The Conard-Pyle Co. is leaving the wholesale nursery business and redirecting its efforts to focus on the creation, development, patenting, marketing and licensing of its proprietary genetics. The 113-year-old company based in West Grove, Pa., will continue to produce bare root roses and liners of roses and other proprietary material, as well as broker rose and perennial liners.
The division of the business that is closing, CP Wholesale, produced finished container nursery stock primarily for independent garden centers. While the Maryland facility will be sold, the Pennsylvania wholesale facility will be leased. CEO Steve Hutton, a third-generation nurseryman, says up to 85 employees will be affected over the next 12 months. Severance packages based on seniority have been offered to all qualifying employees. If a sale and lease can take place soon, it is probable some of the existing staff will be retained.
“It has been an emotional decision,” Hutton says. “We’ve been doing this an awful long time and have great relationships with our customers and have great employees we’re not going to have room for because our new direction is less personnel intensive. I know it’s the right thing for the company, but it’s bittersweet because it means hurting people who mean the world to me.”
Going forward, the company will still be known as The Conard-Pyle Company and will be headquartered at the present location.
Its divisions are:
• CP License, which develops new plant varieties, seeking patent and trademark protection, and growers and sublicenses them to third-party growers
• CP-Meilland Star Roses in California, which focuses mainly on proprietary rose genetics and distributes bare-root rose plants and brokers plugs and liners.
A Diverse Heritage
New product development and reinvention has always been part of Conard-Pyle’s heritage from its early origins in the 1800s distributing fruit trees and later becoming a mail order company for flowering plants and specializing in roses. The Star Roses brand Conard-Pyle still uses today was well established in 1925. In 1963, Conard-Pyle switched from field production to become one of the first container production nurseries in the Northern United States. In 1978, the company became strictly wholesale and closed its retail and mail order businesses.
This year marks the end of a 32-year run on the wholesale nursery side, a segment which has been especially challenged with the economic downturn, much more so than for greenhouse bedding plant operations. “Outdoor nursery has a two to three-year production cycle and can’t move as quickly,” Hutton says. “Production is entirely speculative four years out. One of our customers asked, ‘Is this a decision you made for yourselves or was it forced upon you?’ This absolutely was a decision we made for ourselves, not for lenders or stockholders. It’s a strategy we spent a lot of time discussing and agonizing over.”
On the wholesale side, Conard-Pyle is one of the founding partners of the Novalis group, which produces finished plants for independent garden centers under the Plants That Work brand. Founding partner Carolina Nurseries is on the brink of closing after losing its financing and has until June 21 to secure new financing. Despite this, Hutton says he believes the Novalis group is still on sound footing.
“Novalis is a vibrant program unto itself but it’s a finished plant program,” Hutton says. “We’re just finishing the last of our plants now. The conversations we want to have in the future is being involved with Novalis at another level.” The growers in the Novalis group did have exclusive access to some key Conard-Pyle genetics, including the Double Knock Out roses.
A Rosy Future
Introduced in 1999, the Knock Out roses have been a phenomenal success, revolutionizing shrub roses with disease resistance, growing ease and flower power. Developing these types of plants will be a big part of Conard-Pyle’s future.
“It’s great to have the wind of Knock Out to our backs,” Hutton says. “It has been successful, a very good product, but we’ve spent many decades developing new varieties. It has been the quiet center of our company. We’ve always emphasized introducing new plants. In my grandfather’s generation it was the ‘Peace’ rose. For my father, blue hollies. For me, it has been Knock Out.”
Many of Conard-Pyle’s offerings come from third-party breeders. Knock Out came from Bill Radler, a backyard breeder in Wisconsin with a laser focus on breeding disease reisistance. The Drift roses are from Meilland International in France. Conard-Pyle also works with outside breeders in perennials and shrubs.
“We can’t breed everything we could possibly introduce, but we want to make sure there’s always something in the pipeline,” Hutton says. “You could have a drought with third-party breeders. We make sure the pipeline is filled with our own breeding.”