The slowing economy doesn’t bother Marc Clark, vice president of blooming potted plant producer Rocket Farms. Neither do the mortgage crisis or the public’s sputtering interest in gardening.
Clark says what sets his Rocket Farms apart from other operations has more to do with mindset than it does with production. And that mindset has allowed the grower of flowering potted plants to take a firm hold of the niche orchid market.
“When we make decisions, we don’t dabble. We jump in with both feet,” he says. “We take our lumps. We make mistakes and we learn. It allows us to get up to speed fast.” With a young, energetic and hard-working staff and opportunities all around, Rocket Farms is also one of the most optimistic places to work, Clark says.
“We have production meetings and nobody ever gets slammed for bringing up stupid ideas,” he says. “Communication is really good and we are allowed to make mistakes.”
This frame of reference is working for Rocket Farms, which ships the majority of its product to Oregon, Washington and California, though some product now travels as far east as New York. The operation has doubled its sales in the last three years and the future looks bright.
Finding The Unique Product
A business as unique as Rocket Farms can only sell a product that is just as rare. The operation began its journey into orchids with a shipping container full of phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan. The voyage to California took 25 days, and Clark says he wasn’t even sure the plants would survive the trip.
“I remember thinking this is either going to be a big rotting pile of garbage or full of bugs, or I don’t know what,” he says. “I opened the box and the orchids were just perfect.”
If, as Clark says, Taiwan is the best place to breed orchids, Rocket Farms’ location and mild climate are the best place to spike orchids. The lower nighttime temperatures and mild daytime temperatures five miles off the California coast, coupled with the high light levels of the operation’s Salinas facility, mimic the natural environment in which they bloom.
Rocket Farms’ structures were already standing when the operation was established in 1983. Rolling benches, heat and shade curtains, pad and fan systems were added and shipping areas were updated, but the greenhouses were previously used for growing vegetables.
About 70 to 80 percent of the orchids the operation grows there are novelty varieties, blooming in bold stripes, spots or leopard patterns. These unique plants have helped Rocket Farms make its name in the orchid industry in a short amount of time –just three years.
Business On Their Own Terms
In product and business philosophy, Rocket Farms doesn’t look to others in the industry to see how their business should be run. Clark says his Rocket Farms wants to create the trends, not follow them. And the operation responds to challenges differently than other operations might.
Facing a down economy and rising input costs, Rocket Farms negotiates pricing with suppliers aggressively, in return for high volume and being a loyal customer.
“Wherever we find costs that are unreasonable, we will look for an alternative instead of saying, ‘Oh geez, price went up 50 percent. We have to raise our prices 50 percent,’” Clark says. For example, the operation is experimenting with coir and coconut fiber to counter high peat costs.
Finding consistent, quality plant material from suppliers is also a challenge, and Clark says Rocket Farms is aggressively searching out new materials.
Getting Some Attention
Once interesting materials are found, how does Rocket Farms spread the news? By not being boring, Clark says. His marketing campaigns touting the beauty of orchids could be called anything but status quo.
A Mother’s Day campaign asked “Who’s Your Momma?” and a contest encouraged consumers to send in photos of their moms with orchids. The winner received an orchid delivered to his or her mom every month for a year. Another polled Dads on whether or not they would like a potted orchid as a gift for Father’s Day.
You’d think that marketing programs like these require tons of planning and a whole department would be wracking their brains for these ideas, but Clark says these programs are far more spontaneous.
“We’re just a bunch of knuckleheads sitting around at 7 o’clock at night, at work, drinking green tea, throwing these ideas around,” Clark says.
The “Be A Babe Magnet” campaign encouraged men to buy orchids for their significant others for Valentine’s Day and grew out of a real-life experience Clark had. As he walked through an airport carrying a potted orchid, many women smiled and said hello to him. Clark says it didn’t take him long to realize the orchid was the magnet.
“It got me thinking that if guys only knew the power of these orchids, we would probably run out of stock,” he says. These campaigns are another part of the differentiation puzzle for Rocket Farms. While the campaigns have been more spontaneous, what grew out of this fun was an effort to market orchids to men, especially young men.
“Some of the young guys were saying, ‘How do you know what to get for a girl?’ You know, this doofus kind of guy,” says Clark. “How does he know what to get a girl? He’s so unsophisticated. Well, buy her an orchid. You can’t miss.” Not only do people love flowers, but Clark says there is a caché to being a grower and people would probably pay just to take a peek inside a greenhouse. He compares the appeal to people who pay to apprentice for world-famous chefs.
“If you could get 100 people from a retirement community to come to your greenhouse, they’d go nuts,” Clark says. “We’ve done it here. People are practically drooling looking at stuff we look at every day. This is really a great industry to be in.” That’s why he says he isn’t really worried about the future. He sees major consolidation, fewer growers producing more product, but aggressive growth for Rocket Farms.
“It’s going to shake out,” Clark says. “Growers who are in it for the long haul will survive and I think they will prosper. Good times are ahead, once we move through all of this.”