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.”
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.”