State Of The Industry: Bell Rings In New Era

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State Of The Industry: Bell Rings In New Era

For a sweet 16 years, Gary Mangum and Mike McCarthy have been partners in prosperity, building Bell Nursery in Burtonsville, Md., from a niche nursery focused on the interiorscaping and floral trades into one of the most impressive growers serving big-box retailers.

When the two brothers-in-law bought the business from Mangum’s father in 1994, they saw great opportunities to drive bedding plant sales by providing higher levels of quality and service at store level. This venture began with an enthusiastic regional buyer for The Home Depot, Vinny Naab. It didn’t take long for Bell to become one of the highest performing growers serving Home Depot and for its model to be copied by others. What set Bell apart from the rest was its investment in merchandisers in the stores and dedication to producing and procuring high quality plants and a broader assortment through a network of more than 40 contract growers.

The last few years have been an expansion phase, with Bell purchasing Ulery Greenhouses in Ohio and Virginia Growers in Virginia, which broadened its geographic reach and solidfied its position as a mega grower. Bell also took on private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg in New York as a partner.

While Mangum has been the face of Bell Nursery, driving sales and business relationships, McCarthy has managed operations and finance. The two worked together to set strategy and developed a strong team. Last year, they decided it was time to take Bell to the next level by recruiting new executive leadership and interviewed candidates inside and outside the industry.

Meet The New Boss

Mangum found his successor to lead Bell’s sales and marketing in Adam Stewart, 34, who came from Hines Horticulture in 2007. He was recommended by Home Depot’s Mike Duvall as someone who operates with integrity. Mangum says it was important for him to hand over the reins to someone who shares his philosophies and values. Two of his mantras are “We’re on stage seven days a week,” and “Act like you own it.”

“Closely aligned with our customer, our team and product is always in the public eye,” Mangum says. “We want our people to be empowered to make the right decisions. Adam acted like he owned it early on. Decisions are made for the benefit of our customer and our mutual growth. He interacts daily with The Home Depot, our key managers and industry suppliers. I continue to support the business and Adam’s development and feel that we are better positioned for success today than we ever have been.”

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After grooming his successor, Mangum and McCarthy looked outside the industry to hire Rand Krikorian as CEO and Steve Crider as CFO. “We were looking for a business skill set, not a horticultural business skill set,” Mangum explains. “Crider had worked with us for three years as a consultant, helping us get our systems on the finance side far beyond where they were. That’s how we met Rand. As CEO, Rand has a skill set that complements what Adam’s doing and experience leading a much larger business for many years. Together, they will grow our business.”

While Mangum will stay on in an active advisory role, McCarthy has retired and will remain on Bell’s board of directors. The changes became official this month. Mangum looks forward to spending more of his time in Home Depot’s stores, where he enjoys engaging the Bell team and customers and gets his best ideas.

Stewart expects it will be “the Mike and Gary show” with two different players. “I will manage the relationship/sales side of the house, and Rand will be initially focused on the operations side. We will continue to raise the bar for this business and, I hope, the industry. We have to. Gary and Mike took the business this far. How can we continue to set the bar with merchandising, new products and being aggressive across the board?”

Bell’s Formula For Success

Mangum’s father, Bob, taught him that after people, there are four facets of the business that are worthy of equal attention–quality, value, innovation and service. “In our business quality has to be a given–quality of product and in the people that wear purple (Bell’s colors),” he says. “The better it looks, the more likely they are to pay what it takes to grow it that way. Quality and value go hand in hand, whether it’s a six-pack of annuals or a premium hanging basket.”

Producing quality means giving plants the time and space they need. Bell’s Tom Wheeler, who was a finalist for our Head Grower of the Year award, has mentored Bell’s growers to do this. On the innovation side, Stewart has rekindled the interest and brought a fresh perspective as he works with Wheeler on plant introductions and products with supply chain partners, like Ball Seed. “We’re getting our suppliers excited to funnel new products our way,” he says.

For service, Mangum says it doesn’t bother him that other growers have generally implemented Bell’s service model. “It’s helping all of us, as an industry, sell more plants. The more ownership we take at the consumer level, the more plants we’re all going to sell.”
To improve merchandising, Bell is building training centers at its facilities in Maryland, Ohio and Virginia with mock storefronts and display tables. It will be used for training and to test new display concepts. Home Depot will be welcome to use them to train staff from their stores or other growers.

“The goal is to try out new store sets and planograms, and achieve the consistency we need,” Stewart says, adding it will help Bell assess quantities needed to promote new items. “If we add a new plant and grow 10,000, what does that mean in terms of store sets? Table sets?” he asks. “If we introduce a new item or support an advertised item, we can’t say the sell-through was poor if we didn’t do the planning correctly.”

Driving The Numbers

Bell will be more empowered to drive sales and see the effectiveness of its programs with internal reporting disciplines from Lindsay Goldberg. “We’ve driven inventory management and financial information further down in the business so more people are much more aware,” Mangum says. “The data we have to work with and the number of people who can use it is a night-and-day difference.”

Bell is giving employees tools to act like business owners, Stewart adds. “Instead of a monthly conversation, we have information on a daily basis. We can see the impact of the last 30 hours versus the last 30 days.”

Heading into spring, Stewart is excited about the coming year. “We’re challenging ourselves at every level and feel invigorated and rejuvenated. You’re going to feel a new spark coming out of Bell Nursery in 2011.”

Delilah Onofrey directs Flower Power Marketing for the Suntory Collection. She can be reached at donofrey@gmail.com

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14 comments on “State Of The Industry: Bell Rings In New Era

  1. Anonymous

    “Bell’s service model”??? Growers in California were providing in-store full-service merchandising begining in the early 70′s.

