10 Most Innovative

November 13, 2008 - 12:56

The game has evolved. Growers today grapple with new challenges, demands and choices — and playing by yesterday’s rules no longer seems to cut it. In our first ever “Big 10 Innovators” feature, the GPN/Big Grower team decided to highlight those growers who exemplify a willingness to not just embrace change, but to be the catalysts behind it. From the tangible (savvy merchandising programs, cutting-edge technology and unconventional marketing) to the more abstract (dynamic company culture and fearless management), these 10 major players are redefining innovation in their own unique way.

In today’s competitive market, most companies will readily agree that the ability to “think outside the box” is key. These 10 big growers took it a step further and took action. The business practices they’ve implemented required money, time and commitment. Ultimately, they succeeded in setting themselves apart from the pack. In small and major ways, this stand-out group responded to obstacles with creativity — along the way, transforming challenges into opportunities. We share their stories in the hopes that it will inspire you to do the same.

Bell Nursery
Burtonsville, Md.
Paul Chisholm
Head of merchandising services

How does your company define innovation?

Innovation doesn’t have to always mean first or fastest. True innovation, as we see it, does need to add value in some meaningful way, for us or for the end consumer.

I think we encourage outside-the-box thinking at every level, which we believe ultimately leads to real innovation. Our best efforts have tended to come from internal suggestions. From a product standpoint, we have been very aggressive related to the testing and introduction of new products. Prior to getting product to retail, we make sure to run our own landscape tests in various conditions. Where we’ve been part of introductions that have flopped, it’s because we didn’t adhere to our own internal test requirements.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

Clearly, our merchandising efforts have provided strong sales growth and helped enhance return on investment over time. Virtually everything we do in this arena has evolved through the field. Innovative companies tend to influence others over time. Our initial exposure to merchandising came through a visit to California Home Depots serviced by Color Spot a dozen years ago. Immediately following that, we attended a Grower Expo seminar where Peggy Van De Wetering from Ivy Acres shared their early experience with merchandising. Innovators often share what works, and innovators often adapt and reshape things they see in order to move to the next level.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

Time is money. We have to consistently evaluate the ROI and make sure that the required results continue. It’s easy to get and stay fat; the challenge is to keep service levels and expectations appropriate to sales.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Keep an open mind to suggestions and encourage input from your employees and customers.

Colorama Nursery
Azusa, Carpinteria, Thermal, Calif.
Richard Wilson
President, CEO

How does your company define innovation?

It’s something over and above the norm, whether in accounting, planting or any of the many other departments. Take the different weather patterns our three different facilities have. (Colorama currently operates facilities in Azusa, Carpinteria and Thermal, Calif., each market with its own distinct climate.) We are one of the few that use the different climate zones to produce our products. We’re able to make everything work for us. When I did decide to expand, it was because of the different climate conditions the locations offered.

Additionally, we were trucking products down there before. Given today’s transportation woes, the fact of the matter is, I’m only 10 minutes away from my first store. It’s locally grown, and that’s a big push for us. This gives us a big advantage over competitors.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

The rainwater/irrigation water capturing and recycling [systems] have contributed the most to our success. We started back in ’94 when we graded off a large piece of property here in Azusa. I knew that in the next coming years — didn’t know exactly when — that the government was going to regulate water runoff. At that point, our industry was still considered nice guys, green guys... I knew that was going to change.

I also made the decision to install flood benches. We recapture rainwater and irrigation run off and put it into our ponds. We’re not buying a lot of water anymore. We went way beyond my initial goal. Water was a cheap utility — still is in some ways — but now its availability has become the big issue on the West Coast. The side benefit of flood benches, besides labor savings, is that we’re able to get an additional spiff of quality out of our plant material and shorten production cycles.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

You must have full management participation behind the idea, or the rank-and-file will not be behind it, which means your ability to achieve success is greatly diminished. Change is tough for some people, but change is a good thing. We’re trying to get that attitude instilled. Also, you need to budget 15 percent for cost over runs! Even after you put everything down on paper, you always end up spending more money. Things change during the process — it hurts. You can be working along, in midstride, only for some new technology to come along. We need the best and most current technology — and it changes so fast. Our industry is just now starting to get tuned up in this respect.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Look, listen, deliberate. If you are sold on a particular idea, you’ve put the “pencil to the paper” and your key personnel are poised to support it — institute it!

Sometimes, [growers] are inside the forest and they can’t see the trees. Step off to the side of the trench you’re in, and take a look back in from the outside. There are areas [to improve].

Costa Nursery
Miami, Fla.
Jose Smith
President and CEO

How does your company define innovation?

