Rebecca Lusk of Luxflora and Dümmen Orange is no stranger to breaking new ground, whether it’s at her own company or in forming an organization that gives women in horticulture a united voice. She began her horticulture career with Dümmen Orange selling Red Fox genetics at a time when product representatives were still a new concept among breeding companies. Now, along with Kate Santos, also of Dümmen Orange, she is seeking to provide a platform where women of horticulture can network and come together on industry issues and trends through a new organization called Luxflora.
Greenhouse Grower caught up with Lusk to ask about the path that led to her career in horticulture and learn more about the idea that gave rise to Luxflora.
Greenhouse Grower: Tell us about how you set out to pursue a career in horticulture. What is special about this industry, to you?
Lusk: My career in horticulture started as a happy accident. My education and professional background prior were in human nutrition, both from a dietician’s and a specialty food ingredients sales representative’s perspective. With a good friend (then and now a greenhouse grower), I attended a horticulture industry event in Europe, where I was immediately struck by the similarities between human and plant nutrition. Like humans, plants thrive when well-fed with a healthy diet. That spark of inspiration opened me to the idea of working in horticulture, and I was fortunate to be selected as Dümmen Orange’s first product sales representative in the U.S. 12 years ago.
Horticulture is special because it’s a feel-good industry. Ultimately, (stealing a line from one of our products) “we create happiness.” Beautiful flowering plants bring joy to our end customers. I sense that thread woven through the entire industry, and because of it, people work hard to deliver that joy. And, also because of it, I’m often greeted with a hug instead of a handshake when visiting customers and colleagues. I think that when people, particularly my company’s customers, work hard and succeed at delivering something as special as live-flowering goods, there is an intrinsic positivism in bringing those plants to life, and through them, giving life to so many peoples’ happiness. And that makes it a true feel-good industry.
GG: How did your education and career evolve to bring you to your current position?
Lusk: As mentioned earlier, my education was not in horticulture, but I still consider it as a foundation from which my career with Dümmen Orange has flourished. My bachelor and masters degrees are in Food Science and Nutrition from the University of West Virginia. It’s a rigorous, science-based area of study that prepared me for my first career steps in food-related product sales with Domino Sugars and for my own company that provided consulting dietician and diet-therapy services. In combination with the science of nutrition knowledge, the discipline I learned both in my studies and early career set the stage for me to enter the horticulture industry.
I was a bit of a pioneer in that up until Dümmen Orange hired me as a product representative to give breeder industry support focused solely on technical support. Because I had the technical foundation in addition to the sales experience from Domino, I was able to bridge the gap between tech support and product sales. Plus, I already had a passion for flowers, tending my own gardens, and yes, even attending a few industry trade events as a vacation, so it was the perfect combination for me. I promoted Dümmen’s Red Fox genetics to start, and often remark to people that when I started with Dummen we sold 300,000 petunia cuttings a year, and now that figure is more like 30 million.
Now, all of the breeder companies have product representatives. I feel blessed to have been the trailblazer for Dümmen Orange and for the industry as a whole.
GG: What are some initiatives that you have contributed to, or that you have started, which make you the most proud?
Lusk: I remember being at an industry event a few years ago and overhearing a traveling group commenting that the main reason a woman was on the trip was to give the group the “perspective of a woman.” Initially, I thought this was flattering, but then thought, why just one token woman, why not more? So, I began paying attention to groups that traveled together and noticed that our industry, like many, was dominated by men and that women seemed to stand on the sidelines, speaking up in some instances only to say if they liked this/that color, or what they thought about a particular plant combination or concept.
Given that our end customer is by and large female, I wondered “Why is there not a board or group of women that the industry could go to for authority on these questions?” This was the birth of my idea for Luxflora. This new industry group’s goal is to develop a female-led organization that will create a lifestyle movement around flowers for expression in everyday life. We are already working to inspire new trends and embrace ideas from around the world, while developing a network where female leaders can flourish. Rooted in these values, Luxflora is now a visionary group committed to reinvigorating the floriculture industry. You will be hearing more from us!
GG: What do you see as some critical areas our industry needs to address in the coming months and years?
Lusk: Consumer education about plant care, for me, is the biggest issue our industry faces. Without education on basic care and fertility of flowers, we for sure will not gain business. Nothing sells more plants than a successful, thriving garden. Also, we need to continue to focus on the millennial generation, especially as they begin putting down their own roots with home purchases. How do we talk to this generation via social media? How do we combine inspiration and desire for gardens with basic how-to plant care learning to pique and drive their interest?
GG: What are and will be the growth markets in the industry that you see as exciting areas to watch?
Lusk: I believe succulents will be the next big growth market as, globally, we face greater demands for water restrictions because of extended droughts and heat waves. Succulents fit the bill. They’re decorative, easy to care for, water saving and can thrive inside and out. They are versatile, and can cross over to the color world quite easily.
GG: How are you and your company getting involved in these areas?
Lusk: Dümmen Orange is always leveraging its research and development capacity to provide growth in new areas. Examples are our work with heat tolerant, interspecific and ivy geraniums, or the innovative Confetti Garden concept. I suspect we will have news in this area if or when the time is right.
GG: How are you involved in your local community? What organizations are important to you, and how do you support them personally.
Lusk: Because I don’t have much time outside my career and family, I choose to be a charitable donor in supporting programs within my community. I am a big supporter, since I live rurally, with the New Windsor’s Fire & Hose Company 1, and I also give support to our local 4-H Clubs and their affiliated organizations.
GG: As you know, this industry is full of passion, and people can spend all of their waking moments working. As a woman in horticulture, how do you balance your time to make sure you have a personal life, as well?
Lusk: A while ago, a mentor told me that if I could not take one full day a week to myself with no work, then I was doing something very wrong in my life. I have since then heeded those words in balancing my life. I know my limits; my body/mind tells me when, and then I take the time to rebound. I work hard and play hard. I always have.
GG: What are some secrets you can offer to other women on balancing family and work life?
Lusk: I am married and have extended family living nearby. When I am home from traveling, I am “home” and dedicate my time to enjoying my family and many friends. We love to entertain, and our Fourth of July parties are legendary with homemade ice cream and water games for the kids (of all ages.)
I truly believe that in marriage, both partners have to set clear expectations and communicate these expectations frequently to make sure both are on the same page. Communication is the key and it leads to the healthiest of families.
GG: Who are some of your influences (both women and men), from both inside the industry and outside the industry?
Lusk: I have so many that I could list. From outside the industry, I would have to say my mother, who has told me since I could remember that I could do anything I wanted to, and even today, she never misses an opportunity to tell me how proud of me she is. From inside the industry, I would have to say the two individuals that have been most influential to me and taught me everything I know about horticulture from culture to sales are Dr. Allen Hammer and Perry Wismans. These two industry leaders have been my sounding board and had the greatest influence on my career in horticulture.
In case you missed it, read “Luxflora Wants To Create A Lifestyle Movement” to learn more about how Luxflora is helping women in the horticulture industry collaborate on common goals.