Remembering the Horticulture Legacy of Gary Falkenstein

There’s no doubt that Gary Falkenstein, who passed away on June 5, 2020, at the age of 75, left his mark on the horticulture industry. As the Co-President of Fischer USA (which eventually became part of what is now Syngenta Flowers), Falkenstein led the development of several ornamentals brands and pioneered innovations in plant marketing.

However, to those who knew him best, Gary was much more than that. He was a passionate supporter of the industry, an advocate for the entire supply chain, and a great story teller.

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At least that’s according to Karl Trellinger, Gary’s business partner for many years at Fischer USA.

“Working with Gary was always a combination of being inspired, solving problems, evaluating what can be done better, and more, while having a lot of fun. Additionally, it was always a special treat to experience Gary as the life of the party at the many dinners and parties over the years,” Trellinger says. “Gary was an extraordinary human being and will be strongly missed by all who knew and worked with him.”

Gary is survived by his wife of 54 years, Marguerite (“Peggy”), three children, and six grandchildren. A memorial fund for Gary has been set up with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to support its mission of leading the fight against type 1 diabetes. If you wish to make a donation in Gary’s memory, you can do so here.

A tentative celebration of Gary’s is being planned for his birthday, August 24, 2020. The full obituary is here.

Here’s a closer look at Gary’s professional life, according to Trellinger. After that, keep reading for more personal reflections from Gary’s industry colleagues and friends. Also, be sure to check out the slideshow above for a visual account of Gary’s storied career.

“Gary joined Fischer USA in 1994 at the low point of the company in North America, just having been cut off abruptly from its geranium supplier at the time. Many in the industry thought that Fischer would leave the North American market. It is no exaggeration to say, that without Gary having come on board, Fischer USA would certainly not have become the respected, innovative, and profitable business it did. Gary’s talents have been many: being an exemplary manager, building a great team, and linking all the business disciplines together to create a successful company. His vision of what Fischer USA could look like, his exuberant energy, and his almost unlimited resourcefulness and drive could be experienced daily by anyone who worked with him.

Building on Gary’s experience at Ball Seed, where he had been the marketing manager, Gary was the brain and engine behind Fischer USA taking the high road, developing innovative marketing materials, making a big splash during trade shows, and heading the development of a new computer system from scratch. In parallel, he helped initiate a lasting relationship with Achim Hitzigrath, the owner of Viveros International, to become the main supplier of geraniums, New Guinea Impatiens, and later poinsettias for the North American market. Equally crucially, as he knew the business extremely well, he established excellent relationships with the various brokers, the sales representatives, and the rooting stations.

Gary had also been strongly involved in the overall Fischer organization regarding worldwide cutting supply, the creation of an integrated computer system, and developing geranium varieties specifically for the North American market. There was literally nothing that Gary was not involved in, always providing his unique perspective and valuable advice.”

“An Extraordinary, Larger Than Life Person”

Gary was a game changer in the flower cutting industry and in all of life, says Michele Ater of Syngenta Flowers Logistics. He supported and empowered people to be the best they could be, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

“He could get you excited about a truck that delivered on time, a system upgrade that resolved data entry issues, or a new marketing campaign. His wide eyes and giant grin would say, can you do better? If you said yes, he’d ask what you need to make that happen. If you said no, he’d go, ‘well then, let’s get going on this right away!’

He made each and every person and employee feel that they were contributing to the team in a beneficial and empowering way. I am responsible for getting freight (boxes of perishable cuttings) from the farm to the U.S. to the greenhouse door. One weekend, I had everything stuck in Germany because they were shipping a circus to the U.S., and it was taking up all the cargo space. I went up and down and all over the place with the freight handlers and airlines as our goods were extremely perishable. Gary said, ‘We’re GoldFisch brand, tell them we’re alive!’ I did, and they sent our goods on the next plane and our cuttings survived.

Gary actually went out and bought a purple ribbon and made a Purple Heart for me to wear that week. I was so proud, but more than anything I was proud to work for Gary. He was an exceptional leader, the best boss ever, and an extraordinary, larger than life human.

Gary and his wife, Peggy came to my wedding, to my husband’s musical concerts, and I was invited to their daughter’s (my co-worker) wedding. We were more than employees, we were more than a team. We were family, and we took that feeling and paradigm to create the best geranium company in North America.

Gary taught me how to be creative, how to ask for change, how to implement processes, and how to celebrate life. He is the greatest influence of my life, both professional and personal, and I will always strive to make him proud. I wish his family much love and support as they are experiencing a great loss. Gary, we will Viva la Vida!”

