A Holistic Approach

A Holistic Approach

When Wayne and Chris Mercer bought their 17-acre piece of land in Zellwood, Fla. in 1987, it held less than a half acre of Dutch glass house, 2 1/2 acres of vintage fiberglass greenhouses and several common flat-top shade structures. “We affectionately called the location ‘The Rat Hole,’ because several large rats scampered for their lives as discarded mounds of nursery debris were loaded into dumpsters,” Wayne says. The property, overrun with old garbage, brush and trees growing up through the buildings’ roofs, was given new life over the next three years. The Mercers’ mentor and family member Gene Batson “provided a military style of training and introduction to potted tropicals, turning a dental hygienist and a small-building contractor from Michigan into Florida farmers,” says Wayne. As a result, Mercer Botanicals sold its first plants in 1990 to an already established customer base.

Seventeen years later, the operation has grown to 750,000 square feet of greenhouse production with room to expand on more than 50 acres of land. With 30 employees, Chris Mercer drives all sales while Wayne Mercer consults the professional staff of growers and production managers during daily morning meetings.

With its commitment to “Worry-Free Buying” and an aggressive customer base, Mercer Botanicals has grown an average of 12 percent annually over the past 10 years and 15 percent over the last five.

“I don’t know that we are special in any way from the group of growers that focuses on listening to their customers and striving to meet their needs, but we do claim to be part of that group,” Wayne says.

Constant Contact

Not a company to chase the latest fads, for 17 years Mercer Botanicals has excelled in growing a core group of products: syngonium, dieffenbachia, crotons and Neanthe Bella palms, as well 10 other species. “We are known for these staples and understand their challenges,” Wayne says.

This consistency, along with listening and catering to the needs of their core customers, is the reason for the company’s growth and success. “I am in constant contact with our customers,” says Chris. “I believe the dependability of our core product offerings has serviced our customer base well and will continue to do so. The changes and additions to our product line are customer driven. We serve them, not Mercer Botanicals.”

With no single customer owning more than 8 percent of the operation’s annual sales, the clientele is truly diverse and includes select garden centers, florists, dish garden growers, rewholesalers and interiorscape contractors.

Staffing For The Situation

The Mercers credit the high quality of plants and customer service MBI offers to its key employees. These include Courtney Boyd, head grower, assisted by Benson Mahaffey and Inol Desantille; production crew leaders Liz Sallet, Jean Fredric, Pedro Hernandez, Martha Mosqudea, Antonio Gonzalez and Cuz Yniriago. The services of professional human resources consultant Julie Wood and a professional CEO firm fill in the management team needed by a small company. The company also employs Brummer & Rodgers CPA, and Wayne is a member of The Executive Committee of Florida (TEC), which provides him with his own board of directors.

“Peer pressure through a support group of local business CEOs facilitates leadership development led by our chairman Ed Hargroves,” Wayne says. “Our business practices and belief systems are challenged through this process.”

Serving customers of the future, whether retailers, wholesalers or the next generation of consumers, will be helped tremendously by using the Internet more efficiently, according to Wayne. Though Mercer Botanicals’ Web site does glean some business currently, he says he feels it is behind the curve.

“There is a great untapped potential in using the Web for our industry,” Wayne says. “The MySpace generations are in or headed to the workforce and their point of purchase may be located at 30,000 feet, from their PDA as they sit on a Southwest Airlines flight. Although contrary to our traditional beliefs on customer service, there is a whole new generation of customers raised on the platform of technology who are comfortable with searching for products and answers from the privacy of their computers.”

Rising Above Challenges

According to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida, Wayne says, potted tropicals comprise less than 8 percent of the live goods market–and the category is declining. Recovering from the current housing market slump will help the market turn around, he says, but it will take dedicated growers who are willing to automate to stick with the game.

“Those of us left in the market will have to continue increasing production capacity through cost saving automation,” Wayne says. “Some growers will be strong, investing in technology and growing area. Some will continue to sell out for land values and we will continue to see more mergers and acquisitions along with contract growing with larger, stronger firms.” Meanwhile, he adds, he is convinced that the tropical foliage industry has not reached its potential.

