When Stephen Barlow accepted Greenhouse Grower’s Operation of the Year Award during the Medal of Excellence Awards program at Cultivate’18, he noted that “it doesn’t take fancy machines or high-tech greenhouses to become a successful grower. It takes hard work and dedication from your entire team.”
If you look at how Barlow’s Flower Farm has developed since Stephen’s parents, Steve and Leslie Barlow, bought the business in 1983 when it was a small farm stand with four greenhouses, it’s clear that Stephen’s philosophy has played out successfully. Barlow’s has become a strong, vertically integrated company that, while small, can serve as a model for other greenhouse operations to follow.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover a set of principles that define Barlow’s, starting at the top with Stephen’s role as President and General Manager, and filtering through the entire team.
Have a Team-First Attitude
Although many things have changed over 35 years of business at Barlow’s, one thing is consistent.
“All staff members do whatever it takes to get the job done. When the company first started, everyone helped plant geraniums and then waited on customers,” Barlow says. “Today, we still have the same philosophy. One day you might be helping at the register at the retail facility, and the next you may be sticking cuttings. Although today people have specific jobs and areas, we still go back to our roots and help out wherever it is needed.”
A Desire to Keep Learning
Development of new plant varieties is constant at Barlow’s, and when he’s not reading through trade publications and reading emails from his suppliers, Barlow likes to visit trial gardens. At the same time, he says the best way for a smaller grower to look at new technology is by visiting other operations.
“I love going to see any size grower and figuring out how to make their new machine or technology work for us,” Barlow says. “It is what I love about the industry. We don’t keep any secrets and want everyone to succeed.”
Quality is King
Quality has been the cornerstone at Barlow’s since it first began in 1983.
“I can remember my dad talking about it at the dinner table,” Barlow says. “He would say, ‘We have to have the best geranium crop because our customers expect it.’ I know everyone says that quality and service are very important, but we take it a step further when the product reaches the retail sales floor. Nothing is on our floor unless it is perfect. I always say to my staff, ‘If you wouldn’t purchase it for your mom today, it is off the floor.’”
As a vertically integrated grower-retailer, Barlow says he believes one of the few ways to stay above the box stores and local competition is to bring a plant directly from the growing area to the sales floor.
“I think our customers have grown to expect this, and they see us as having the best quality,” Barlow says. “This also plays into us being able to command top dollar.”
In a similar vein, Barlow’s ability to control its product from seed to sale is a big factor in helping the operation stay more profitable.
“I grow 80% of what I need at retail, and we fill the remaining 20% by buying from other growers,” Barlow says. “This way I don’t have a lot of shrink.”
In fact, Barlow proudly says that this approach allows Barlow’s to grow its own crops superior to other growers.
“For example, hanging baskets can be damaged when they are shipped from other growers, so we focus on growing our own nice hanging baskets and combos,” he says. “Also, we’re getting more into succulents. It’s easy to grow them, and we can get a good price, so margins are good.”
Be Willing to Adapt to Market Changes
About 11 years ago, Barlow recognized that the company’s retail facility was no longer conducive to shopping carts, moms with babies, and older shoppers.
“It was quaint, but it was not functional,” he says.
Because of this, Barlow’s redesigned its entire facility, upgrading to wider aisles to create a better shopping experience.
“I am a firm believer that you have to keep updating your business, whether it’s new walkways in your retail center or better irrigation systems in your growing facility,” Barlow says. “Not only does it make for a better experience for the customers because they see you are investing in your business, it also helps with the morale of your staff. When they see us investing in the business to make their jobs easier or better, they too become excited about the future.”
Be Smart About Investing
When Barlow is looking to decide where to set aside money for a future investment, he first seeks out where the greatest need is company wide (growing versus retail versus landscaping). Then he looks at the length of time for a return on investment, followed by who will be affected most from this investment.
“We take all of these things into consideration, and then come up with a plan,” Barlow says.
Over the past three years, many of the investments have focused on the growing side of the business with a 46,000-square-foot expansion on its new farm. Adding more covered space has increased the company’s ability to propagate.
“We see this as a great return that allows us to control more of the product and offer items that we couldn’t find in the past,” Barlow says. “It also has shown that our margins are considerably better.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Sometimes you will learn lessons about what to do and what not to do, and these teachable moments are important, Barlow says.
“I think I made a mistake when we did our retail upgrade in that I didn’t visit enough other grower-retailers,” Barlow says. “Our industry is so willing to share information with peers, and I didn’t follow that advice. Because of that, there are some things I would change if we did another upgrade; for example, not having enough accessible outlets and hoses.”
Don’t Forget About Your Local Community
“I always go back to how my parents built the business,” Barlow says.
When Steve and Leslie first started, they had no money for advertising, but they always donated the largest basket of flowers to a local charity.
“I still continue this tradition of supporting our local community,” he says. “We spend a lot of time teaching local middle-school students through tours of our production facility.”
These tours often generate excitement about growing plants and the field of horticulture.
“I think it is so important to teach the younger generations about this field,” Barlow says. “Our industry offers such wonderful opportunities with amazing rewards.”
Keep a Constant Eye on the Future
About a year and a half ago, Barlow’s launched a new website that offered more information about the company and the ability to shop online.
“We have seen increases in internet sales each year, and our traffic is up 20% month over month,” Barlow says.
Thanks to a focus provided by the company’s marketing director, Kayla Adamson, site visitors look for everything from floral purchases to gift cards.
“Most of the sales are for local delivery, but it has been a good start,” Barlow says. “Customers love to browse our store and get ideas of what we carry. I don’t see it as ever being the core to our business, but I do see it as being a significant piece of our future.”
So what’s next at Barlow’s?
“We are building an additional 12,000 square feet of covered space for increased spring production, which includes a 4,000-square-foot head house,” Barlow says. “We are also excited about our new bale buster and flat filler.”
In the end, however, it all goes back to Barlow’s customers.
“We are adding an additional 1,200 square feet to our display gardens this winter,” Barlow says. “It will help us show our customers how to better use our products.”
MPS Congratulates Barlow’s Flower Farm, 2018 Operation of the Year
Multi Packaging Solutions (MPS), a business of WestRock, is deeply dedicated to supporting the grower community. Over the course of 100 years serving horticulture, we’ve built a long tradition of producing premium packaging and offering superior service to our customers locally, regionally, and globally. From investing in innovation and development, supply chain solutions, and sustainability, to continuously expanding our database of horticultural knowledge and consumer insights, we work hard to be a true partner to our customers by providing the best in tags, labels, point-of-purchase, packaging, and merchandising solutions.
We also believe that being a leader in scale and capability comes with responsibility. Today, we are proud to further give back to the community by partnering with Greenhouse Grower to honor and recognize innovation and achievement in the grower industry.