“They were,” said Dave Penland hesitantly before leaning forward and lowering his voice, “plant geeks.”
He was recounting the history of Reems Creek Nursery. His family had an ordinary life. His dad, Bill, was a successful engineer for Square D. A designer of electrical switches, he even invented a couple of devices the company patented. But, engineers can only get promoted so far before moving into the management track, and Bill wanted more from life.
Fortunately, Bill and his wife, Wilma, had been running a nursery on the side. Wilma caught the fever when she landscaped the family home, and she decided to pursue a degree in horticulture from Haywood Community College. The couple purchased a used greenhouse and re-assembled it in the front yard. With that and a truck and a trailer, they started a little nursery and landscaping business.
About a year and a half later, Bill turned in his notice at Square D. Dave recalls relatives expressing concern. Bill had left a stable job at an established company, but the Penlands never felt they had made a mistake. Growing up, Dave recalled excitement, nervousness, and eagerness in the home, but never regret. Income came in cycles, but the family didn’t experienced anything Dave would consider hardship.
To buffer the uncertainties, Penland said the family has been fiscally conservative. That is, when the economy was booming, they weren’t overextending their credit. They necessarily had to take risks, but theirs were measured and calculated. Besides, running a business with seasonal ebbs and flows, the Penlands have a lot of experience right-sizing operations on-demand.
Being in the plant business is “iffy”. For one thing, product lines are at the mercy of weather patterns. Greenhouse technology has been helpful, but Penland recalled one winter when heavy snow crushed three of the family’s greenhouses.
“We also were down to a skeleton crew, and we had a grounds maintenance contract that required us to provide snow removal services,” recalled Dave. “The upside was that we had revenue from plowing snow; the downside was that we had some facility damage that was not covered under our insurance policy.”
Dave remembered a lot of people in the community asking if they needed help. “Two of the damaged structures were visible from the interstate, so word got around town as to what had happened. One fellow who was a local plant enthusiast, long-time customer, and friend donated his time to help us repair one of the houses. At a time when we could have gotten down about our luck, he helped us tremendously.”
Also very helpful was their insurance carrier, Insurance Services of Asheville, selecting the family as the recipient of an annual fund for what Dave described as “the most deserving situation.” Looking back, Dave believes the losses were minimal thanks to the outpouring of support, for which the family will always be grateful.
Martha Stewart said, “It’s the people that make the party,” and as Susan recalls, the most poignant ups and downs of the business concern people. Sometimes good people are hired when their personal lives are a magnet for trouble. Then, customers can keep the place rolling with laughter with questions like, “What’s that yellow thing growing on the side of the road?” One customer wanted to divide a plant. All employees knew that was against policy, yet all honored the customer’s request to run the same question past the manager. You’d have to be in the business to appreciate it, but Susan is always amused when people start asking about tomatoes in February.
Dave and his sister, Susan, were involved in the business from an early age. The teenage years may have been the roughest. Dave recalled how his parents knew just about every variety of local plant, and so when the family would go on vacation, his mom and dad would be trolling through the landscaping at restaurants. One time, they saw a large freshly cut stump from a tree they didn’t recognize. Sometimes, plants can be identified by their smell, so the parents sniffed the stump. That was too much for Susan.
Another memorable experience was the time Bill and Wilma got pulled over, because the cops thought the cut leaf Japanese maple in the back of the truck was a little too large for “just personal use.”
Dave and Susan went on to study horticulture in college. In addition, Susan worked on an accounting degree, while Dave pursued a degree in civil engineering with a minor in business administration. Susan worked awhile in Raleigh as a bookkeeper, and Dave spent some time working at a ski resort in Colorado. If he had to do it all over again, Dave says he would have spent more time away from the company, only because the perspectives he gained have helped with the family business.
Dave is one professional who believes his formal education was well worth it.“The technical aspects of what I do are definitely supported by my time at NC State, and . . . my time at ASU gave me confidence in navigating the arenas of accounting, marketing, and networking in the professional crowd.” Dave now relies heavily on the NC Cooperative Extension service for continuing education.
