries (OH), and Sheridan Nurseries (Ontario), is developing a joint trialing program with its customers that will make it easier for consumers to sift through the many new plants that come on the market each year.

After plants go through a rigorous certification and trialing process by growers and retailers, they will receive a “Handpicked for You” mark, which is similar to a trustmark or stamp of approval. The mark will assure consumers that the plants have been tried and tested for success. The Handpicked for You program is not a new brand; rather, it is an added designation to the tag or pot that helps bolster consumer confidence in their purchase.

The group is in its second year of rolling out the program to independent garden centers and is hoping to implement a bigger release in 2018.

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