Well-established as a state-of-the-art production leader, Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, Ohio, remains on the cutting edge in a new era, partnering with retailers to drive sales and really zeroing in on what consumers are buying and their interests. This year marked its big entry into the phalaenopsis orchid market, with the first high volume shipments to stores in February for Valentine’s Day sales. Green Circle also continues to be a leader in green technologies and recently installed what may be the most modern biomass heating complex for a greenhouse operation in the United States.
Founded by John van Wingerden in 1968, Green Circle has grown to span 90 acres of greenhouse production, producing plugs and liners, bedding plants and potted plants year round. The retail customer base is a mix of regional, national and international chains, including mass merchandisers, home improvement centers, supermarkets, wholesale clubs and independent garden centers. Green Circle also is a plug and liner powerhouse serving growers through sister brokerage company Express Seed.
John’s eight children grew up in the greenhouse business and fondly recall mixing fun with work, like stacking bales of peat moss to build pyramids. In the last five years, they have assumed management roles. Eldest son David is a manager at sister company Express Seed after spending years managing production at Green Circle. Son-in-law Scott Giesbrecht is in charge of sales and marketing and activities serving retailers. CJ manages production operations at the entire facility. Jason handles procurement, purchasing and sourcing pots, baskets and value-added, home décor-style containers. Wesley manages operations for Plant 2, which includes Green Circle’s expanding orchid ranges. Daughter Abby is a sales analyst, working closely with Giesbrecht examining how products perform and sell through at retail.
Today, Green Circle’s management is a mix of young, up-and-comers and seasoned veterans. “We get to build on a team that has been with us all these years,” CJ says. “We have managers who have been with us 30-plus years. Eighty percent of our top management team has been with us for at least 20 years, and we’re also bringing new blood in. In the early days, it was just my dad running the business and making the calls by himself. Now there’s a team out there working together to make things happen.”
As the business has grown, Green Circle has been creating a corporate culture while also retaining the qualities of a family business. “It’s necessary for the family to stay involved but also have a corporate culture to get things done,” Giesbrecht says. “We try to stay away from bureaucracy but create a structure so information flows. Our power is in our people.”
John credits the next generation with leading Green Circle to become a sales-driven organization. “For 30 years we were production driven. The last five to seven years we have become sales driven. That’s it in a nutshell,” he says. “Today we listen. Before we just produced what we wanted. Low-cost production is still foundational to satisfy our customer base, but we have to be focused on consumer satisfaction. It’s not just about pricing but the value we present.”
The paradigm shift for growers to become more sales driven has been the right one, Giesbrecht says. “When we were more production-driven, it led to dissatisfaction at the retail and consumer levels. We had a lack of responsibility to sell,” he explains. “Now that we’re sales driven, we have accountability to drive the sale all the way through. Our decisions are based on what consumers want. We’re driven by customer success. It sounds simple, but we’re not interested in growing something that doesn’t sell.”
Green Circle was one of the early embracers of pay-by-scan or vendor-managed inventory, John says. “Pay by scan is accountability and we love accountability,” he says. “We should know our product better than anybody else. Accountability is opportunity.”
Revving Up Orchids
Speaking of opportunities, one of the most exciting ones has been bringing European-style potted orchid production to the United States and developing a marketing program to make orchids more accessible to the masses. “Orchids are the No. 1 value in potted plants anywhere in the world,” John says. “We’ve seen this in the European marketplace for many years. We decided to get into orchids with a European, first-class production facility.”
The varieties are phalaenopsis orchids from European tissue culture labs. Plants are finished cooler to be durable in any climate. Green Circle has an exclusive, full-time retainer with So Natural in Holland for production expertise and technical support. So Natural can view production in progress remotely, as well as data from Green Circle’s environmental controls.
Much attention is paid to how the orchid is grown, training the leaves to grow upright in a V shape for easier sleeving and handling and to get one third more plants on the greenhouse benches. Upright leaves also funnel water to the plants, reducing water shed and disease spread.
