COVER STORY — Controlling Their Destiny
Walters Gardens has been providing the horticulture market with a plethora of
perennials for more than a half century. The company’s success and longevity
can be attributed to the fact that they are constantly looking for new products,
processes and partners to help distinguish themselves from the rest of pack.
In today’s challenging marketplace, it can be awfully hard to move ahead if you only sell the same products as the next company. Since the 1940s, Walters Gardens has always controlled its own destiny by providing growers, and ultimately gardeners, with a steadfast commitment to product quality, innovative new products and exemplary customer service.
Whether it is in the company’s own tissue culture lab, in the greenhouse, out in its perennial fields or in the company
offices, everyone at Walters Gardens continues to move the company forward by developing new varieties, working smarter and creating new alliances. In fact, in late 2010, Walter Gardens announced it had struck up a strategic partnership with Proven Winners to market its best perennial varieties under the Proven Winners brand name (see sidebar).
Big Grower recently sat down with the management team at Walters Gardens at their offices in Zeeland, Mich., to find out why the company has been so successful for the past 65 years and what they are doing to control their own destiny for the next 65 years.
Producing Perennials Proficiently
Dennis Walters, the father of the company’s current CEO John Walters, founded Walters Gardens in the 1940s. In those days, phlox was the primary crop for the company, grown on about five acres of land near Lake Michigan. In 2011, as the third generation of the Walters family becomes an integral part of the business, the company grows and sells more than 1,000 varieties of perennials, ornamental grasses, vines, and groundcovers from plugs and bare root stock. And Dennis is still a regular visitor to the offices and greenhouses.
In the early years, the perennial fields were plowed by hand to harvest bare root products. Over the years, as the company grew and expanded, greenhouses and automated equipment were purchased to meet the increasing demand for the company’s perennials. Walters Gardens built its own tissue lab in 1976 so they could produce
plants at a faster rate and to help clean up the stock of some of its most popular varieties.
Today, the company’s product line consists of bare root perennials and perennial plug liners. Walters Gardens has adopted many innovative and sustainable production techniques to produce more than 18 million plants annually for growers, independent garden centers and landscapers across the United States and Canada. And the production
area has expanded from the five acres of 1946 to more than 14 acres of covered production and 1,500 acres of available field production — about 60 percent is plug production and 40 percent is field production.
John Walters admits there are a lot of perennial varieties on the market today and that can sometimes be confusing for growers, retailers and gardeners. But he believes that by providing world-class genetics, along with the access to accurate information, everyone can avoid this confusion and have a very successful experience growing perennials.
Each year Walters Gardens adds approximately 100 new items to its “two-pound catalog.” It is not an easy task trying to figure out what new varieties to add. Walters says the key is finding the right balance of adding new items that customers are always asking for, while at the same time offering customers “bread and butter” products that the
company is known for.
Once these new products are introduced, Walters Gardens provides extensive marketing support for all of its products and is constantly developing new tools to help growers and retailers to market their products to today’s consumers.
Walters says it is a team effort when developing new varieties — from the expertise of the company’s breeding staff, the tissue culture lab, the plant health department and the growers in the greenhouses and in the fields to the sales and marketing efforts.
“The life cycle of a plant is getting shorter than what it used to be in the past,” says Niles Riese, vice president of sales, so that can make it a little tricky when selecting and deleting new varieties. Input is needed from all of the company’s departments when making these decisions.
Just because a plant is new doesn’t mean it is good. “The challenge nowadays with all plants on the marketplace is knowing what is good and finding the right products” that the company can produce at the right quantities, that growers can grow successfully and that gardeners will want to buy, Walters says.
Before a new variety can make it in the Walters Gardens’ catalog, it will go through extensive testing and trialing so they know how it will perform and there are no surprises when it hits the market. New plant introductions don’t just
happen overnight. Riese said a “typical” new introduction takes about four years to reach the market and oftentimes a lot longer.
“What really sets us apart from our competition is our breeding program. We realized some years ago that to be different and unique, we have to have our own genetics,” remarks Riese.
By developing their own genetics Walters says, “We think we are in a very strategic position because we know what will and won’t work,” what is good, and what to be on the lookout for when introducing new varieties.
Committed to Healthy Plants
A few years back another Michigan-based company, Ford Motor Co., used the slogan “Quality is Job #1.” That pretty much has always been and continues to be the credo at Walters Gardens.
“Our goal is perfection and along that journey we will achieve excellence,” says Troy Shumaker, the company’s chief financial officer. “We have to achieve and maintain organizational excellence at every phase of our company — whether it is digging, plug production or marketing and sales.”
“We want to do the job right all the time. We want to ship the highest quality product [to our customers] at the right time,” Walters remarks.
Plant health is a key tenet to the company’s dedication to quality. It says right in the company catalog: “Walters Gardens, Inc. has made a strong commitment to provide only the most healthy, vigorous stock to our customers.”
To do that, the company’s plant health experts virus index most of their plants. This means the variety “has been tested and deemed free of the viruses it was tested for up to the point of testing.”