“Every Encounter With Him Was Memorable”

“Gary Falkenstein and I first met at the home of David Tagawa. We were each making a family visit for the passing of a dear Tagawa family member,” says Al Gerace of Welby Gardens in Colorado. “I was very impressed with his sincere concern for David and his family. The Tagawa family had become a close associate with the Fischer Geraniums USA operation after the destruction of Fischer’s growing operation by Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, FL. Tagawa Greenhouses in Colorado were now the prime location for Fischer Geranium Stock plants in North American, and David and Gary had become close friends and partners in the endeavor. The only thing that I thought I knew about Gary at the time was that he had been involved with the Kalamazoo Michigan Growers Coop with whom Welby Gardens competed in the Texas and Louisiana markets. But Gary seems such a good friend of David Tagawa, I thought it was truly worthwhile getting to know him.

David and all his siblings had been long-time friends of my family even back to high school days. There was a matching Tagawa sibling for each of my family members. And any good Friend of David Tagawa had to be a friend of mine.

Geraniums were the link that held all of this together. Geraniums were the first bedding plant that Welby started to grow back in the mid 1950s. My mother propagated them in-house from purchased starter plants in the early days, but by the early 1980s, we purchased them as unrooted cultured cutting for Bob Ogelvee, and in later years as rooted cutting from Busch Greenhouse in Denver who were then part of the Ogelvee Propagators network. When Gerhard Fischer first came to the states, he visited our greenhouse and we tried a good number of his varieties. The varieties were smaller and less adaptable to our hot dry climate than old, tried-and-true varieties, as these varieties had their roots in East German breeding. Unfortunately, during the first couple of years, the stock had become contaminated with Xanthomas, a bacterial blight on Geraniums. Now, with two strikes against them, we were very hesitant to try again for a good many year.

There was one variety that caught our attention, and it was ‘Kim Red’ Geranium. It was not large, but well branched, intense in color, and very handsome in the pots. The Kim Geranium is another story, but as time would have it, it leads back to Gary’s story. Several years passed and Oglevee’s licensed it. The Goldsmith breeding team visited our greenhouse with express purpose of researching what growers were interested in the future of geranium. I handed Paula Goldsmith a pot of Kim geranium. I told her and the team that if she could give me ten colors of type of geraniums, that they could capture a good share of the domestic geranium market. I knew that it was possible, as Dan Busch had found a sport of Kim in a violet color which he named Veronica after his daughter.

To my amazement, Goldsmith introduced a full series 18 months later. Goldsmith was a premier seed breeder and they had the tools to crack the code. This was the beginning of Goldsmith Plants, which eventually led to GoldFisch Plants after a good many bumps in the road.

When Gary came to Boulder, things started to change. He heeded our complaints that the Fischer varieties were too small for the Western U.S. market, and the breeding program took on a new direction. The older varieties were fine for mass merchandiser growers as they looked fine in pots and they were far cheaper than other cultured indexed varieties, but they did not have great landscape performance in the U.S. In the meantime, Fischer had introduced a series of new Ivy Leaf Geraniums, which out-performed all other varieties in the marketplace. After the first year of introduction, we jumped onboard.

Fischer USA became more diversified, with species such as verbenas, calibrachoa, petunia, poinsettia, and a whole lot more. With the complexity of offshore production, Gary became an expert of supply chain management. He developed an innovated software platform to manage the entire interaction of breeder to farm to distributor to grower. It was the envy of the industry, and was vital in the integration of production of the later GoldFisch genetics.

Gary was a wiz with computing and a real charmer. He managed to charm my production manager of 19 years, Mark Seguin, away from Welby in 2005. Mark had become like one of the Gerace family, so we did not begrudge him the opportunity to further his career. Mark had a broad view of the entire industry from retail to greenhouse production and trial manager, and had great connections to the plant breeding community. I am sure that Gary made the best of Mark’s talents and connections, which became vital in the merger of Fischer USA and Goldsmith into GoldFisch Plants and to the acquisition by Syngenta in 2007.

Gary became Manager of Vegetative Cuttings and Head of International Supply Chain of Vegetative Cuttings for Syngenta, and Mark Seguin became Market Manager.

Gary served at Syngenta until 2013 when he left to form ePlantSource. With ePlantSource, Gary was advancing the entire industry to the next horizon. Gary had developed a new platform where breeders, propagators, and growers could interface each other’s needs, inventories, and facilities. This seamless interface minimalized the cost to the broader industry. Hardystarts (Welby Gardens’ young plant division) was a prime candidate for this platform, as they were buying from more than 20 different international farms and breeding companies. Gary came often to talk to us about his progress and our input. Eventually Hardystarts ended up using the ePlantSource platform to manage their cutting needs from Dummen Orange’s network of production farms.

