Best of Both Worlds — Drew Guffey 2010

January 19, 2010 - 10:17

Drew Guffey, the 2010 GPN/Nexus Intern of the year, is striking a balance between his old-school training in a family business with the new techniques and knowledge he gained at Colorado State University. And that balance has made him a force to be reckoned with as he takes the next step in his career.

Drew Guffey, the 2010 GPN/Nexus Intern of the year, is striking a balance between his old-school training in a family business with the new techniques and knowledge he gained at Colorado State University. And that balance has made him a force to be reckoned with as he takes the next step in his career.

When Drew Guffey answers the phone one Wednesday afternoon in early December, he sounds stress-free and collected. He’s just returned from weight lifting class and is filling out the last of his graduation paperwork.

Many college seniors wouldn’t have the luxury of such relaxation, but as a “super senior” at Colorado State University, about to embark on a full-time job after completing a rigorous six-month internship with one of the foremost greenhouse businesses in Colorado — not to mention all the classes he needed to graduate, plus greenhouse work study hours since he started college — he’s earned a bit of downtime. A moment of calm before the storm starts to rage again. And in that moment, he was absorbing the fact that he’s the 2010 GPN/Nexus Intern of the Year.

“This is the most relaxed semester I’ve had as a college student,” Guffey says. “In the earlier years, I always carried at least 16 credits, and I took summer classes a few times. … I’d schedule my classes early then head over and work at the greenhouse.”

He called those times organized but hectic, but a busy college schedule was nothing new: He grew up working in the greenhouse, and it’s a lifestyle he grew to love.

Baby Steps

“He was here in a diaper,” recalls Steve Guffey, Drew’s father. “I brought him to work and showed him the business.”

Steve Guffey is the owner of Johnston Greenhouses, a 112-year-old family operation that grows plants for big box stores and independent garden centers alike in the Pittsburgh, Pa., metro area. All of his six children have been brought up working in some aspect of the business, from sticking cuttings to driving forklifts to preparing shipments. Guffey, the second oldest child and now a fifth-generation grower, has “always been a good worker,” according to his father.

Guffey remembers being around 5, sticking cuttings with his older sister; they were both whirlwinds at the job thanks to their tiny hands. “My parents had children just to put us to work,” Guffey jokes. In truth, Guffey loved his time in the greenhouse. His family lived on the property, so he could wander in — to work or just spend time with his father — whenever he wanted. But when he reached high school, “they started to put some weight on me,” he says.

During the busy season, he supervised crews of boys from his school, some of them friends, as they worked five hours a day, four days a week. He says that work was often difficult, not because it kept him busy or required a particular strength, but because it forced him to be the boss when his friends were used to hanging out with their pal. “When we’re at school, everything’s good and dandy,” Guffey says, “but when we’re in the greenhouse and they’re doing something wrong, I have to yell at them because this is my livelihood they’re messing with.”

He knew, almost from the start, that the greenhouse business would be in his future. His parents encouraged him to pursue his other goals throughout childhood and high school, but nothing really stuck. “As a child, I always told my parents I wanted to be an architect, but I can’t stand sitting behind a desk at all. I can’t do it,” he says. “Everyone has their childhood dream, but [growing] is what I’ve always done. So I stuck with it.”

Steve Guffey is sure his son’s work ethic and strong background of training will serve him well later on. “He knows how to do things old-school, which is better than the new way a lot of the time in this day and age,” he says. “He wants to get the job done as efficiently as possible.”

An Education

After high school graduation, Guffey began the next chapter in his life. He chose Colorado State University after scouring the flyers from booths at the OFA Short Course, which he attended many times with his father.

“I always wanted to leave Pennsylvania, and my parents always encouraged me to, just to experience the world somewhere else for a few years,” he says. His future career really began to take shape in Colorado, with Steve Newman as his academic adviser. In addition to his classes, he also participated in a work-study program under the supervision of research associate John Ray at the university’s Plant Environmental Research Center. The job involved tasks from sweeping to greenhouse maintenance, and Guffey was often put in charge when his bosses had to step out. He was seen as a natural leader, thanks to his experience growing up in the greenhouse. “When they hired me, they were really excited because they didn’t have to show me which end of the hose the water comes out of,” he says.

He did the work-study program for four and a half years — the entire time he was enrolled in classes — and was always reliable and a hard worker, according to Newman. “Drew is always willing to step up and help where help is needed,” he wrote in Guffey’s recommendation letter for the GPN/Nexus scholarship. “This includes Sunday evenings when an unexpected task arises.”

Guffey’s higher-level education helped him augment his “old-school” experience under his father’s supervision at Johnston Greenhouses with the latest technological and practical knowledge a college education can offer. With a healthy balance of the two under his belt, Newman encouraged Guffey to apply for the American Floral Endowment’s Vic and Margaret Ball Internship Program “to attract students to floriculture and make meaningful work experience in production part of a complete education,” according to the AFE’s website. When he was chosen for the program, he decided to take a six-month internship with Tagawa Greenhouse Enterprises in Brighton, Colo. — which meant taking a semester-long hiatus from his coursework. Guffey says he chose Tagawa in part because it reminded him of his family’s business, Johnston Greenhouses: Tagawa grows plugs and finished products, and it’s also a family-owned operation.

“Drew respected all that he learned from his parents but wanted to supplement that knowledge in a related business segment,” says Cheryl Longtin, chairwoman and CEO of Nexus Corp. “He did not choose a company that was a duplicate of his parent’s business… [He] sought out an internship that would complement his background and help him grow.”