To be successful in orchids, there were three challenges to address:
To address heating costs, Green Circle has spent nearly $20 million on a state-of-the-art, six-boiler, biomass heating system. The primary fuel source is wood from local tree removal companies, but the furnaces could burn sawdust, rubber tire chips from tire disposal companies and other materials. Green Circle received a loan guarantee from USDA as part of this initiative.
Since Green Circle will be shipping the orchids to 48 states and Canada through produce distribution channels, it needed to find a five-day heating solution to protect the orchids. An employee discovered a solution used in the tropical fish industry, using heating elements and insulating packaging. The Green Circle team also followed orchid shipments through the chain to distribution warehouses to ensure orchids would arrive in a high-quality condition.
Focusing On Consumer Success
Giesbrecht also enlisted Green Circle and Express Seed employees to develop the care and handling information on the large tags. “For five months, they had orchids on their desks with questions,” he says. “We were challenged to come up with 50 words that were meaningful and direct to communicate, so nothing would be misunderstood.”
John says consumer research showed the greatest concern for orchids was how to care for them. To address this fear factor and overcome the common problem of overwatering, Green Circle came up with the “Just Add Ice Orchid” slogan, inspired by John watering plants with ice cubes around the dinner table.
“This is a cool way to communicate the objective to the consumer instead of saying ‘water moderately,'” Giesbrechts says. The instructions are simple. Just adding three ice cubes once a week makes watering simple. Consumers can even go online to sign up for a weekly watering reminder via email.
Just Add Ice Orchids is a joint venture with MidAmerican Growers, a van Wingerden operation in Illinois, which also is producing the orchids. Green Circle has hired a marketing firm to create a website, JustAddIceOrchids.com, which is a resource for consumers to get ideas, view photo galleries, share their experiences and have their questions answered directly by Green Circle’s experts with answers posted for all to see on a forum. As an additional reassurance, Green Circle’s green and sustainable practices are showcased.
This is Green Circle’s first comprehensive national marketing program for consumers. In addition to promotional packaging and the supporting website, Green Circle and MidAmerican have partnered with garden celebrity P. Allen Smith, who will showcase the orchids in his television shows, magazine articles, social media sites and Garden Home book series. He’ll also offer his easy care tips and ideas for decorating with orchids in retail point-of-purchase materials. The promotions will begin this holiday season.
“I’ve always loved orchids, and I’m excited to teach consumers that caring for them is easier than they imagined,” Smith says. “I know once people have success with an orchid in their homes, it’s just the beginning. People will want to adorn several rooms in their homes with their alluring beauty.”
Green Circle looks forward to expanding the Just Add Ice program to other key blooming potted plants and penetrating more types of retail outlets. “We’re intrigued by the opportunity to sell plants at new and different retail outlets that feature consumer demographics similar to those found in our category,” Giesbrecht says.
Embracing The Information Age
In addition to creating a website for Just Add Ice Orchids, Green Circle has launched a new website for both the trade and the public– greencirclegrowers.com. In addition to providing information and ideas supporting seasonal products, the website is an opportunity to promote Green Circle’s green and sustainable efforts, including recycling water and using energy curtains and alternative fuels to conserve energy and resources.
The most exciting aspect of digital technology is harnessing it to engage consumers on an individual basis. “Our goal is to have an accessible website for our key products,” Giesbrecht says. “The timing is great because our customers are working on it with social media like Twitter and Facebook that can be accessed by consumers. We are serving a more information-driven consumer.”
Retailers also are getting more precise in gathering purchase information from consumers. Instead of collecting broad information on annuals and perennials, retailers will soon be asking grower vendors to barcode plants by genus and color. This information is valuable in guiding future production and marketing decisions and also a goldmine for customizing consumer incentives, content and engagement based on purchases.
While many growers will view this new coding as a logistical nightmare on the inventory, labeling and shipping sides, Green Circle welcomes the challenge. “It will require organization and execution but it will be a great way to key in on what the consumer wants,” Giesbrecht says. “We have the benefit of having customers that can change industries and consumer habits. We should be energized and help them do this instead of being intimidated. We want to be the go-to grower bringing solutions.”