COVER STORY — An Excellent Standard
A continuous commitment to quality is the foundation of Lucas Greenhouses in Monroeville, N.J.
Quality is important for all growers but for George Lucas and Lucas Greenhouses quality is a way of life. It always has been and always will be.
It is that drive for the highest possible quality in plants and customer service that has helped Lucas Greenhouses to become one of the industry’s most respected growers. “Our business philosophy is ‘Excellence is our standard!’” says the owner of Lucas Greenhouses in Monroeville, N.J. “Give [customers] consistent quality and they will keep coming back for more,” Lucas declares.
Quality is in the plants, it’s in the greenhouses, it’s in the people, it is even a part of the company’s catalog “Growing the Very Best.”
From One Acre to a Million Square Feet ... and More
George and Louise Lucas started up Lucas Greenhouses in 1979 when they were 21 years old. In the beginning, Lucas says it was a real family affair as their fathers as well as several other siblings all chipped in to get the business off of the ground.
As with most new businesses, getting financing was a challenge; in fact, during the company’s first year, George continued working full-time at another greenhouse that he had been employed at since he was 14, so he and Louise had a guaranteed income while Louise ran the new business. But with the family’s hard work, savings from Louise’s farming days on her parents’ farm and a farmer’s home loan, Lucas Greenhouses was born and has been growing ever since.
Lucas had very modest aspirations in the beginning. The company started with two gutter-connected poly houses with 9,000 square feet of growing space. Lucas recalls thinking back then, “Man, if I can just have one acre [of greenhouses], I’ll be doing really well!”
After the first year, the business was doing well enough that George was able to quit his day job working at the other green- house and devote all his time and efforts to his own business. And by 1985, they had doubled that one-acre dream with two acres of growing space.
Well today, that 9,000 square feet has grown to 1.05 million square feet of covered growing space along with 30 acres of outdoor production — and they are adding another 50,000 square feet of greenhouses this year.
In the early years Lucas was growing foliage plants year-round that were sold through the local florist distributor in New Jersey “and then we ‘huckstered’ going from flower shop to flower shop — back when there were flower shops everywhere.”
The Lucases even organized in-home plant parties where women would get together at a host’s home to see the different types of plants that were available, similar to the home cooking or wine parties that are popular with consumers today.
“We did whatever it took or whatever we had to in order to make it work.”
A Well-Balanced Offering
All of that hard work has paid off. Fast-forward 34 years and today Lucas Greenhouses is one of the largest growers on the East Coast supplying rooted cuttings, pre-finished and finished plant material.
About 60 percent of Lucas’ total business is finished plants sold mostly in the Northeast and the other 40 percent is young plants, liners and pre-finished material sold to growers nationwide.
When it comes to growing finished product, Lucas grows more than 200,000 hanging baskets, 100,000 bedding flats, 2.5 million 4.5-inch pots as well as many other different combinations and sizes. When it comes to flowering annuals alone, Lucas offers more than 200 different varieties in five different sizes.
Add to those numbers the millions of rooted cuttings that Lucas produces and sells and you can see there is a lot going on in the Lucas greenhouses.
The Monroeville facilities are also a rooting station for Syngenta Flowers (see sidebar) and an off-site growing facility for New Hampshire-based Pleasant View Gardens.
Quality People Producing Quality Plants
Lucas Greenhouses employs approximately 110 year-round workers but during peak season that number increases to about 175.
Lucas says he owes a lot of his company’s success to the people that have worked for the business over the years. “I have GREAT people that are all very good at handling their [specific] areas of the business.”
“I have been very fortunate [throughout the company’s existence], sometimes by accident, to get the right people who have helped make the business what it is,” Lucas declares. “We are very fortunate with the team we have.”
Many of Lucas’ employees have 10, 15 or 20+ years with the company. He feels that kind of longevity and loyalty has paid many, many dividends over the years.
Two of the individuals that Lucas says have really helped advance the company are brothers Joe and Tim Moore.
Joe Moore is the head grower and general manager “who wears a lot of hats” at Lucas Greenhouses. He has been with the company for more than 30 years (he started when he was 11). Along with his skilled team of growers, Lucas credits Moore with really driving the overall quality in the greenhouses.
And Joe Moore’s brother, Tim, is in charge of sales/marketing/ inventory control. He has been working at Lucas Greenhouses for about a decade now. Lucas says Tim is very thorough and resourceful in dealing with and nurturing existing as well as potential customers. Tim was also a member of GPN’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2012.
Lucas says both of the Moore brothers are very detail-oriented and are constantly looking at the way their departments operate, pushing the envelope and implementing systems in their respec- tive areas of the company that focus on and help advance the company’s quality-first philosophy.
Other key members at Lucas Greenhouses include George’s co-owner and wife of nearly 37 years, Louise; sister-in-law Becky Stimpson handles accounts receivable; Lori Fletcher is in customer service (like Joe Moore, she also has been with the company for nearly 30 years); Tim Priore is the company’s shipping coordinator; Jay Szymanski is the trial manager; Scott Burger handles greenhouse systems; and Dave Miller is in charge of construction projects.
All three Lucas children — Lacey, Corey and Nate — also work for the company in various roles. Nate has one more semester of college and then he will enter the business full-time and eventu- ally be responsible for the next generation of Lucas Greenhouses.