Another powerful source of information is the old pros. “I always enjoy going to trade shows where I can discuss ideas with other nurserymen. The folks who tend to stay in this type of business long-term are genuinely interested in increasing the knowledge base for others in the same profession.”
Susan says UNCA’s Family Business Forum has been a great help. One of the most important things she learned was that older sister/younger brother management teams tend to be most successful. Although it seems a little thing, the tidbit gave her a boost of confidence.
The parents would have been OK whether the kids stayed in the family business or not, but they both decided to return. Dave recalled a time in the 1990s when he wanted to leave and venture out on his own course. A long phone conversation with his sister changed his mind. As time passes, he sees more and more reasons for wanting to stay in the business; and the reasons have “evolved over time.”
Like most kids, Dave finds his parents’ once irrational decisions make more sense the older he gets. One lesson he’s learned is, “Relationships are more important than margins.” Now a father of three sons, Dave says he’ll do as his parents did, and encourage his kids to do what feels right for them. “I know that chances are, not all of them, and perhaps none of them will carry on the family business. I don’t fret over that.” What matters to Dave most is balancing business with family time. “As Jackie Kennedy said: If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” Susan’s daughter works at the nursery sometimes after school.
Now, Bill and Wilma are retired, but they’re still involved with the business. Susan is the president, and Dave is VP. The parents didn’t engage in a lot of succession planning, they just let the kids know they were now responsible for meeting payroll and paying the bills on-time.
While Susan is involved with the accounting and garden center operations, she gets to run the farm operations, growing perennials, small fruits, and annuals. Dave oversees the landscaping department. He works up quotes and manages a crew, but he says he derives the most satisfaction from building things. He always has. Besides planting a wide range of plant material in aesthetic arrangements, Reems Creek’s landscaping department builds retaining walls, water features, and irrigation and accent lighting systems.
Navigating the Recession & Recovery
By nature, anticipation and contingency planning are part of any agribusiness. Dave prefers to believe he is adapting rather than reacting. “There’s always that awareness that business may drop off,” says Dave. His strategy is to buffer the highs and lows by “not being knee-jerk,”and “always having a Plan B.”
Although he wishes it weren’t so, the business is such that he can’t justify employing many people year-round. The company does over half its business in the spring. In winter, it is typical to have fewer than ten people on-board, but in the growing season, the company will payroll twenty-five to thirty. The up-side is, the business knows how to cut and trim when lean times hit.
Susan says one of the hardest parts of the job is having to lay people off. She recalls a couple years ago when the economy went south. There was a drought, seriously impacting the industry, and her parents had just decided to go into semi-retirement. Dave and Susan thought seriously about whether it was time to close shop. In business, trying to please everybody all the time can be a short-sighted approach, sort of like refusing to prune a bush to save today’s blossoms. As it turned out, some short-term austerity saw the nursery through to a better day.
In addition to basic cycles, the company also has to respond fast to late freezes or to sudden increases in gas prices. Planning takes on more of a “forked destiny” appearance, to the extent Dave hesitated to commit to projections for the company even two months out. Consequently, Dave has not been caught off-guard by the current economic climate, with its volatile fuel prices, skyrocketing food prices, and all kinds of doomsday rumors– although gas prices can only go so high before even Dave will start sweating it.
Widespread reticence in the population’s spending habits might mean the business has to shift resources from elaborate landscaping to more routine maintenance such as weeding, mulching, pruning, and mowing. One advantage the nursery has is it doesn’t target-market any particular income group. Predictably, edible gardens are one hot-ticket item when people find themselves losing discretionary income. Dave said they have seen an uptick in interest, but not as much as might be expected.
Noticeable has been an increased demand for fruit trees and shrubs. The nursery carries the usual suspects, as well as a wide variety of small fruit trees with names from far-away places. It also retails grape vines and more exotic plants like kiwi vines and lemon trees. The nursery has for years had a tremendous following for its blueberry bushes, still grown by the family in Reems Creek. Blueberry bushes thrive on the local acidic soil. Two or three bushes are enough to provide a family with annual bumper crops. Wilma and Susan planted some bushes in 1979 that are still bearing fruit.
Demand for garden vegetables is always high in May. Even in a good economy, the retail garden center’s parking lot is too small for 2-3 weeks. Grocery stores just “can’t touch” the value and variety afforded from home gardening.