There’s a culture here of persistent change. It’s neverending; assumptions get challenged all the time. Everybody understands understand that we’re going to constantly look to do things better all the time. It’s just sort of what’s expected here every day: trial new products, travel to different parts of the world, work on different partnerships, leverage the things we do well.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed most to your success?

Our marketing side. We’ve taken an approach in marketing over the last couple of years that’s very different from what we used to do. Before, marketing work was always provided by industry companies. We decided a couple of years ago to go outside the industry, go to different categories, different consumer products that were doing a much better job marketing to the end consumer than we were. We’ve made a lot of strides — a lot of changes. Finally, we have a team that is constantly coming up with ideas: For example, our “O2 For You” initiative. It’s an industry-wide campaign pushing benefits of indoor plants. [We’re] working hard on converting products from “nice-to-have” items to “need-to-have” — that’s the key.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

That we’re probably not going to get it right the first time. It takes a long-term commitment to see results. The things that are worthwhile just take a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of energy. I always want to see us [continually] getting better.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Getting back to the attitude we have of change: It’s something that’s got to be supported from the top. If it’s supported from the top, the ideas will flow from all parts of the company. Continue to ask the question and have the attitude of, “Why not?” For example, we opened up an office in China. Always had agents in China, always visited the East. Now we have an office there. We have an attitude around the whole company of, “Why not do it this way?” We’ve got the right people here. The sky is the limit.

Hampshire Farms
Hampshire, Ill.
Tammy Burdzinski
VP, sales and marketing

How does your company define innovation?

We define innovation by just looking for new business opportunities and by looking for new reasons to give a customer to buy. I guess added to that would just be end production efficiencies.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

I would say there are a few key things. We do 80 percent biologicals and are in full integrated pest management system. We’ve started just this year a total recycling program on plastics and cardboards. As a result, we use about 53 fewer Dumpsters. We did a complete system change to maximize the density on our racks — just to increase our efficiency on shipping and save fuel.”

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of these innovations?

We’ve learned that we’ve got to keep learning new things and not close the door to new opportunities. I think sometimes we just go, “Let’s do it the way we did last year.” But I think that one important thing, like on the recycling: You don’t know until you try. And when you try, you go, “Wow…we’re making a difference.” We’re all kind of pushing each other, like “what else could we do?” And I think that’s key in the organization.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Do not be afraid to try new things. From what I’m seeing in the industry, those are the successful companies.

Hermann Engelmann
Apopka, Fla.
Wolfgang Engelmann
President and COO

How does your company define innovation?

Our company is almost 40 years old, and it is quite successful. We never stop thinking about innovation. We always look to find out what is the best for the consumer first among all elements of the supply chain. With the consumers being our primary target, we had to find a way to deliver a product that works best for them: the product must be interesting, unique, and it must deliver a great value for its price... And if you have to define innovation in just a few words, I would define it in three different areas: product quality, packaging and distribution.

The product itself: We grow more than 400 different varieties of exotic plants. It is difficult to create and maintain such high-quality standards, but only through them can the Exotic Angel Brand carry its core promise to the consumer and the retailer.

In the packaging area, we started to introduce innovative pottery and deco options when we realized consumers’ need for high-quality home décor–style plants, not just live goods.

[For distribution,] there are so many stores to supply out there, and getting small, fresh orders to each store is the biggest challenge. We had to spend a significant amount of time and resources to create innovative ideas in trucking, distribution and boxing.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

The longest-lasting of all innovations is the nature of our horticultural product: the varieties, quality of the plants, colors, textures…the unusual nature of our product. It doesn’t matter how we upgrade it, how we pack it or in what kinds of boxes we ship it — if the actual plant is not beautiful and everlasting, forget about it being a success.”

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

Never sit down and relax. Always look for the next way to please the consumer, and try to adjust and adapt to the changing marketplace. Things at the marketplace change so fast: sometimes within six months, you have to be already reinventing yourself a couple of different ways. Unfortunately, when you grow plants with such long crop times, it is hard to make fast changes. But if you relax for a second, the whole marketplace becomes elusive, and you may be totally off the mark. So never say, “I’m done for now.”

And always try to have your fingers on the pulse of the consumer. Because if you find what’s working for the consumer, it’s going to be easy to deliver profit and success to the retailer.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Never let quality slip. Companies will try to compete on price or market share and sacrifice product quality. And the whole industry suffers because of this. If we all try to maintain quality principles, we might have an industry like the industry in Europe: High-quality plants with beautiful packaging and high-end designs. The average consumer in Europe spends four times more than his American counterpart.

Kerry’s
Homestead, Fla.
Kerry Herndon
President

How does your company define innovation?