Part of the future includes an immediate need to reduce the industry’s environmental impact, whether the changes are voluntary or mandatory, Wayne says. Mercer Botanicals is doing its part by adopting the Southern Nursery Association’s Best Management Practices (BMPs) as a guide for environmentally sound growing, aided by tools like new digitally metered controlled-release fertilizer equipment. 

Of the core products it grows and sells, Neanthe Bella palms in 3- and 4-inch pots are Mercer Botanicals’ specialty. In 1998, the operation received a patent for its wire stackable bench, or wire pallets, a system that cuts palm production time significantly.

“Neanthe Bella palms call for 15 to 20 weeks to germinate from seed,” Wayne says. “After years of laboriously hand-sewing and potting, we developed a system to produce 120,000 3-inch pots or 60,000 4-inch pots in six hours. The equipment produces 5 acres of palms in only 20 days throughout the year.”

These direct seeded pots go into Mercer’s germination chambers as finished spaced plants. Stacked 6 feet high, one 2,400-square-foot chamber holds 240,000 finished spaced 3-inch plants.

“When spiked, these pallets give us a window of 30 days to forklift into the greenhouse for finishing,” Wayne adds.

“We have committed to minimizing nitrate runoff by using both controlled release and liquid feed fertilizer in order to maintain an ideal EC and pH in our crops,” he says. “Our feed schedule uses minimal pounds per yard of slow-release feed in 100 percent peat mix with supplemental liquid feeds only as required. We irrigate through low-volume heads with 85 percent plus uniformity.”

Wayne adds that he hopes more growers get on board with BMPs “to help create the future we want before we have a future regulated in a direction we don’t want.”

Looking Forward

As parents of three, Wayne and Chris Mercer say they would love to see Mercer Botanicals passed on to the next generation in the long term. “If this is not meant to be, we will pursue alternate succession plans that will offer a continuation of our core values to our customer base,” Wayne says.

The short-term plan, however, is conservative growth to preserve capital position and capital by monitoring public buying patterns, government regulations and overall industry trends.

“Our intent is to be prepared for when the market swings in our favor,” Wayne says. “We will be ready to make the investments necessary to keep our business sustainable long into the future.”

Leave a Reply

More From Finance/Operations...

January 15, 2018

Missouri Greenhouse Grower John Tomasovic Dies

The patriarch of Tomasovic Greenhouses & Nursery, Inc. in Des Peres, MO, was a legend in the plant industry, and widely involved in many associations.

Read More

January 15, 2018

Perennials Icon Louis Stacy Dies

The founder of the former Stacy's Greenhouses in York, SC, passed away on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

Read More
Charlie Hall Feature Image

January 9, 2018

AmericanHort Launches New Video Series on Profit Margin Management

This week, AmericanHort is kicking off a four-part video series that offers perspectives on managing profit margins from AmericanHort’s Chief Economist, Dr. Charlie Hall.

Read More
Latest Stories

January 15, 2018

Missouri Greenhouse Grower John Tomasovic Dies

The patriarch of Tomasovic Greenhouses & Nursery, Inc. in Des Peres, MO, was a legend in the plant industry, and widely involved in many associations.

Read More

January 15, 2018

Perennials Icon Louis Stacy Dies

The founder of the former Stacy's Greenhouses in York, SC, passed away on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

Read More
Charlie Hall Feature Image

January 9, 2018

AmericanHort Launches New Video Series on Profit Margin…

This week, AmericanHort is kicking off a four-part video series that offers perspectives on managing profit margins from AmericanHort’s Chief Economist, Dr. Charlie Hall.

Read More
Tax-Money

January 9, 2018

What You Need to Know About the New Tax Bill

The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the needs and interests of fruit and vegetable growers, recently updated its members on how the recent passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act might affect their businesses. Many of the insights provided by United Fresh also apply to greenhouse growers and nurseries.

Read More
Doug Cole, Owner of D.S. Cole Growers

January 4, 2018

D.S. Cole Growers Blazes Its Own Path to Growth

Known for its commitment to sustainability and innovation, this grower is one of the pioneering trailblazers changing the way horticulture does business.

