Investing a substantial amount of money during a recession seems like a backward approach to staying in business, especially with customers going under, but that’s exactly what Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nurseries did — and he has no regrets.
North Creek Nurseries, located in two locations in Landenberg and Oxford, Pa., has grown rapidly since its start 26 years ago on property which originally functioned as a mushroom farm. It has carved a niche for itself by supplying sustainably grown plants to the nursery industry and landscape plugs to LEED-certified engineers and landscapers for ecological installations.
Its trademarked Landscape Plug provides planting solutions for a gamut of ecological projects, from stormwater management and soil stabilization to landscape restoration and habitat management.
While the operation thrives today, back in 2009 things looked pretty bleak. The recession was in full swing, and the company experienced a drop in sales and revenue. Castorani, along with General Manager and COO Tim McGinty, felt inefficiencies in North Creek’s facilities were hampering its progress. It was time to take matters into their own hands to eliminate waste by implementing lean flow practices. And a needed expansion couldn’t hurt, either.
But Castorani waffled between the need to make changes and the need to be prudent.
He says he finally realized North Creek Nurseries couldn’t afford not to make changes. If it didn’t act now, it would be left behind. When things did get better, the company would struggle to remain relevant and competitive. With those thoughts in mind, he forged ahead with his plans.
Taking A Lean Approach
Castorani and McGinty attacked their problems on two fronts. First, to help employees adjust to the change, they started the Working Smarter Training Challenge, a program developed by Jim Paluch, president of JP Horizons, which helps workers focus on learning and applying lean flow principles.
“It is one thing to go through the process of lean and understand the mechanics of the manufacturing process,” Castorani says. “But lean is more than that — it only works if your company adopts a lean lifestyle. The training helped our employees make lean practices a part of our company culture.”
Second, they started looking into expansion, thinking it was the answer to increased efficiency. Imagine their surprise when Landscape Architect Robert Hayter suggested that a modern, new facility wasn’t the solution to their problems; rather, looking at their production and shipping processes was. Sure enough, Castorani says, when McGinty put North Creek’s production practices under the microscope, he found lots of room for improvement.
The first and most economical area of focus for lean flow implementation was the shipping facility in Oxford, Pa. After a retrofit of an existing gutter-connect greenhouse and creation of environmentally friendly workspaces for employees, the facility was ready for lean flow production in 2011.
A supermarket-type area located on the shipping dock allowed employees to pull and assemble orders as needed. In addition to a 40 percent drop in labor and twice as much work being done, Castorani says he noticed an improvement in quality right away because the staff wasn’t processing things so far in advance. They spent less time grooming the crops because it was built into the process and mistakes were caught sooner.
“Our customers are much more concerned about quality than quantity,” he says. “The improved quality helped us on the customer satisfaction side.”
Castorani says lean flow continues to generate positive cash flow, year in and year out. He even credits it with keeping his business afloat through tough times.
“Honestly, we might not be in business today without implementing lean practices,” Castorani says. “And if we were, we would have had to shrink to survive. It was a difficult decision to spend the money, but looking at it from this side of the fence, I am glad we made the right decision.”
Bringing Work To The Employees
In addition to implementing lean flow, North Creek has continually grown and expanded since its inception. Now the operation is ready for the next step, a 54,720-square-foot, gutter-connected greenhouse with a high efficiency hydronic in-slab heating system, Visser irrigation booms, an energy shade curtain and a head house with production and seed lines.
The new facility on the Landenberg farm will replace 18 polyhouse growing ranges, combining them into one free-standing structure, regulated by a Damatex environmental control system. Production space is designed and engineered around the concept of continuous flow.
“We are bringing the work to the employees,” Castorani says. “In the past, our production crew was faced with going out into the poly/hoop houses to perform production tasks. This was time-consuming and inefficient.
“The new facility will provide a cleaner, safer and much more comfortable work environment for our employees in one central location.”
Right now, the facility is in its infancy, but Castorani says they hope to have everything up and running by mid-November and be fully operational by January 2015.
“The new greenhouse is precisely the foothold North Creek Nurseries needs to take it into the next era of growing for its customers,” McGinty says, “Good things are on the horizon.”
Producing Top-Notch Perennials
The new greenhouse will help North Creek do what it does best — focus on the production of perennials, along with ferns, a few shrubs and native grasses and vines. This year it introduced schizachyrium ‘Standing Ovation’ and will begin to grow liners of a new tickseed, coreopsis ‘Electric Avenue,’ which will soon be promoted as the ‘Mayo Clinic Flower of Hope.’ Also, chelone ‘Tiny Tortuga’ and lobelia ‘Black Truffle’ are the newest additions to the American Beauties Native Plant brand.
Looking to 2015, it plans to add 26 new plant varieties, including the delosperma Wheels of Wonder series and festuca ‘Beyond Blue’ from Concept Plants and an array of colorful heuchera from Darwin Perennials. It will also expand its echinacea line to include new selections from Plants Nouveau and Ball Seed.
Carrie Wiles, director of marketing for North Creek Nurseries, says pollinator species are in demand, along with stormwater management species. Native plant sales are on the rise, as well, as are plantings and plant palettes that provide ecosystem services.
North Creek Nurseries grows predominantly with biological controls and predatory insects. Like other environmentally conscious growers, it recognizes the importance of pollinator health. It recently partnered with Walt Broughton, a local bee keeper, to cultivate northern hardy strains of honeybees. Thirty hives now reside on the property.
Perennials are also trending toward well-behaved plants that are shorter, more compact and provide ease of transport, Wiles says, but North Creek feels that limiting the palette to only include such varieties is one-dimensional and excludes an array of taller, garden-worthy plants from the marketplace.
North Creek’s trialing program evaluates cultural adaptability, disease/pest resistance, hardiness (winter) and ornamental traits of potential new introductions, which in turn, provides valuable information that it used in educating customers and industry professionals who tour the living laboratory of trial and demonstration gardens, Wiles says.
Intent On A Promising Future
What is next for North Creek Nurseries? Future plans include a possible consolidation of the operation’s two farms and construction of up to four more greenhouses, as well as further separation of North Creek’s ecological and horticultural product lines.
Recently, management welcomed Brigitte Crawford as new products manager and Mike Knox as research and development manager. They are responsible for bringing new genetics into the helm by trialing new introductions alongside well-known varieties.
With all of its exciting new developments and progress, North Creek Nurseries’ future looks bright.