Innovation is about doing something different. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, then you do something else. Once you find something that works, you can do a lot of it. The trick is to shed the stuff that does not work — fast. But just because it did not work right now doesn’t mean it will never work. Sometimes you can get ahead of the market. The problem with being ahead of the market is there is no market. So you pull the stuff out again in five years, and suddenly it’s a timely innovation. This has happened to me many times.

There are more opportunities to innovate than there have ever been. We have a large, rich population that wants constantly changing products. There are more market segments than I can count. Creative thinking is the key to unlocking opportunity. I hope that does not sound preachy, but I do believe it.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

I think creating the first mass-market orchid production was a big innovation in the market. We have certainly sold a lot of orchids over the years. That was some time ago. I think our new approach of being in the home fashion business will have a similar impact in the long run.

We just got Veriflora certification. I am not sure this is innovation, but sustainability is the biggest issue of our time, and growers who ignore it are going to find themselves in a very narrow space with few options to innovate anything. We are the original green industry and should let the world know. But we have to get our own house in order before we make too many claims.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

If you find something that makes money you are going to have far more competitors far faster than you can imagine. So then you have to continue to innovate to remain competitive. You also have to be very efficient and hopefully the low-cost producer. That’s how the free market works.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Just do stuff. You don’t have to bet the farm every time you do something. If it works, do it more. It’s not complicated at all. Find ideas from unexpected places — peripheral vision. Look around, and see if you can get an idea from a nursery in Holland or Japan or New Jersey. Travel and learn; if you don’t go, you won’t know what you did not learn. No one has time to travel. No one should think of not traveling if they want to remain competitive over the years. An expression I heard from a venture capital guy years ago got under my skin because it was true, and he was talking about me. He said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” He was right, and I never wanted to be in a position where a sack of money could say that to me and be right. Never stop learning. Learn aggressively.

Masterpiece Flower Company
Byron Center, Mich.
Tim Stiles
President

How does your company define innovation?

We would define innovation as changing the way we do things to bring about improvement.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed most to your success?

Our commitment to logistics. About 10 years ago we implemented a new cart system that improved shipping quantity per truck and was more user friendly. At about this same time, our customers were asking us to leave carts at stores, which required liftgates on trailers. Our trucking company was not willing to invest in such specialized equipment, so we began to purchase our own liftgates and trailers, which they hauled with their tractors and drivers. About six years ago, the economy was rolling along at a good pace; we were finding it difficult to find the quantity of trucks we needed and at the same time the cost of transportation was rising. We met with the owner of the trucking company and discussed the direction of our companies. Five years ago, we started [our own trucking] company named Peak Transportation Solutions, Inc.

Today, Peak, housed at Masterpiece, provides inbound and outbound trucking for our companies: Masterpiece Flower Company, Henry Mast Greenhouses, Inc. and Whitewater Greenhouse LLC. Having the transportation staff right in our building has really improved communication and service to our customers. Being a full-time trucking company has enabled us to invest in good equipment for our seasonal peaks while having off-peak season business to help amortize the costs.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

Keep an eye and ear open to unexpected opportunities and ideas. Opportunities may come from your customers, suppliers, employees — even your competitors. We have tried to innovate by being willing to take on new responsibilities.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Hire good people with talent in the field where you need help. Appreciate people’s unique style and skills. Along with that, you need to support one another’s ideas and encourage your partners and employees to seek new opportunities.

As partners, we each oversee different areas of our business, but we work together developing and evaluating ideas and projects. Ten years ago, we didn’t envision owning our own fleet and providing for-hire transportation services. Being open to helping solve your customers’ challenges can create new opportunities.

Metrolina Greenhouses
Huntersville, N.C.
Abe VanWingerden
President

How does your company define innovation?

Innovation is the process of looking at repetitive tasks and finding a systemic, technological or mechanical improvement or solution that takes the task away or reduces/eliminates [its] costs, the labor involved in it or sheer pain of doing the job.

Innovation comes in many forms and fashions: In the greenhouse, in the office, in the stores, in the shipping area or even as simple as in the breakroom. Don’t limit innovation in our industry to the production side of the business, and don’t limit innovation to just cost-cutting. Sometimes innovation can be more costly, but if it produces a higher-quality product that can demand better pricing, then the investment is well worth it.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed most to your success?

It is a constant process of ideas. We believe in the “one percent better every day” method rather than the big ideas method. We have had a ton of innovations over the years (automatic transplanters, automatic spacers, automatic watering systems, automatic shipping systems), but the one biggest contributor to our success is the constant flow of new ideas from our team. We really believe innovation breeds more innovation as your mindset is always on making it “one percent better every day.”

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

Ideas cannot be forced out of people. The key is to have an environment that encourages new ideas and to always be willing to try a new idea. By allowing that type of environment, new ideas are everyday occurrences and an accepted practice of work rather than something you do once a year at a planning meeting.