The loss of Gary Falkenstein to the young plant industry is almost incalculable. We just needed him to live forever. And we actually thought he just might. He was such a dynamo, innovative and courageous in his every action and purpose. He was a friend and a great partner. Every encounter with him was memorable and always profitable. We were always winners when Gary was around. He will be missed by many, and his legacy will live on for many years to come.”

“He Did Things the Right Way and Treated People With Respect”

Dan Lehman of Lucas Greenhouses in New Jersey worked with Gary for around 15 years.

“I first met him when I was at Tagawa Greenhouses and we were rooting Fischer geraniums. I went to work for him three of four years later at Fischer USA. Gary had a real passion for what he did, whether it was working on the marketing, improving the systems and operations, looking at new varieties with the breeders, or working with the multitude of people within the company or all the other companies he dealt with on a daily basis. Of all these tasks, I think he loved the marketing aspect the most. He had a way of imagining something and then being able to put a plan in place to get to what he envisioned. On the marketing side it might be the next catalog, which was always something to look forward to, or the booth at the OFA show. He really put his heart and soul into those booths. And he didn’t just plan the booth, he helped construct it, led the way in putting all the plants in place, and hung around to tear it down.

On the operations side, it was how to make the system better and easier. He really enjoyed putting together a system that would enable him to do things more effectively. He used to say, ‘let’s work smarter, not harder,’ and his experience with other systems led him to put together an incredibly user-friendly model. If anyone in the office would suggest something that would help them accomplish their job more effectively, Gary was in the programmers’ office discussing how to make it work. He seemed to relish the challenge of making the perfect system.

Gary’s family had been in the flower business in Michigan where he was raised, and so flowers and horticulture was in his blood. His knowledge and love of plants really helped tie everything together. He loved elaborate booths for Ohio, and fancy catalogs that sometimes shocked the industry, but the plants were always his focus.

Some of this makes Gary sound like a superman, but Gary didn’t operate in a vacuum. He could often be heard asking Karl Trellinger, as he walked down the hall, a question about something, his booming voice carrying throughout the building. He and Karl, co-president of Fischer USA, were often working on projects together. He really put together a great team with exceptional talent in their areas, whether it was computer programming, farm management, logistics, customer service, finance, sales, marketing, or technical service. Along with his booming voice, Gary had a boisterous laugh that could be heard up and down the halls, often times laughing at his own jokes.

But aside from that, what made him successful was that he did things the right way and treated people with respect, which is a word that has been repeated several times in the past few weeks in conversations with those who knew him. Gary worked with brokers, sales reps, growers, and others, and he always treated them fair. What he did for one, he would do for any others. He was the type that if there was a disease issue in the cuttings, Gary made sure that we were upfront about the problem and that whoever was affected was taken care of. He used to tell me that you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning, so do the right thing. And this is also what made Gary a joy to work with. You did whatever you could for him, because you knew he would do whatever he could for you.

Aside from respect, in talking with several people since Gary’s passing, I have heard another common theme, and that is, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am without Gary’s help.’ And this was from all different aspects of the industry, from business owners, general managers, and others who said that Gary helped them in their career, gave them some good advice when the needed it, or influenced them to start their own business.

For as much as Gary did with Fischer USA, and that will deservedly so remain his legacy, watching him with his family was where he really shone. He had a glow when talking about his wife Peggy, son Kevin, and daughters Stephanie and Suzanne, and especially his grandkids. They were the world to him. When his mom was in a nursing home it seemed like he spent time there every single day. I think he would be at the office by 6, would work for a few hours, and then go see her. He would also take plants for their containers at the facility every spring as well.

Other words that I have heard relating to Gary have been ‘bigger than life’ and ‘seemingly invincible.’ And I think that is why his death is hard to comprehend. He had a personality and presence that just seemed like it would go on forever. I really enjoyed working with Gary, as did so many others, and I will miss him, but his big personality and all he stood for, will make it so I won’t forget him.”

Always Willing to Help

“I had known Gary as a fellow member of the great horticultural industry for a number of years, but we really got to know each other when Fischer, Goldsmith, Yoder, and Ecke got together to expand the Flower Fields,” says Joel Goldsmith. “Even though that venture didn’t work out, we found out we had a lot in common.

What I really remember, though, is the way Fischer USA, led by Gary and Karl Trellinger, reacted when we had our very serious issues with Ralstonia. After our second year of infection, our geranium business was on the verge of dying, and we were getting very little help and support from our industry, and none from the government. Gary and Karl recognized what was happening, and approached us about doing production for us. I countered, saying I thought it would be best for everybody if we licensed our existing varieties to Fischer USA, and continue breeding geraniums exclusively for them. We set up a meeting in Gilroy to discuss terms. We said, because the varieties are established, well known, and industry leading, that we wanted a licensing fee of $5 million. Gary and Karl laughed, and said they had speculated on what we might want, and said that they just hoped it wasn’t something like $5 million! With that beginning, we worked out an agreement in one day which was very successful for both companies.

