2018 Head Grower of the Year Nick Gerace Grows Without Limits

2018 Head Grower of the Year Nick Gerace Grows Without Limits

Nick Gerace is the fourth-generation product of three generations of growing experience. As a young boy growing up under the tutelage of his grandfather, father, uncles, and cousins at Welby Gardens/Hardy Boy Plants in Denver, CO, Gerace says he can’t recall a time when the Welby greenhouses weren’t his stomping grounds. And now, at 30 years old, he is the youngest person honored as Greenhouse Grower’s Head Grower of the Year — living proof that age is no limitation to leadership.

From Humble Truck Farmer to Top 100 Grower

Flashback to 1948, when Alex and Esther Gerace built their first glasshouse to grow vegetable starts. Things changed in 1955 when Esther decided to grow geraniums to sell at farmers’ markets. From there, the business expanded to include three wholesale growing locations, two retail locations, and a HardyStarts young plant division.

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No. 66 on Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 Top 100 Growers list, Welby Gardens/Hardy Boy Plants only serves independent garden centers and landscapers, with the exception of its young plant division. Around 90% of the finish side of the business is speculation, while the HardyStarts young plant line is grown to order. The company produces more than 3,000 annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses, and organic herbs and vegetables a year, and trials more than 800 new plant varieties in its test gardens. All of this is accomplished while offering a 24-hour turn-around on product orders, even during the busy spring season.

One of Gerace’s greatest joys of being a Head Grower is getting to work with his family every day. He says he is grateful to them for always believing in him and pushing him to try new things and take on more responsibility.

“I am relatively young, so the trust my family has put in me has been paramount,” he says. “I do the best I can, but I couldn’t do anything without their support and the support of my Welby Gardens family.”

Nuts-and-Bolts Beginnings Set the Groundwork for Growing

As a teenager, Gerace learned the mechanics of the greenhouse, such as repairing vents and fans and maintaining evaporative cooling pads, etc. After high school graduation, he started as a grower at Welby while he studied for his Bachelor’s degree in Crop and Soil Science with a minor in Horticulture at Colorado State University (CSU).

Gerace says his horticulture classes didn’t challenge him too much. He even remembers seeing slideshows of his family greenhouses during lectures. The agronomic perspective he received from studying soil science, however, came in handy later in life when he was looking to improve Welby’s soil mixes.

Shortly after college graduation, Gerace took over as Head Grower of Welby’s then eight acre Westwood facility. After learning the ins and outs of that operation, he eventually assumed Head Grower responsibilities for the rest of Welby’s facilities, where he is now in charge of the growing staff, and daily maintenance, production, distribution, and live goods inventory. He is responsible for growing all of the Hardy Boy finished crops (3,000 line items) and the HardyStarts young plants (2,000 items) sold to growers across the U.S. and Canada.

Growing Plants and Growing People

While growing plants came intuitively to Gerace, learning to manage people and help them excel in their jobs has not. Communicating his expectations effectively to his employees, in a way they could understand and working with their individual personalities and skills to place them in a position where they can succeed, are skills Gerace says he had to work on to be a good manager. Gerace has a strong work ethic, so he has also found it a challenge at times to convince new employees that they want to work hard, especially young people right out of college.

Gerace’s show-don’t-tell management style goes beyond just telling his growers the why and how. When they see him show them firsthand how to do a job, they know that they can do it.

“I tell my growers there is nothing in the greenhouse I haven’t done, and there is nothing in the greenhouse I won’t do again,” he says.

Management of employees is an area where Gerace has made great strides in the past five years. He put into operation a three-tiered evaluation system to train new growers that includes full-scale written procedures. The system starts with growers conquering basic skills and progresses to them mastering tasks that are more advanced. Management also evaluates entry-level growers at 30-, 60-, and 90-day intervals, and on a yearly basis thereafter.

The evaluation system provides a way for managers to gauge a grower’s development. It motivates both current and entry-level growers to learn new skills and progress to greater responsibilities and financial incentives, and encourages them to adhere to high production standards. Growers know exactly what they need to do to get a promotion or move up to a new job because they have a tangible, clear path forward. Managers can also cross-train growers, so they can eventually work in any area of greenhouse production.

Gerace put the system into action to help manage his staff better and get their hours down because he wanted them to have a life outside of work during the hectic spring season. Previously, employees wore themselves out working 80+ hours during spring shipping. Now, they 50 to 55 hours a week and can take some time off during the week to relax. This, along with the implementation of more automation, hiring a few extra growers, and working together as a team has helped keep the hours down significantly, Gerace says.

The changes have also made Welby Gardens more palatable to new recruits. Using his connections with universities and other industry groups, Gerace has managed to attract highly educated and motivated young men and women to his grower team and maintain a stable team of growers in a business where employee retention can be a challenge.

Gerace has some sound advice for entry-level growers looking to advance to the Head Grower level.

“Work hard every day and make mistakes,” he says. “Learn from those mistakes to continuously improve every day as a grower, because every day is different in the greenhouse. The more experience you gain by making mistakes and by celebrating your successes, the more confident you will become in your decision-making. People will also respect you for what you are doing because you actually understand things at the ground level.”

Trials, Transitions, and Fine-Tuning

Gerace’s leadership has guided the Welby staff through other ambitious projects. He led a team of growers, production personnel, management staff, and an in-house entomologist to develop a year-round production schedule for organic vegetable and herb finished crops. The team continues to track crop costs for the program and measure inputs and yield.

Gerace also helped transition Welby’s growing facilities from regular finish plant production to higher-standard propagation through the addition of computer controls, lighting, irrigation, and movable benching. The changeover accommodated the rapid growth in Welby Gardens’ HardyStarts young plant division, which has grown as much as 15% to 25% per year for the last 10 years.

Gerace maintains rigorous virus-testing protocols in the young plant division to avoid cross-contamination at Welby’s three locations. Under his guidance, Welby ’s staff became aware of foreign stock irregularities six weeks before it became common industry knowledge.

The Welby growing staff produces more than 1,000 new plant items each year for the Hardy Boy summer flower trials held during the first week of August. This work helps the company test and assimilate the latest breeding and cultural techniques into the finished Hardy Boy plant program and the HardyStarts line. With Gerace’s careful management, the overall quality of the trials has improved and has become a real asset for promoting the HardyStarts program to other growers.

Gerace is always looking to fine-tune his production methods to realize greater efficiencies. For example, he used his background in soil science to re-work all of the Hardy Boy soils. He also established rigorous monitoring of soil, fertilizer, and water with Welby’s Soil and Plant lab. Additionally, he has run experimental trials with new crop inputs and lighting methods.

Harnessing the Power of Team Work as a Head Grower

In short, there’s nothing this 30-year-old grower won’t try, but he knows the power of having a great team to back him up. Upon learning that he had won Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 Grower of the Year award, Gerace says his first thought was that he didn’t deserve it.

“I’m just a hardworking greenhouse guy who shows up for work every day,” he says. “I look at my employees and think they are the ones that deserve the award, not myself.”

Now, the fifth generation of Welby growers is hopefully in the making. Ten months ago, Nick and his wife Kristen, who manages Welby’s retail store in Denver, welcomed a new daughter to their family. She is already following in her father’s footsteps, spending time in the greenhouses under the watchful, educating eye of her parents.