Growing In The Mountain States

Slideshow: Olson's Greenhouse

The last 30 years have been a steady climb for Olson’s Greenhouse serving national retailers in the Rocky Mountain States. Based just south of Salt Lake City in Salem, Utah, the business began four generations ago in 1942, when Bart Olson’s grandfather, Roy, was working in the mines and produced tomato plants to sell to his fellow miners. He built wooden A-frame structures and expanded production to include bedding plants, which were sold retail and to other mom-and-pop retailers throughout the state.

Meanwhile, Bart’s father, Jack, started his own operation three blocks away completely focused on producing greenhouse-grown tomatoes in three acres of wooden structures. “We all helped grandpa as well,” Bart recalls. “In the early 1970s my mother also wanted to grow bedding plants, and we bought grandpa’s place. Then in 1979, my two brothers and I decided we would really make something of this business and set up our own production. We bought my parents out in the mid 1980s.”

The customer base was primarily independent retailers and regional chains when Kmart emerged as their first national customer in 1976. Even at this time, Olson’s was shipping plants to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. “If a retailer was in the Rockies or in Utah, we sold to them,” Bart says. “Grand Central was a regional chain bought by Fred Meyer. Eagle Hardware & Garden became Lowe’s. Our big leap was with Kmart and then we started selling to Walmart and Home Depot. As big chains have come and gone, we’ve migrated to the next.”

Managing Growth

Today, Olson’s Greenhouse is managed by Bart as president, eldest son Chad as vice president of operations, son Brandon in accounting and sons-in-law in key management positions, including Brian Lloyd as vice president of sales and marketing,  Nate Barker as production and purchasing manager and Cody Swenson in maintenance.

It’s rare for a growing operation to serve all three large national retailers, but Olson’s serves Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s in the intermountain West. The last five years have been a dramatic growth phase, going from 12 acres of greenhouse at the original production facility in Santaquin, Utah, to 15 more acres of modern facilities in Salem.

While crops are still grown at the older facility, all production and shipping is centralized in Salem. “We have seven transplant lines and this is where we mix our soil,” Chad says. “We may eventually move all our production to one location, but at the old one, we still produce a high-quality, profitable crop and everything is paid for. It’s just not efficient labor wise because half the greenhouses are quonsets and half are gutter connected.”

The most recent expansion was four acres of glass, open-roof greenhouse in February 2008. This winter, Olson’s will be putting three or four more acres up to support business gained for spring 2010. “We talked about contract growing and do have a grower who can commit for as much as we need, but we like the idea of keeping the control in house,” Chad says. “We’ve bought in plants before but have never been involved in contract growing.”

Reflecting on the company’s recent growth, Bart says Olson’s has always been careful to not grow faster than it could manage. “We have had the opportunity to take on more business and there have been times we’ve said, ‘No. It isn’t right for us to take on additional business right now,'” he says. “We don’t overextend ourselves financially or overcommit ourselves.”
Olson’s tries not to expand two years in a row, he adds. “Each year with an expansion is a test year,” Bart explains. “How much can the new stores sell? And we’re still getting production just right. The second year is more profitable than the first.”In the next five or 10 years as the market continues to grow, Olson’s may consider building a satellite facility closer to some of its northern markets. For instance, a shipment to Spokane, Wash., or Kalispell, Mont., is a 14-hour drive. Denver is nine hours away. Olson’s does have two sales representatives in Montana to service that region. Fifteen percent of the deliveries are made on Olson’s trucks and the rest via common carriers with Olson’s trailers. An in-house transportation manager coordinates the shipments. 

Perfecting Production

Olson’s Greenhouse is always looking at ways to produce a high-quality uniform crop, whether it’s investing in new technology or bringing in the best outside expertise. The company has worked with consultant Roger Styer on annuals for the last 15 years and more recently started working with Paul Pilon of Perennial Solutions on perennials.

“Their growth in production and sales is quite remarkable!” Styer says. “They have committed to a program of scheduled products to suit a range of stores servicing a wide range of states. It used to be they would just have one or two plantings and work off that, but now everything is closely scheduled and grown for definite ship windows. Their growing staff has expanded both in numbers and expertise.”

Olson’s also is moving forward with sustainable initiatives and is in the process of getting certified by VeriFlora. Olson’s has gained experience using biological controls, trialing various soil amendments and recycling plastics with East Jordan Plastic. The company recently established a sustainability committee headed by Steve Lloyd in sales. “We haven’t been asked by our customer to do this, but the whole sustainable initiative with Walmart sparked us a little bit,” Chad Olson says. “We were doing a lot on our own because it’s the right thing to do.”

Ushering In The Next Generation

Transitioning from the third generation to the fourth has gone pretty smoothly. When asked what has worked for Olson’s, Bart says, “We believe a family that plays together stays together. We go on vacations together, have Sunday dinners together. We’re constantly communicating.”

Giving each manager an area of responsibility they own has worked, too, for both family and non-family members. Olson’s has started working with a family business planner to formalize the transition to the fourth and fifth generations.

“While the fourth generation consists of a brother and brothers-in-law, next will be cousins, which will be more difficult,” Bart says. “We have regular meetings with the whole family, not just those who are working in the business. We will be selecting a board of directors. It might not be that every cousin who wants a job will be able to come work here, but we’re starting the conversation now with the adults. First and foremost, it’s important that our children get an education to prepare themselves for life.”

