When Homestead-based Meristem Nursery’s Dennis Smythe decided to retire, he had 26 acres of product and land to parcel off. This past August, when Kraft Gardens owner Kevin Kraft heard about it, he bought a truckload of Smythe’s arborea, an old plant that is making a comeback. And Kraft had no trouble selling it to retail and landscape contractors. Two weeks later, a program was in place for Kraft to lease 11 acres of Smythe’s facility and purchase its remaining inventory. Kraft is currently cultivating three acres of arborea in seeds, liners and finish plants and will exhibit the plant at TPIE.
What is old is new again, and having the courage to jump on new introductions and ideas is a key strength of foliage innovator Kraft Gardens. New is a word Kraft uses a lot these days. With the acquisition of Meristem’s property, the company has formed a new location, Kraft Gardens Homestead, which will also devote extra acreage to finish plants for spring sales. Another new facility, this one in Fort Pierce called KG Orange, was created to grow the company. This new property allowed Kraft to become a major nursery stock supplier of Ficus of the Future, after a major Miami supplier sold its property to a landscaping company in October 2005. Kraft jumped on the opening.
“We think it’s our responsibility to be a good supplier to our customers and there’s no one else out there supplying these products,” Kraft says. “There would be a huge void in the market if we didn’t do it and it’s worked out well. By next spring, we should have a really nice supply coming out.” The company plans to use KG Orange as the vehicle to grow its company even more, in higher volume of current pot sizes, a wider variety of pot sizes and new varieties.
In 2007, Kraft Gardens’ 60th anniversary year, ground will be broken on 450,000 square feet of additional greenhouses. To keep up with the competitive and changing market, Kraft Gardens has solicited a consultant in lean manufacturing to generate production improvement and solve the challenges of staying competitive.
“We’re already starting to see some nice improvements,” Kraft says.
Kraft Gardens focuses heavily on marketing, and not just through brochures and catalogs. Much of the way Kraft Gardens represents itself to its customers is derived from the company’s business philosophy: service the customer, listen to what he has to say and provide a good, quality product. They’re the ideals that Kraft’s father, Bert Kraft, was guided by when he started the business in 1947. It starts with the sales force.
“With a lot of other growers, 90 percent of their product is sold through a broker,” Kraft says. “We sell a lot directly and our sales staff helps customers directly. We’re the link between the breeders and the end user. Our job is to help bring the breeder’s product to the consumer, get feedback on how they like it and get that feedback to the vendor.”
Research and development is also done with the feedback of a select group of interiorscapers and retailers, who let Kraft know which exclusive new plants work and which don’t. This information helps improve Kraft’s growing methods or it can be sent back to the breeder. Kraft Gardens’ plant tags are made in house, to control the number printed and the story the tag tells about its Professional Grade Plants brand.
“Indoor green plants have very little marketing support behind them, in general,” says Kraft Gardens’ Sales Manager Alex Fell. “Our brand means what it says, that it’s a professional grade product. The growing management is perfect. The quality ingredients are there.” A consumer’s success with one plant can be marketing in itself.
“They’re going to buy more and they’re going to tell their friends about it,” Fell says. “Not with the old adage, ‘Don’t make it too good or they’re never going to replace it.’ That’s a silly adage. We’re thinking that if your customer is successful, you’ll be successful.”
Expanding Product Line
Young plant producers and travel drive many new introductions at Kraft. The new varieties are first tested with a controlled group of garden center and interior landscaping customers.
“Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it will sell,” Kraft says. “We think it not only has to be new, but improved, better or different in a way that is better for the consumer. The ones that seem to be the long haulers that go the distance. We’re looking for long haulers.”
This year at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition (TPIE), Kraft Gardens will display two silver pothosâ€“’Silver Satin’ and the new ‘Silver Splash.’ The company is trialing one or two new products every month and different shapes and forms are always being experimented with, so there are always plenty of new introductions in the pipeline.
For Kraft Gardens, customer satisfaction doesn’t only mean providing the widest foliage variety. It goes back to Bert Kraft’s ideals, servicing the customer, listening to the customer and providing a quality product. Kevin Kraft says he continues that tradition through a management team that understands those goals.
“We run our company as a team. It’s not top-down management,” Kraft says. “With a good team that understands our customers and works for the best service for that customer, we don’t send out plants with bugs. If we say a plant is four feet, it’s going to be four feet. We want to have that customer satisfaction.”
Kraft’s customers do recognize the value the company brings to the industry. Kraft Gardens has won garden center alliance ECGC’s Award of Distinction in 2003 and 2005, awarded for excellence in product and service.
“Kraft Gardens scored the highest on all our criteria, product quality and customer service,” says Kathy Scott, foliage purchasing director for ECGC. “We feel that Kraft Gardens is the leader in the foliage industry for many reasons. They are committed to high quality standards and introducing plants that are successful for our customers. Kevin Kraft is a true asset to this industry. He is innovative, he has trained a customer-oriented staff and most of all he is always willing to listen to his customers.”
With a father that helped found TPIE, Kevin Kraft was almost pre-ordained to find a role on the TPIE Committee says Ben Bolusky, FNGLA executive vice president. Kraft served as TPIE chairman in 1991 and played a key role in moving the show to its larger Fort Lauderdale home. Kevin also helped the National Foliage Foundation increase its funds past the $1 million mark as the organization’s president. His dedication to the industry won him the 2006 Wendell Butler Award, FNGLA’s most prestigious honor.
“Kevin continues the family tradition established by his parents of setting standards of business excellence, standards of leadership and service back to the industry he loves,” says Bolusky. And there is a bright future for that industry, Kraft says.
“I don’t see why people wouldn’t want to have plants in their homes. People still have pets, right? Why wouldn’t they have plants?”