Lucas always likes to be where the action is working side by side with his team. He likes to roll his sleeves up and take care of business whether it is out in the greenhouse or in his office. “I like to be involved in everything so I can sometimes be a micro- manager,” Lucas states.
But he also knows there are times he needs to get out of the way and let people do their jobs. And he believes in taking care of the people that help take care of his business and giving credit where credit is due. “If you take care of people, I think they will take care of you.”
I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the dedication and hard work of all of our employess — The Team, and, more importantly, God’s blessing on our business.”
Keep on Truckin’
Lucas thinks his company trucks are like valuable employees too — kind of like silent salespeople out on the road. He says people always comment and compliment him on how good his trucks look and how clean they always are.
Owning his own trucks also helps control the quality of the products. “Ninety-two percent of all of our production goes out on a company truck. Compared to industry standards, that is pretty high,” Lucas remarks.
But he knows it pays off for him and his customers. “I have more problems with the 8 percent that I ship using other carriers” than with the 92 percent that goes out on his own trucks.
To get his products to his customers, Lucas has a “fleet” of 18 straight trucks and seven trailers — and this year to meet customer demands he rented 15 more straight trucks. “When we have to get there, we will be there when we said we will be there.”
Lucas says everyday appearance, both in the greenhouse and out on the street, “is just part of our overall philosophy of ‘Be the best you can be!’”
He says he will get calls from people hundreds of miles away from his New Jersey headquarters that have seen his company trucks driving down the road and want to know more about the company or come to Monro- eville to visit the greenhouses “to see what we are all about.”
He knows potential customers may judge his product quality on the appearance of his trucks while they are on the road. “So our drivers make sure they wash them when they are out on two- or three-day trips so they always look good” and represent the company properly.
All customers Are Ideal
Lucas Greenhouses has two different types of ideal customers. For his pre-finished or liner customers, that customer is usually a small- to mid-sized grower particularly in the Northeast. “If those types of growers really analyze their programs and check the [potential] costs of their inputs, they’ll find that their costs are a lot higher than ours.”
Because Lucas deals in much larger quantities and can grow plants much more efficiently, he can help keep their costs down while providing them with superior and cost-effective products at the exact time that they need them.
“We do all of the work behind the scenes, take care of the little details and try to make it as easy as possible for them.”
When it comes to his finished business, Lucas says, “My ideal customers are the higher end, progressive independent garden centers. Someone who is looking for new ways to market products and needs consistent quality.” He says his ideal customer “is not someone just looking for the cheapest price that is out there. They are the [IGCs] that know consistency and quality mean something to them” as well as their customers.
No matter who is doing the buying, Lucas believes clear lines of commu- nication are imperative. “I will talk to anybody, anytime.” It doesn’t matter if they are a large customer or a small one, “if they need to talk to me, I will pick up the phone and talk to them. And I think they appreciate that too.” Lucas says ensuring that there is no communication breakdowns just makes good sense — for everyone. “Communication, consistency and quick response and doing what you say you are going to do are very
important for them and us.”
Success Doesn’t happen By Accident
Lucas says persistence, people and a lot of hard work are just a few of the key ingredients to his company’s success — and he does not take anything for granted either. “Nothing happens by accident, but we are very fortu- nate” to be as successful as the company has been.
“I have been doing this for 43 years. I started when I was 14 and I still get up every morning excited about the challenges,” Lucas states.
He offers the following advice to other growers:
1. Always have a plan. It may change as time goes on, but a good plan can serve a reference point and always provide direction.
2. Never give up. Even when things get tough, you have to dig in and be persistent.
3. Don’t get complacent. When business is good and things seem to be operating smoothly, always look for ways to improve what you are doing.
4. And most importantly, surround yourself with the best team possible. More than anything else that is probably what will deter mine whether you succeed or fail.
Not only do Lucas Greenhouses’ fa- cilities in Monroeville, N.J., produce finished plants as well as young plants, liners and pre-finished product, they also serve as a rooting station for Syngenta Flowers as well as an off-site growing location for Pleasant View Gardens, one of the partner companies of Proven Winners.
George Lucas says these types of relationships are very beneficial to his company. “We are paid a fee to do a pro- cess. A process we are really good at and we don’t have to worry about the sales side of it.
Being a Syngenta rooting station also provides his growing team with additional insight into new products and processes as well as a peek into the future.
“Rooting and distribution are our strengths,” Lucas says. Syngenta Flowers “supplies us with the cuttings and the inputs, pretty much everything it takes, and then we can focus on what we do best.”
Syngenta “sends us all of the information on where the product is going, how many we are supposed to stick and all of the inputs — then we will grow it and distribute it. It is a very nice relationship.”
In July, Lucas Greenhouses hosted an open house to exhibit many of Syngenta’s different varieties in real- time outdoor conditions. Lucas said this year’s open house was a huge success thanks to all of the hard work of trial manager Jay Szymanski and his team.
According to Syngenta’s market manager Eric Pitzen, the annual open house “provides an excellent opportunity for our customers to view the performance of our living catalog,”
LUCAS GREENHOUSES AT A GLANCE
Location: Monroeville, N.J.
Owners: George and Louise Lucas
Business Breakdown: Approximately 60 percent of the company’s sales is finished plants. The remaining 40 percent is young plants, liners and pre-finished plants.
Growing area: Approximately 1,050,000 square feet
(with another 50,000 square feet on the way)
Employees: 110 year round; 175 during peak season