COVER STORY — Flourishing With Family

August 26, 2014 - 09:11

A fourth-generation family business, Olson’s Greenhouse has expanded to its sixth location and supplies bedding plants to some of the largest retailers in the Mountain States.

Growth has always been key to Olson’s Greenhouse’s success. What started as a hobby and small operation in 1942 for Roy Olson has turned into a large business under his grandson and current owner Bart Olson. 

Headquartered in Salem, Utah, the company’s most recent endeavor is with two new locations in Fort Lupton, Colorado — formerly Color Star Growers facilities. This year’s expansion makes for six Olson’s facilities throughout Utah, Idaho and Colorado with 2.75 million square feet of indoor space and 1.5 million square feet of outdoor space. 

Olson’s Greenhouse supplies annuals and perennials in Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and Kansas. Bedding plants and perennials for big box stores are the company’s bread and butter, but other customers include smaller retailers and independent garden centers.

All in the Family

Four generations of family business can explain much of the company’s success, according to Brian Lloyd, vice president of sales and marketing and Bart’s son-in-law.

“There are some synergies of being able to work together so much,” he says. “We feel like we’ve grown and expanded because we all know we can count on each other to give 100 percent all the time.”

Along with Brian, four other sons and sons-in-law hold key positions in the family greenhouse. Chad Olson is vice president of operations, Brandon Olson recently graduated from college and will run the Colorado facilities, Nate Barker handles purchasing and production, and Cody Swenson runs the Boise, Idaho, facility.

“We enjoy working together, so that’s been a major part of our success,” Chad says. “All of us have our own responsibilities, we know what our responsibilities are, and we take care of them.”

As the patriarch of the family, Bart knows keeping everybody together and on the same page comes with its challenges. Sometimes, he finds, it’s important to put work on the back burner.

“I always have a saying: A family that can pray together and play together can stay together,” Bart says. “There’s a couple times a year we try to get the whole family together for a week to have a good time, and I believe that’s very important.”

The family atmosphere expands beyond the bloodline to include the more than 500 employees at Olson’s Greenhouse. 

“Getting employees can be a challenge, but we’ve been very successful in finding good people,” Chad says. “We try to make our employees a part of things, and we hire people and let them manage the areas that they’re responsible for.”

Bart says he has discovered his job is to be a good steward of the company, and in the end it is really up to each member of the team to keep himself or herself happy.

“I think I have a responsibility as an elder,” Bart says. “I take things very seriously that not only am I trying to provide a living for me and my family, but I’m trying to provide a living to all those people who rely on me.”

Big Box Backbone

Customers both rely on Olson’s Greenhouse and provide the means to its success.

“The business philosophy is to provide a comfortable living for the family and our employees, and we do that through the greenhouse business by managing a successful company, meaning we have to grow very good quality plants,” Bart says. 

Olson’s Greenhouse’s model of growing primarily for the big box retailers goes back many years. 

“The business model since the 70’s has been to sell to the big box,” Bart says. “I have had independents along the way, or small chains along the way, but the big box has always been the foundation of our business.”

Although Bart says his banker used to tell him no more than 25 percent of production should go to any one customer, this has proven nearly impossible nowadays. Olson’s Greenhouse’s two largest buyers right now are Home Depot and Wal-Mart. 

The formula for a great relationship with these customers is quite simple, according to Chad. 

“Two things have been drilled into us since we were very little: high quality product and good customer service,” he says. “We don’t ship plants prematurely, and we try to make sure everything has plenty of color on it, and it’s what the customer is looking for.”

With Home Depot’s pay-by-scan model and Wal-Mart’s train-and-assist program (TAP), Olson’s Greenhouse has had to learn to think more like a retailer in addition to being a grower.

“We’re more involved at the retail level, which gets us thinking more about how we keep the product looking fresh and looking good until it’s purchased,” Brian says. “It pushes us down the road of doing more with the product until it’s finally in somebody’s yard.

Olson’s subsidiary ProGro Partners was established in 2013 to take this retail thinking to a whole new level, even for other suppliers (see sidebar.)

Brian and the team talk to customers year after year to see what they want (market research), trial new plants to discover how they perform (product research), and invest in computer software (data research).

Combine the retail aspect with research and Olson’s Greenhouse knows how to approach each season.

“We can plant what we plan, we ship what we plant, and the store has to be able to sell what we ship,” Bart says. “When we do that, we’re successful.”

Keeping Hands Clean

The container business is one area of Olson’s Greenhouse that continues to grow.

“There was a time when containers probably represented less than 5 percent of our business,” Bart says. “Today it’s easily 50 percent.”

Chad attributes this increase to a large number of homeowners wanting instant gratification. This may be in part a generational shift.

“Some of those younger generations really don’t want to go out and get their hands in the dirt,” Bart says. “They want it already planted and already grown, and all they have to do is take it home and set it on the front porch. But if we provide that to them, they’ll buy it.”

Bart has seen the industry as a whole — growers, big boxes and independents — tapping into this new business.

“In the past if somebody didn’t want to go out and plant their own flowers, you didn’t sell them anything,” he says. “Now you can sell a planter or a hanging basket to everybody.”

Always Working

The Colorado expansion consumed Olson’s Greenhouse for a few months as it tried to position itself for a successful spring.

“We jumped into this Colorado move the first of February and we were six months behind the eight ball, but we pulled off a pretty amazing spring considering where we started,” Bart says. “Now we just need to sit back and take a deep breath and get things organized in both of these locations.”

Chad recognizes improving efficiency is an important part of the new operations once things calm down from such a whirlwind expansion that required a team effort from every Olson’s Greenhouse employee. This, however, isn’t to say that the business is resting in its success.

Brian says they are always looking to expand their horizons by entering into new markets, but it is just as important to look at the markets where they are already present. 

“In the territories where we already are, we will do everything we can to increase the market size of bedding plants,” Brian says. “We want to increase the amount of gardening people are doing and increase the amount of success they have.”

This primary focus includes having people like Brian drive around neighborhoods to figure out what nuances are in every market where they are trying to sell.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out how we can better serve the market so people have more success when they do buy plants,” Brian says. 

As for keeping the business all in the family, it may be too early to start talking about the next generation, but it is no secret Bart has plenty of grandkids already. 

“Who knows how many of them might be interested in the business some day?” Brian says. “We have plenty of up-and-comers if they want to be a part of it.” 

About The Author

Abby Kleckler is associate editor of GPN's Big Grower. She can be reached at akleckler@sgcmail.com.

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