  2. Anonymous

    What a great strategy/plan all of you have. I am proud to say I have worked for Bell Nursery for the last four years in Virginia (Hybla Valley) and hope to come back in March. It is a wonderful/fulfilling job. Bell Nursery brings in beautiful plant material that all the public wants. Keep up the good work!

  3. Anonymous

    To the point above, the writer put the comments together and chose the words — the service model that Bell implemented and over time evolved was developed after seeing Peggy VanDeWetering from Ivy Acres speak at an industry event in Chicago. As mentioned, merchandising has long been a part of the industry, probably starting out west. The investment we made over time helped us present better than average to the customer. The investment made per store was and is more than seen in most scenarios – and the results have generally been good from our customers perspective.

  4. Anonymous

    You should be ashamed of yourselves. I know some of your employees.
    You keep them at seasonal status and make them re-apply every year, that way you do not give them benefits.
    You terminate injured employees.
    Act like you own it, it’s just a slogan.
    And they have to be on stage 7 days a week to keep up with the over demands of your company, Or they feel they will lose their jobs.
    All on the backs of hard working Americans have you moved ahead!

  5. Anonymous

    Sorry that you feel that way. With over 1500 individuals hired to work for a finite period of time (coincides with gardening seasonality), you are correct – benefits beyond a paycheck are not part of the package and much of the merchandising related employment is seasonal. This is understood prior to hire. The company has many returning merchandisers that do re-apply each year, as I believe the law requires. Preference is always given to returnees that perform well as their experience has great meaning.

    There are also as you might know many full time year round employess where certain benefits are available.
    I agree we are fortunate to employee many very hard working people that make me very proud. The work at every level is very demanding. Rain, cold, heat, snow and ice this year – and lot’s of plants to unload, water daily, and to help get through the registers at retail. Demanding is an understatement. I’m proud of the efforts and results of the team in purple.

  6. Anonymous

    I have had the opportunity to watch Gary and Mike grow their company over the years. While much of what they are known for in marketing/merchandising isn’t necessarily new they were able to take it to a higher level than our industry has seen to this point. What they have accomplished in a relatively short period of time is remarkable. I can also tell you that in general the work environment at Bell is a very positive one. Although the work is seasonal and as we know difficult, there is a large part of the work force that returns every year. In particular, their delivery staff are outstanding and a credit to the company. Gary and Mike built Bell into what it is today through hard work, determination and having the courage to price their product to be profitable. Congratulations on your success and best of luck in the future!

  7. Anonymous

    Returning from the first season is head instructor Scott Marshall of Young Drivers of Canada, the driving school sponsoring the Driver Rehabilitation Program and Canada’s Worst Driver. Joining him are the following three judges.Custom kitchen Cabinets

  8. Anonymous

    “Bell’s service model”??? Growers in California were providing in-store full-service merchandising begining in the early 70′s.

  9. Anonymous

    What a great strategy/plan all of you have. I am proud to say I have worked for Bell Nursery for the last four years in Virginia (Hybla Valley) and hope to come back in March. It is a wonderful/fulfilling job. Bell Nursery brings in beautiful plant material that all the public wants. Keep up the good work!

  10. Anonymous

    To the point above, the writer put the comments together and chose the words — the service model that Bell implemented and over time evolved was developed after seeing Peggy VanDeWetering from Ivy Acres speak at an industry event in Chicago. As mentioned, merchandising has long been a part of the industry, probably starting out west. The investment we made over time helped us present better than average to the customer. The investment made per store was and is more than seen in most scenarios – and the results have generally been good from our customers perspective.

  11. Anonymous

    You should be ashamed of yourselves. I know some of your employees.
    You keep them at seasonal status and make them re-apply every year, that way you do not give them benefits.
    You terminate injured employees.
    Act like you own it, it’s just a slogan.
    And they have to be on stage 7 days a week to keep up with the over demands of your company, Or they feel they will lose their jobs.
    All on the backs of hard working Americans have you moved ahead!

  12. Anonymous

    Sorry that you feel that way. With over 1500 individuals hired to work for a finite period of time (coincides with gardening seasonality), you are correct – benefits beyond a paycheck are not part of the package and much of the merchandising related employment is seasonal. This is understood prior to hire. The company has many returning merchandisers that do re-apply each year, as I believe the law requires. Preference is always given to returnees that perform well as their experience has great meaning.

    There are also as you might know many full time year round employess where certain benefits are available.
    I agree we are fortunate to employee many very hard working people that make me very proud. The work at every level is very demanding. Rain, cold, heat, snow and ice this year – and lot’s of plants to unload, water daily, and to help get through the registers at retail. Demanding is an understatement. I’m proud of the efforts and results of the team in purple.

  13. Anonymous

    I have had the opportunity to watch Gary and Mike grow their company over the years. While much of what they are known for in marketing/merchandising isn’t necessarily new they were able to take it to a higher level than our industry has seen to this point. What they have accomplished in a relatively short period of time is remarkable. I can also tell you that in general the work environment at Bell is a very positive one. Although the work is seasonal and as we know difficult, there is a large part of the work force that returns every year. In particular, their delivery staff are outstanding and a credit to the company. Gary and Mike built Bell into what it is today through hard work, determination and having the courage to price their product to be profitable. Congratulations on your success and best of luck in the future!

  14. Anonymous

    Returning from the first season is head instructor Scott Marshall of Young Drivers of Canada, the driving school sponsoring the Driver Rehabilitation Program and Canada’s Worst Driver. Joining him are the following three judges.Custom kitchen Cabinets