Hands-On Experience

Guffey became a full-time Tagawa employee on Jan. 7, 2009, and remained there through the spring semester. He was the company’s one long-term intern for the year.

“He was very impressive right from the beginning,” says Bill Kluth, business manager at Tagawa Greenhouse Enterprises, who first interviewed Guffey and offered him the internship. “He didn’t come in with any preconceived notions, and he had such a keen willingness to work and learn.”

Six months might seem like quite a while to spend in a greenhouse internship, but not a moment of Guffey’s time was wasted or spent doing “busy work.” He learned about each of Tagawa’s three main product lines — grower ready, retail ready and loblolly pines — in addition to other aspects of the business. Grower ready encompasses plug trays grown for Ball Horticultural; retail ready is plants grown for Home Depot stores throughout Colorado; and loblolly pine trees are grown for Canada-based CellFor.

“It was clear that from the minute he walked in the door [at Tagawa], Drew was not in awe of his own capabilities or ‘above’ doing the work he was given,” Longtin says, after reading Guffey’s application essay. “His strong work ethic really came through in his description of the internship experience.”

His first day was spent learning about the company and filling out paperwork, but the next day, Guffey “was literally thrown into the dirt,” according to his essay. He began his hands-on work in the soil department, the beginning stage of the grower-ready product line. He then moved through the seeding department, where he learned the complex task of filling plug trays with soil and sowing them with seed. Next was the growing department, where he had full responsibility of an entire range. “This department was my particular favorite,” Guffey wrote in his essay, “because it gave me responsibility for a crop and allowed me to show off some of my skills.” The last of his time in the grower ready department was spent in the inventory and shipping departments, where he sometimes clocked in 18-hour days learning firsthand about the pressures of getting plants to the customer.

He followed suit in the retail ready department, where the steps mirrored the grower ready program but with a different recipient. Following that, he spent a week in the merchandising department, where he learned extensively about the merchandising displays Tagawa creates for its Home Depot stores, and saw how the pay by scan system works.

Guffey worked for a few days in the CellFor program then switched gears and spent a week at Tagawa Gardens, which is owned by the same company and also is the No. 1 retail garden center in Colorado. Rounding out the internship was a short stint in human resources and accounting back at the growing operation, which offered Guffey a glimpse into the business side of things. Especially in the areas where he was unfamiliar with the work being done, he cherished every opportunity to learn. “I believe it is very beneficial to understand all aspects of the business,” he says. There’s always room for change, and he looks for every chance to improve quality or be more efficient while cutting costs at the same time.

Guffey received a job offer upon completion of his internship, which Kluth says is no small feat. “We don’t take on an intern to give them a six-month job interview; we take on the interns to provide a benefit to the industry,” says Kluth. “We’re excited for the interns we send out into the world and look forward to them having a successful career wherever they land, but Drew was a clear exception in terms of his quality of work. We’re tickled to have him coming onto our staff.”

Full Speed Ahead

Guffey graduated from Colorado State in December and was set to begin his second round of employment with Tagawa Greenhouse Enterprises — permanently this time, as a grower — on the first Monday in January.

Despite his skill set and breadth of experience thus far in his life, Guffey considers himself lucky to have found a line of work he enjoys so much. “I find this work very rewarding…even though nobody really knows what’s behind it,” Guffey says. “You see people buying these flowers, and they’re excited about putting them in their yard, and you’re like, ‘I grew these for you!’ It’s rewarding to see that you put a smile on somebody’s face.”

For now, he’s thrilled to be staying on with Tagawa and remaining in the sunny state where he attended college. But the future is uncertain — full of possibilities. His father hopes he’ll return to Pittsburgh someday to take over Johnston’s Greenhouse, but Steve Guffey is proud of his son’s accomplishments regardless of his choices in the future. “He’s going to be great, whether he comes back to work for me or stays in Colorado.”

Beyond his new employment, Guffey says he’s looking forward to being an active member of the floriculture industry. Kluth, Tagawa’s internship coordinator, is involved in many industry organizations, and Guffey has expressed interest in following suit, especially with those that provide financial aid to horticulture students or other charitable contributions.

“I was very fortunate in my college career to receive scholarships, and in my future, I hope to give back to those organizations,” Guffey says.

The lifetime of experience he’s already had will serve Guffey well as he continues in his fledgling career, and he says he hopes to be a role model for students after him who want to contribute to the industry as he has.

A solid background and a promising future: the best of both worlds.

SIDEBAR

Behind the Scholarship

Sponsoring this annual competition is a big commitment, but it’s one that Nexus Corp. stands firmly behind, according to Chairwoman and CEO Cheryl Longtin:

“The corporate culture of our company is one of commitment to the greater good. We believe that we have to be stewards of the business and market we serve. To be successful in the future, we recognize that the next generation must be trained to lead. This internship commitment serves all of us in the industry by seeding our future with bright talent,” Longtin says.

“An education is extremely important, but having a place to put that knowledge to work is even more important. We must have places where our brightest and best can apply that knowledge.

“This year at Nexus, we had two interns who came to hone their business skills and left us better off than we were before they came,” she continues. “Both young men spent the summer gleaning new ideas from mentors who have proven their skills in their areas of responsibility…[and they] both made positive contributions to Nexus in the short duration of their internships. Would we do it again? Absolutely!

“We urge companies who have not had an intern in the past to consider what they might gain by having a student with them for a summer or a semester.”

For more information on the GPN/Nexus Intern of the Year scholarship program, contact Editorial Director Tim Hodson at thodson@sgcmail.com.

About The Author

Paige Worthy is managing editor of GPN magazine. She can be reached at (847) 391-1050 or pworthy@sgcmail.com.

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