Read More

December 31, 2017

Ag Exemption for New Trucking Regulation Still Under Re…

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s trucking electronic logging device mandate, which took effect on December 18, includes an Hours of Service exemption that may or may not apply to greenhouses and nurseries.

Read More
Tillandsia Air Plants (Plantiflor)

December 15, 2017

Bonsall Nursery Devastated By California Wildfire

Rainforest Flora lost its main greenhouses and outdoor growing property in the Lilac Fire in San Diego.

Read More

December 9, 2017

Southern California Wildfires Narrowly Miss Most Grower…

Here’s an update on horticulture businesses in the areas affected by the California wildfires.

Read More

December 5, 2017

Skagit Horticulture Builds New, Inclusive Business With…

By merging two large-scale producers, Skagit Gardens and Northwest Horticulture, the new company has realized its strengths through focused divisions that emphasize efficiency and success.

Read More

December 4, 2017

Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants Debuts as Roberta’s Finali…

On December 1, Eric Wallien of Roberta’s Inc. in Waldron, IN, officially purchased C. Raker & Sons in Litchfield, MI. The new identity of the company is now Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants, according to a Dec. 1 letter to Raker’s customers, suppliers, and business partners from Vice President Susie Raker-Zimmerman. “There have been minimal changes in management and we will be providing the same products and services on which we have built our reputation in the industry,” Raker-Zimmerman said in the letter, which also announced the name change and new logo. The sale of C. Raker & Sons was announced in September . A series of events affecting Raker’s financial situation caused the need for the operation to find an alternate solution. Roberta’s had been a customer of Raker’s since 2011, and the fourth generation, family owned grower-retailer was a fan of Raker’s commitment to quality. The agreement to purchase C. […]

Read More

October 10, 2017

Sharpen Your Skills in Cost Management and Profitabilit…

The University of Florida is offering a new online course on costing and profitability. The course will take growers through the process of how to accurately evaluate cost of production, labor efficiency, pricing, and equipment investment decisions.

Read More
Willoway Nurseries Team

October 1, 2017

How Willoway Nurseries Gets Its Staff Engaged in The Co…

Willoway Nurseries in Avon, OH, is creating a culture with people who think, act, and feel like owners. Learn how its team is taking the business to the next level.

Read More

September 21, 2017

Horticulture Is All About Connections

The beauty of our industry is that we are more than willing to reach out and help those around us. What connections can you make today to help your business, and what can you offer to help another grower?

Read More
Worker taking cuttings at Vivero Internacional.

September 11, 2017

Vivero Internacional Elevates Clean Cuttings to New Hei…

One of the last independent cutting operations, this fast-growing company raises the standard for delivering clean, high-quality unrooted cuttings.

Read More
Selecta Sponsor bed at Raker trial gardens

September 5, 2017

C. Raker & Sons Acquired By Roberta’s Unique Garden…

Ownership will change hands in December, and Raker will supply young plants for the 2018 season. Beyond that, leadership of the two operations say they are excited to move forward with a partnership that will continue to supply the industry, and gardeners, with top-quality plants.

Read More

August 1, 2017

MPS Honors D.S. Cole Growers for 10 Years of Sustainabi…

At Cultivate’17, a ceremony to mark a 10-year milestone since D.S. Cole Growers became involved with More Profitable Sustainability (MPS), as the first U.S. grower to achieve MPS certification, took owner Doug Cole by surprise. Separate celebrations also recognized Metrolina Greenhouses and Dümmen Orange for achieving MPS certification.

Read More
Nexus greenhouse construction for Knox Cannabis Facility

July 27, 2017

Ornamental Growers Will Revolutionize Cannabis Industry…

Professional growers have much to offer the emerging cannabis market, according to the co-owner of Knox Medical, one of the licensed cannabis producers in Florida.

Read More
Ball ColorLink logo

July 11, 2017

Get Guidance on Running Your Business from Ball ColorLi…

Representatives from Ball ColorLink will be on-hand at Cultivate’17 to answer questions and present business-building tools and industry insights to growers.

Read More