What advice can you offer to other growers?

Always be looking for a better and more innovative way to do things. We have gone through seven to 10 different transplanters over the years rather than just sticking with the one we started with. Innovation is a constant process, not a project. The other key is to focus on eliminating the cost of the task or process rather than just moving the cost to another area or department. This is the key to innovation from a production standpoint.

Riverview Flower Farm
Riverview, Fla.
Rick Brown
Co-owner

How does your company define innovation?

Innovation in our world involves production practices, procedures and products that evolve through the process of parallel thinking. Our team works in a positive environment that encourages looking for better ways to produce the best-quality product for the consumer. Rarely do you invent something new, but often you improve processes and products that we all profit from. The possibilities are endless, and the results are rewarding in many ways.

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

Clearly, taking control of replenishment and merchandising at the retail level is why we have remained successful. With highly perishable crops, this allowed us to maximize sales, production, handling and shipping while minimizing loss. Developing and implementing software and using standard wireless hardware with internet-based data storage and Access has paid off well and in many ways. Our team enjoys working in an environment that gives everyone all the knowledge about production, availability, sales, efficiency, status of our retail locations and the real-time reporting that shows the progress of each merchandiser and driver. The merchandisers feel very comfortable and have a better sense of being on the team while working remotely at stores and recording location, data and images in real-time with the order control team.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while implementing that particular innovation?

I know we have always had lofty ideas and plans, and they require time, effort and persistence. Continuing to re-evaluate procedures and plans has saved us lots of money, just as making wrong decisions has cost us dearly at times. I think the most valuable thing we do is to stay focused on all parts of our business as a team and change or stay the course using the knowledge, resources and instinct we have. I think the most valuable thing we learned is that we could have lost the business, profitability and the incentive for us and our employees to continue had we not taken this aggressive path of controlling replenishment and merchandising while incorporating management tools for production and personnel accountability.

What advice can you offer other growers?

Associate yourself with high-caliber, positive, can-do people who feel like they are welcome, needed, respected and rewarded. Get the right people comfortably achieving their goals, working with efficient tools and you will have a more productive workforce. Maintain an environment where ideas can be presented, trialed and implemented. Stimulate your associates to set and achieve goals that satisfy themselves and the whole farm.

Stacy’s Greenhouses
York, S.C.
Tim Brindley
VP, operations and sales

How does your company define innovation?

Innovation is staying ahead of the curve, taking advantage of new things before they become commodities. How do you capitalize now?

Packaging, to me, is innovation. Can you take the same plant from yesterday and make it a better consumer item tomorrow with packaging? How do we grow current and how do we take new items and capitalize on that?

Of all the innovative practices you have implemented, which one has contributed the most to your success?

About five years ago, we came up with what we called a 901 pansy, 9-pack. It’s basically half of an 1801 without an insert. It’s just one piece of plastic. Prior to that, we were growing 606 pansies in large quantities, a million-plus flats. The margins kept shrinking year after year. And so we were trying to find a way to come up with how we could change the pansy market, the conception of the pansy market and what’s a better value. We never did 1801s because we felt the pricing was too high for the consumer and we didn’t feel that fit with mass production.

I was in the conference room with 1801s, and I literally cut the thing in half with a pair of scissors and sat it on the table. I brought some people into the room and said, “What do you all think?” We had other stuff sitting there. And that’s the one everyone picked. It’s fewer plants. I don’t have to buy 36 or 18. And it’s a big plant in itself. That next season we changed 100 percent of our production. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. And so, long-term, that’s got to be the biggest innovation. I think going forward, it’s going to be more large packaging. Consumer ready. Pick it up and go. That’s where we’re heading now.

What was the most valuable lesson you have learned in the implementation of this particular innovation?

I think the most valuable lesson is that you can change old habits. For so long, it was 606 or 1801. And everybody kept saying, “We always have to have those. That has to be the No. 1 item, the one that brings the people in.” We’ve realized that if you’ve got something good that’s an actual value to the customer, they don’t mind switching from something that they’re used to. Consumers are a lot smarter than we think, and they understand the value.

What advice can you offer other growers?

This will sound a little clichéd, but you’d better be listening to women. Because my straight lines cannot sell products. Men like straight lines and squared-off corners. But that’s not what’s selling. We’re finding that out from the different packaging now. We’ve come up with a complete line of bigger packaged high-visual pot colors, like hot pink and purple. And when I look at them, I say, “There’s no way.” But we can’t keep them on the shelves. And it’s women buying the stuff. That’s the one biggest thing: Innovation is out there. The consumer is telling us what it needs to be — if we just listen. And the consumers are women.

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