According to Dave, the main change in business attributable to the recession and recovery has been a dwindling in large landscaping contracts, and Kathrine Carter, the company’s landscape designer, concurs. People with larger projects have been dividing them into phases. Dave is fine with that, because it keeps him busy. Dave says one of the toughest parts of the business is scheduling, telling people they have to wait.
One demographic that may affect business in the not-too-distant future is age. Most of Dave’s customers are between 50 and 70 years old. Unfortunately, the interest is correlated to the generation and not the age group. People born after the Baby Boomers are more divorced from the earth’s cycles than their predecessors. Being able to order whatever one wants online, and eating food that “grows in boxes,” can make natural lifelines appear deceptively irrelevant. People in that age group are also downsizing to smaller homes.
“Now, he describes as a “real tug of war” balancing rising costs of doing business with customers’interest in maximizing property values with minimal expenditure.”
Compounding the fast-paced culture is the replacement of the old ambition, of working toward a house with a yard in the suburbs, with a sense of social responsibility, to live in a condo downtown and leaving landscaping to urban pocket parks. Reems Creek sells some pots for indoor gardens, but it isn’t exactly a bustling market. Dave says the popularization of anti-sprawl urban planning has only impacted business slightly. He still gets a lot of requests for commercial and residential design.
Reems Creek Nursery operates from two locations. The main operations are located at 70 Monticello Road in Weaverville, and the production greenhouses are in the Reems Creek valley. Dave keeps returning to the benefits of running a business in the community where he grew up. His family, in fact, has lived in the area for generations, and to their credit, that has worked to their advantage.
Being part of a community means Reems Creek Nursery has to look out for its neighbors. Good will is worth more than a hit-and-run profit. Employee relations can make or break a business. “It’s important,” said Dave, “to hire talented people and treat them well.” In spite of annual layoffs, many of the seasonal workers return year after year.
Controlling overhead is something the nursery must do to maintain good customer relations. That’s one reason the business didn’t go through a process to become a certified organic grower. Even so, the nursery still serves organic gardeners. The company’s web site boasts items for sale such as “composted cow and chicken manure, worm castings, fertilizers, and soil amendments – such as lime, rock phosphate and greensand.” The nursery also sells organic, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds. Like many businesses, Reems Creek tries to make “conscious” purchasing decisions without going overboard on hype.
Unlike big-box stores, Reems Creek buys most of its plants within the region. Most of the plants it retails are selected specifically because they will be hardy in Western North Carolina. Big box stores can afford to be more cavalier with a one-size-fits-all wholesaling approach. If Reems Creek decides to sell a plant that needs extra attention, care is taken to make sure the purchaser is aware of its special needs. Dave explained that harvesting a fig from a home-grown tree is something like the holy grail for adventurous gardeners in Western North Carolina.
This year, the nursery is making available a miniature gingko tree that only grows three to four feet high in ten years. Floral varieties include calla lilies and lily-of-the-valley. Reems Creek also sells a lot of exotic house plants, including birds of paradise. Carter said she expected new hydrangeas and coreopsis to be hot this year. As for anticipating market trends, Dave jests the best way is to keep up with “Southern Living”. When a certain plant is featured, the nursery will get lots of calls for that item.
Susan said the family just found out a couple years ago that plant breeders often test-market products by publicizing them before making them available for sale. Once they gauge the interest passed up the chain from consumers, to retail garden centers, to large growers, they decide how much to grow.
Dave says there isn’t much in the way of local competition in the Weaverville area. The big boxes sell generic varieties; Reems Creek carries a wider range of plants and products, and provides advice from expert gardeners. Experts help with everything from advice on what might make a pretty facelift, to what should thrive in a difficult corner of the yard, to tips on how to revive a problem plant.
Gardeners don’t even have to come to the store for tips on pruning or leads on new arrivals. They can subscribe to Reems Creek Nursery’s electronic newsletter or go to their facebook page. There, friends can post trophy pictures or find out what’s eating their crops. When in North Buncombe County, stop by and browse awhile. You might find it difficult to leave empty handed.