You could say Speedling’s new CEO Greg Davis is like a personal trainer or fitness coach. “Back to basics is what we are focused on at Speedling,” he says. “Flashy and fancy only gets you so far. We have to be athletic enough to change with the times and economic pressures. When you’re a large organization, staying strong and flexible is difficult. Those who succeed don’t lose their athleticism. We need to be able to move as the marketplace moves.”
Davis joined the company in June. He’s not focusing on new initiatives but focusing on core activities. “We need to be the best transplant producer we possibly can be,” Davis says. “We’ve got to be the low-cost producer for the level of quality our customers expect. Until you can do the basics better than your competition, you really don’t have a business.”
Based in Sun City, Fla., Speedling produces ornamental and vegetable plugs. Its ornamentals division ranks at No. 9 on our Top 100 Growers and No. 3 on our Top 25 Young Plant Growers (see page 14). Founded by plug pioneer George Todd, Speedling has been owned by WBL Corp. in Singapore for many years. Farms in the United States are in Florida (Sun City and Bushnell), Texas (Alamo), Georgia (Blairsville) and California (Watsonville, Nipomo, San Juan Bautista and Salinas).
“We’re also still in China, but it’s an evolving situation with the low value of the U.S. dollar and China trying to cool its economy. At the same time it’s encouraging because agriculture figures prominently in the country’s future,” Davis explains. “We are uniquely positioned to expand all over the globe, but first we have to cover the basics and produce the best plug possible in all our facilities.”
Roots In Vegetables
Davis is 40, born the same year as Speedling was founded. He grew up on a farm north of Gainesville, Fla., where his family grew row crops–vegetables and tobacco. “My family is still in vegetables and I still have a small cattle farm in Alachua,” he says. “My dad bought transplants from Speedling. In vegetables, we always considered Speedling the biggest, best and most professional transplant company. If you had to have the right plants on the right date, Speedling was who you talked to.”
He went to college at the University of Florida and majored in journalism and minored in food and resource economics in the college of agriculture. His journalism skills have always been useful in writing business communications and selling himself and the companies he worked for, Davis says.
His first job out of school was selling vegetable seed for Asgrow in Northern Florida. He then moved to California to manage the Northwest business unit, a much bigger and more diverse territory. When Davis returned to Florida, he worked for Labelle Plant World, a producer of vegetable and tobacco transplants that also grew eucalyptus trees for mulch and as an energy source. Just before the company was sold, he returned to selling seed for Harris Moran in Northern Florida and Southern Georgia.
He crossed over to ornamentals when his first boss from Asgrow recruited him to Nurserymen’s Exchange in Delray Beach, Fla. Key product lines were bonsai and bamboo in upgraded ceramic pots and tins. “I worked in the Florida division for a couple of years and we put together a strong team,” Davis says. “Then I took on outside divisions, including bulbs, small fruit trees and shrubs and a large brokerage division in Southern California. We were developing a similar model for Florida. I was there for four years, last as director of new business development.”
Working in Florida 3,000 miles away from the corporate office in California was a challenge, he says. To make matters worse, a few months after he started, the Florida facilities got slammed by hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in a period of three weeks. A year later, a glancing blow was struck by Katrina and then a direct hit by Wilma.
“The place was destroyed after Francis and we really struggled to put everything back together,” he recalls. “But a year later we were prepared and able to ship three semi loads of product only days after Wilma, which was the strongest. You can get through anything if you have the right people, processes and determination to make it happen.”
When he first learned about the CEO opening at Speedling, he wondered if he really wanted to tackle a company so unwieldy and entrenched. “But the more I studied it, I realized it was the perfect storm–an opportunity to take advantage of all my experiences over the years,” he says. “The more businesses I see, the more I recognize they are all the same. There are a handful of basic philosophies, a few short cuts and lots of hard work. Speedling has got an exceptional name, a long history and a strong platform to build from.”
A Fresh Perspective
Being new to the company and in his role as CEO, Davis brings a fresh perspective along with extensive industry knowledge.
“I can walk in and see a multitude of changes that need to be made,” he says. “The longer you are in a job, the more complicated and difficult it becomes. You box yourself in and accept things the way they are. You really can’t have an effect on business then. People need to take off their biases and accept things for what they are and not what they want them to be. Part of the reason I like to move is I don’t want to get static. I don’t simply want a job. I want to affect change and improvement. I like to shake things up.”
Davis and his staff will be looking at efficiencies in every step in the production process. “You can’t do that from the CEO’s office. This is a people business. If you want to succeed, you have to create the environment, provide the right tools and give clear direction. Each person is an owner-operator and needs to own an area of responsibility, treating the company’s money as if it were their own, because ultimately, it is.”
It doesn’t matter how big a company is or who owns it, there is a point of action where value is actually created. Everything else must support that point, Davis says. “Each person must be focused on the finished product–a satisfied customer,” he explains. “There are a few key points where things really happen–seeding, growing and loading the truck. Until you excel at these points of action, it doesn’t matter how many facilities you have. To be the best in business, start with people. If you have the best people, you will develop the best processes, and ultimately, the best product.”
Part of providing the right tools means Speedling also will have to take a hard look at the number of products it produces.”We’ll be rationalizing everything, including products and facilities,” he says. “In ornamentals alone, we grow 16,000 SKUs, perhaps more than we can effectively manage. If it were 1,000 trays of each SKU, we could make it work, but there are many that we only grow a few trays of and each has to be managed separately. Working with our customers, we have to concentrate on the products with a big enough market to efficiently grow.”
As a seed-based plug specialist, Speedling is backing off vegetative annuals to some extent because the market is oversupplied, he says. The company also is looking into more custom orders and is interested in tissue culture and other technological advances.
“We’re going to focus on our customers, growing what will make all of us successful,” Davis says. “Trying to keep a full bucket all the time, just hoping someone buys it, drives everyone’s cost up. We need to know it will be sold before we grow it. There’s too much speculation and too much supply to grow without a market. The industry can’t afford that, and it’s not responsible to the heritage of Speedling to dump crops year after year. It’s an industrywide problem.”
Overall, Davis is confident Speedling can make things better and believes opportunities are even greater when times get tough. “I’ve never been in a situation where I felt there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it. Everybody is so worried about the economy and the cost of fuel, but there were a lot of multi millionaires made during the Great Depression. If you get so bogged down in the way things are today, you lose sight of the way they can be tomorrow.”
One of Speedling’s roles is to help customers solve their problems, he says. “It’s an integrated circle, whether the company owns every step or not. You have to help your customers and your vendors. If you don’t make strong alliances and share philosophies and principles, you die by yourself. In the next year, we’ll be looking at who our partners should be and developing strategic alliances to serve the needs of the marketplace.”