Are the prospects as bright for the next generation in our industry? “We feel the industry is booming and are glad to be part of it,” Chad says. “We’re not recession proof, but we fared fine and are doing great. We feel as long as we produce a good quality crop at a fair price, customers will have no reason to look elsewhere, as long as we do what they need to satisfy them. If you produce a good quality crop and provide good customer service, you will continue to grow in the industry.”

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Growing In The Mountain States

  1. I work for a new company called Barebones. I ran across this article doing some research. The biggest goal our company is trying to acheive is "sustainable living". I think it is great that other Utah companies are trying to acheive this as well.

Latest Stories
EAGL Graduates

February 22, 2017

Emerging Industry Leaders Earn Business Management Cert…

Dr. Charlie Hall, Ellison Chair for International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, recently announced the graduation of the fourth cohort of the elite Executive Academy for Growth & Leadership (EAGL) program for nursery and greenhouse growers.

Read More
Drone for Bee Pollination

February 21, 2017

Learn How Drones Could Eventually Replace Bees in Polli…

Researchers in Japan are using the principle of cross-pollination in bees to make a drone that could potentially transport pollen between flowers.

Read More

February 21, 2017

Ian Baldwin: 2017 is Off to a Strong Start For Plant Re…

Many garden retailers are telling garden retail consultant Ian Baldwin that sales and the consumer’s attitude toward spending have been very strong the last two months.

Read More
Poinsettia 'Christmas Joy Marble'

February 20, 2017

5 New Varieties Shaking Up the Poinsettia Tradition

With poinsettias trending toward non-traditional colors, growers may find new opportunities to spread sales beyond the winter holidays. Here are five of the newest euphorbia varieties to hit the market that may play a role in redefining the future of the poinsettia market.

Read More
University of Tennessee trials overview (2015 University of Tennessee Field Trials)

February 19, 2017

2016 University of Tennessee Field Trials Results

Check out the 2016 field trials results for the University of Tennessee Gardens in Knoxville and Jackson, TN.

Read More
Reiman Gardens field trials

February 18, 2017

2016 Iowa State University Field Trials Results

Check out the 2016 field trials results for Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University in Ames, IA.

Read More
2016 Top 100 Growers List

February 18, 2017

Top 100 Growers Survey for 2017 Is Now Open!

Operations with more than 400,000 square feet of environmentally controlled production are eligible to take the survey, which only takes a few minutes to complete.

Read More

February 17, 2017

How to Keep Customers Coming Back With Top-Notch Servic…

A recent article on Forbes.com outlines seven ways organizations can take their customer service from good to great and beyond.

Read More
Summerwinds Proven Winners display FEATURE

February 17, 2017

Proven Winners Makes Improvements to Its Retailer Certi…

Understanding the challenges of training new and seasonal staff at independent garden centers, Proven Winners says it is working to equip managers with tools to prepare their employees to better handle customers’ questions and boost their confidence in selling plants this season.

Read More
Tom Foley, WaterPulse

February 17, 2017

Industry Veteran Tom Foley Discusses His New Role as Vi…

Foley, a greenhouse industry veteran who was most recently with EuroAmerican Propagators, will be responsible for North American sales of WaterPulse’s patent-pending capillary mats and associated irrigation systems to nurseries and growers.

Read More
Dan and Jerrys Greenhouse 1

February 17, 2017

Dan and Jerry’s Greenhouse Buys Iowa-Based DeJong Green…

The acquisition will allow Dan and Jerry’s, a bedding plant grower headquartered in Minnesota, to extend its seasonal product offerings and service a new customer base with local distribution.

Read More
Savor New Website

February 16, 2017

Pleasant View Launches Updated Website for its Savor Ed…

The site is designed to offer a friendly and informative vehicle that delivers product information in an easy-to-navigate format.

Read More
Syngenta Obsession Cascade

February 15, 2017

Syngenta Introduces Two New Flower Series for 2017

‘Sunfinity’ Sunflower produces multiple branches with numerous flowers that bloom all season long, while ‘Obsession Cascade’ Verbena quickly fills containers with vibrant flower patterns.

Read More

February 15, 2017

Growers Planning to Invest in Structures in 2017

Data from this year’s Greenhouse Grower State of the Industry survey indicates that growers are planning to make major investments in structures and facility upgrades this year.

Read More
NVAC Greenhouse prototype

February 15, 2017

New Greenhouse Cooling System in Development for Hot-Cl…

Researchers at McGill University in Quebec have developed an alternative evaporative cooling solution for greenhouses in warm climates, and are now seeking commercial partners.

Read More

February 15, 2017

Registration Open for NGMA Spring Meeting

The annual gathering of the National Greenhouse Manufacturers Association will feature a look at green industry trends, emerging market opportunities, and more.

Read More
EuroAmerican Propagators Greenhouses

February 14, 2017

Suppliers Comment on Plant Genetics’ Fate After EuroAme…

Since the operation’s bankruptcy filing on January 23, 2017, suppliers associated with EuroAmerican Propagators have updated Greenhouse Grower on what the operation’s bankruptcy means for them – and how it will impact grower customers.

Read More
Bill Hoffman at Hoffman Nursery

February 14, 2017

Hoffman Nursery Has a New Head Grower

Bill Hall brings more than 30 years of experience to Hoffman. In the past, he has worked for Carolina Nurseries, AG 3, and ArborGen.

Read More