Gary and I worked together at Syngenta when they had purchased both companies. We stayed in touch after we both left Syngenta, but I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He will be missed.”

“An Inspiration to Anyone Working in Horticulture”

Harvey Lang and and gary worked together at Fischer USA (and later Syngenta Flowers) for many years.  Lang was the technical services rep and was one of a small core team at Fischer.

“Gary was a great leader for Fischer USA. He changed the image of Fischer here in North America shortly after he came to the company. He took Fischer from being a rather small and obscure German breeding company, and turned it into being the leader in geranium breeding and supply for North America.  (At the time, there was really only Oglevee as a geranium supplier in North America, with Goldsmith and Ball geraniums just starting to ramp up.)  He understood the importance of good systems and logistics and he made it easy for our customers and brokers to do business with Fischer. Working with programmers and our farm and logistics team, he developed innovative trucking and inventory/ordering systems that delivered vegetative cuttings efficiently.

We were a small and efficient company at Fischer back then, but our image in the marketplace was much bigger. This was all due to Gary’s vision and marketing approach. We won numerous “best booth” awards over the years at OFA and Canadian Greenhouse Trade Shows. The Fischer catalogs were innovative, informative, and eye-catching, especially on the poinsettia side. Brokers couldn’t wait for the new Fischer catalogs to come out every year. The perception in the industry with customers was that if you wanted to grow the best, you grew Fischer. We weren’t the cheapest supplier in the industry, but we delivered cuttings consistently and efficiently. Our marketing approach and image was unmatched. This was all due to Gary Falkenstein.

Finally, Gary was a superb manager and treated his employees honestly and fairly. He maintained a great team atmosphere, with everyone working for the same goals. He valued everyone’s opinion at Fischer, even though we all knew that Gary led the company. He had a magnificent sense of humor and there are many humorous stories that I could share over the years from our time together. Gary should be a real inspiration to anyone working in the horticultural field. He literally worked until the day he passed away trying to improve and innovate our horticultural industry.”

The Definition of a Mentor

A mentor is someone who has been there, done that, learned from the experiences, and is willing to share. A mentor is someone who helps others reach their full potential. The emphasis is always on the enabling and empowering the person to do things for themselves.

Amy Morris at N.G. Heimos Greenhouse says Gary Falkenstein was the definition of a mentor.

“Through the years, I have learned and grew as a person and business woman because of the way Gary gave me the ability to reach deep within myself to create change. He was one of the most innovative and forward thinkers that I have ever worked with.

The first time I met Gary was 2001 when Fischer’s launched three companies throughout the U.S. to form the Fischer’s rooting station. Lucas Greenhouse, Yoder Brothers, and ours, N. G. Heimos Greenhouse. My father, Norwin Heimos, and Gary approached me about starting a rooting station, Millstadt Young Plants. I was very nervous at first and I think Gary sensed my anxiousness, and he said he had a 12-year-old building his computer program so you can’t do any worse. Then he laughed so hard, and oh how Gary could laugh, he had that deep belly laugh that could fill the room with joy.

I was so fortunate to work with Gary for so many years. He truly believed in people’s ideas and let them run with them. I would call him up and tell him things that I didn’t like about the computer program that we were working with. I would give him suggestions that would make it easier and quicker for all of our rooting station to process orders quicker. He would always answer okay, and get it started tomorrow. I was always shocked that I never got any resistance on my ideas. He knew I worked with that program every day and I knew the in’s and out of it. That’s what Gary did, he made things happen. He empowered everyone he worked with and made all of us feel intelligent and special. Being part of that team was one of the greatest and most positive experience of my life.

I have so many fond memories and hilarious stories that involved Gary, and the different trips I was able to go on with the Fischer team. I was able to go to Mexico, China, Holland, and Switzerland. He made sure we all had the experience and knowledge that was needed to make us better at what we did. Each trip brought on some kind of a funny story. All I would have to say to Gary is, “ did you see the size of Tommy’s hats”, “ how about the gum in the beer,” or one of my favorites, “which way do you turn when playing chicken in a golf cart” and he would be laughing so hard he would almost fall over.

Our industry lost an amazing man on June 5, and his loss will be mourned by many worldwide. I send my condolences to his sweet wife Peggy, his three children Suzanne, Stephine, and Kevin, and beautiful grandchildren. I hope you feel the love and the sorrow we are all feeling with this loss. Gary loved life, his family, and a good bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet.

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