The virus indexing program is very rigorous — there are 11 different virus tests for general perennials, plus five additional tests specifically for dianthus and another five tests performed on hosta.
Walters Gardens is vigilant in making sure its planting stock is clean and disease free. Field equipment is sanitized
between cultivars and sustainable disease and pest management practices are in place both out in the field and in the greenhouses.
Facing Today’s Challenges
Like everyone else in the industry, Walters Gardens has been affected by the stagnant economy of the past five years. But as Shumaker says, “You use the downturn as an opportunity to examine yourself and how you do things. It has allowed us to really get serious about working smarter and that will pay dividends in the future.”
“We have invested in personnel. We have invested in technology. And we have invested in our processes. Normally, those are things you would not do [in a tough market],” Walters adds.
“The orders aren’t as predictable as they were in the past. Forecasting has never been easy, but nowadays that can be even more challenging,” says Evan Elenbaas, company president. To meet that challenge Elenbaas says the company has adapted lean flow production processes and tries to plan crop production so they can deliver products to their customers “just-in-time.”
So what is going to happen to Walters Gardens in the next 65 years?
“New plant development, that is our future,” Elenbaas says. “It is the real focus of our company and we are putting a significant investment into it.”
Elenbaas says one of the main reasons the company has been a leader in the perennial industry is, in part, due to its investment in its own breeding and research and development. “We don’t want to be competing with the rest of the market for new varieties. We want to continue to develop our own exclusive genetics that we have control over.”
And the investment will continue. Elenbaas said the company would be adding another breeder to its ranks right after the first of the year.
“We all really get a kick out of seeing [new] genera being developed and improved upon and we realize the value that [developing our own genetics] brings to the marketplace,” Walters says.
“But at the end of the day, we want to be known as the Perennial People. The people that our customers come to for a whole gamut of plants — whether it is cutting edge, new varieties or the tried-and-true tested perennial!”
Walters Gardens at a Glance
Headquarters: Zeeland, Mich.
Key Management Personnel:
John Walters, CEO;
Evan Elenbaas, president;
Troy Shumaker, CFO;
Niles Riese, vice president of sales;
Susan Martin, director of marketing communications.
Total Production Area: 14 acres of covered production and 1,500 acres of available field production
Total Annual Production: Approximately 18 million plants
Websites: www.WaltersGardens.com and www.PerennialResource.com
A Proven Partner
Last October, Walters Gardens announced that it had signed an agreement with Proven Winners to supply exclusive perennial varieties to be marketed under the Proven Winners Perennials brand name.
Currently, Proven Winners is offering about 32 different perennial varieties from Walters Gardens.
The agreement “has given us a lot more exposure than we otherwise would have had. We are talking to a lot of people that we may not have talked to in the past,” says Niles Riese, vice president of sales.
This year Walters Gardens participated with Proven Winners at California Spring Trials as well as in the Proven Winners booth at OFA Short Course and the Independent Garden Center Show.
“We felt there was a lot of synergy between us and the [Proven Winners] partner companies. Our business goals are similar to theirs — deliver a high quality product with excellent service,” remarks Riese. “They looked at us because of our genetics program and what we bring to the marketplace with quality and service.“
Susan Martin, director of marketing communications, says Walters Gardens is already benefiting from the relationship by its increased awareness among consumers thanks to Proven Winners’ extensive marketing tools and advertising campaigns. “The pull-through marketing is incredible.”
The partnership between Proven Winners and Walters Gardens officially began in July for the 2011-12 selling season.
The Power of Information
Walters Gardens has two heavily trafficked websites that growers, retailers and consumers can turn to when they need information on perennials. These are in-depth and comprehensive resources for the most seasoned professionals to beginning gardeners. The company’s website (www.WaltersGardens.com) is set up specifically for green industry professionals. On the site growers and retailers can find things like the latest product availability, current specials, marketing tools, cultural sheets, a grower locator, technical information and a
“There is only so much information that we can put into our catalog,” says Susan Martin, director of marketing communications. The website contains many of the additional specific technical details that growers
and retailers may need.
In 2003, Walters Gardens created a consumer website (www. PerennialResource.com) to inspire and inform home gardeners from novices to master gardeners about perennial gardening. The site contains information on nearly 2,000 perennials and is searchable by botanical or common name and more than 40 plant characteristics such as water, sun and soil requirements, bloom time, deer resistance, garden style, seasonal interest and
“Our customers and consumers come to us because they know they can rely on our information. Wedo our very best to have the most accurate information possible [on the websites],” Martin says. She said the marketing department is always out in the company’s trial gardens measuring plants, takingnotes and photographing a plant’s progress “to make sure we have every aspect of a plant covered.”
The websites are hitting their target audiences too. Martin says that www.WaltersGardens.com has an average of more than 126,000 visitors per month, while www.PerennialResource.com averages nearly 106,000 visitors each
month.“ We [created the websites] to get consumers fired up to buy better genetics and better plants and
get them excited about gardening and gardening more,” John Walters explains.