In a crowded market where many people do many things well, sometimes the best strategy is simply to be different. Find the one thing you can do better than anyone else. Paul Berlind subscribes to that philosophy.
Berlind, owner and president of Grateful Growers in Leander, Texas, has experience as a landscaper and an M.S. from the Department of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture at Cornell University. Almost a decade ago he recognized a profitable niche–producing annual color for 200 local landscapers–and built a business around it. He’s doing one thing, and doing it very well.
Targeting The Right Market
When Berlind decided to leave his job as a grower in another local
greenhouse back in 2000 and start his own business, he knew exactly the market he wanted to serve. But with all the other outlets for plants–from the big boxes to independent retailers–why choose a market as relatively small and specialized as bedding plants for landscapers?
“For one, it was the business where I learned my growing practices. That was our focus, so that was a market I knew in this area,” he says. “Also, I owned a landscape company in California for about a decade and I knew how hard it was to find a good source of bedding plants.”
And since the new business was located just a half hour from the rapidly growing state capital of Austin, opportunities for landscapers seemed almost unlimited.
Berlind also wanted to focus on the higher end of the market in terms of quality, and for him, that meant looking at the landscape market.
“I didn’t want to deal with the box stores. Quality was going to be my focus and the landscapers really appreciate the higher quality plants and are willing to pay the extra nickel for good quality,” he says.
Another benefit to focusing solely on landscapers, Berlind says, is predictability. By building an operation that serves as the major local source of annual color, he knew he could build a sustainable growing operation. The nature of the landscape business, he points out, dictates that his customers would come back on a regular basis.
The flip side, of course, is that while Berlind can usually count on repeat business from his customers multiple times a season, in the end, his customer is often at the whim of a property manager. “They’re working for a lot of people who are either apartment managers or housing development managers who have their favorite colors or their own ideas about what would be pretty.”
That can take some of the decision making out of the landscaper’s hands, and it means a lot of “educated guessing” for Berlind on what to grow for the following season.
“I’m guessing six months in advance about how many red petunias I’m going to be selling in the first week of May. That’s the tricky part.
Low-Tech Market, High-Tech Production
Berlind’s operation isn’t big: 25,000 square feet under two Rough Brothers structures and another 18,000 square feet of outdoor production. One thing that’s striking about an operation this size, however, is the amount of automation he has in his greenhouses. While it was a big initial investment, he knew it would allow him to produce the higher quality plant he says is critical for his market.
“We have a completely computer-controlled environment that will open the vents and run the heaters and Horizontal Air Flow fans. We have a Hamilton TEA Transplanter that can plant up to 300 flats per hour. We have a Bouldin Lawson flat filler and a water tunnel. We have a monorail cart system for moving all the plants through the greenhouse. We have two boom irrigators. And we have rolling benches that save a ton of space and provide good aeration for our plants,” he says. “It all makes a huge difference in the plants we’re able to produce.”
In addition, all this automation also helps keep labor costs in check. Berlind is able to run his operation with only four to five full time employees, and never more than seven, even during the busy season. That helps keeps production costs down, which means although his prices are in line with those of his competitors (who aren’t as automated), he’s able to pull a better margin to the bottom line.
And while it might seem like a small thing, there’s something to be said about the impression all that high-tech equipment can make. “My customers appreciate coming to see all the equipment. When they see the boom irrigators running and the rolling benches, it’s definite word of mouth marketing for us. They haven’t seen much like it.
Despite all the automation, Grateful Growers isn’t really a big operation by most standards. And Berlind has actually used that to his advantage. He is able to get to know most of his customers well, and with his landscaper’s background and extensive plant knowledge, he has developed strong one-to-one relationships with many of his best customers, some of whom he’s worked with for the full 10 years he’s been in business.
“They’re pretty loyal,” he says. “And that’s what we thrive on because we do the seasonal color change, so I really want to sell the same flats to the same flower beds three or four times a year. Repeat customers are critical to keeping our sales flowing.”
Berlind knows his customers’ planting beds nearly as well as they do themselves–maybe better. He can often be found out visiting a site with a landscaper, diagnosing problems and making suggestions for improvements. That extra step can be a big help when planning his production for the coming season.
“When I call and talk to them about their plans for next year, I can say, ‘You know, I was thinking about for your property over here, and I think this new plant would work really well there. Would you be interested if I grow some of these?'”
That customer service extends beyond help with plant selection. Grateful Growers provides an educational sheet with training tips on its website. Landscapers can download the tips and have something to hand out to employees, who often need help with some of the basics.
It’s service like that which has Berlind as confident about his future and the future of the industry, even as things look a bit uncertain with the economy as we head into the spring of 2009.
“Austin is continuing to expand, and most of my stuff is local. With the relationships I’ve been able to build over the years, as there are new housing developments and apartment complexes, we should still get new business,” he says. “I think we’ll be able to weather any downturn we see in the economy this year and come back just fine. These are unique times I hope.”