Robert Kitayama: Big-Picture Perspective
Cut flower grower Kitayama Brothers topped our Top 100 Growers List for six straight years from 1990 to 1996, reaching 5.1 million square feet of environmentally controlled greenhouse space across six locations during its peak in the mid-’90s.
Kitayama Brothers is still a Top 100 Grower in 2012, holdingg the 54th position with 1.3 million square feet. But because B and H Flowers recently moved out of a Kitayama-owned glass greenhouse facility, Kitayama Brothers expanded into the 189,000-square-foot range. Kitayama planned to add another 125,000 square feet of greenhouse space for cut flowers last month, as well, and it may expand by another 150,000 square feet this fall.
Kitayama may never return to the 5 million-square-foot mark, but its president, Robert Kitayama, is excited about new opportunities the business is creating for itself in the cut flower market. GG recently caught up with Kitayama to discuss these opportunities and reflect on the glory days of California cut flower production.
GG: Take us back to the days when Kitayama Brothers was the largest greenhouse grower in the United States. What factors led to the slide of cut flower growers like Kitayama, and how did the business manage to sustain itself for many of those years?
RK: For a lot of years we wondered if we were going to be able to sustain the business. The shareholders, wise or otherwise, were committed to the flower business. One thing we didn’t do at that time was put a whole bunch of money back into the business, but we did make huge transitions because we used to be 100 percent cut roses.
When Kitayama Brothers started more than 60 years ago, we were carnation growers. When South American carnations came onto the scene, we migrated into cut roses. We did the same thing when South American roses came onto the scene. Our last transitions happened in the mid-1990s, transitioning from a ground rose to a hydroponic rose. Then we diversified into more crops like lilies, gerberas and snapdragons. In the ‘90s, a combination of getting by with new flowers and leasing sustained us when probably more than 50 percent of the cut flower growers in Northern California closed.
GG: What adjustments are Kitayama Brothers making these days to reposition its cut flower business for success?
RK: In the last few years, our business needed help in sales and marketing. We purchased a brokerage company, G.E. Moore Flower Company, because they had expertise selling outside product. In 2009, sales went down as a result of the recession. At that time, Ginger and Winston [Moore] wanted to sell their company and move on. They gave their staff and sales people an opportunity to work with Kitayama, and immediately we had a very good year in 2010.
I came in less than two years ago, and the thing I really wanted to work on was reinvesting in our facilities. Most of our competition had not reinvested in their facilities, and we decided this was an opportunity for us.
Additionally, in August, B and H Flowers declared bankruptcy. So we moved back into growing in the greenhouses we were leasing at that time. Since then, I’ve hired a new person to start a mass market division. We sell to a lot of bouquet makers and small stores. But with this added production, I think we can go after some of the grocery store chains. I’m optimistic we can be as profitable as we were in those days – there were times we sold a lot of flowers, and I’m not sure how we took a lot to the bank.