Leider Greenhouses: Keeping Up With the Times

February 28, 2003 - 08:29

After 100 years in business, Leider Greenhouses stays on top with seasoned know-how.

An immigrant from Luxembourg with a job growing vegetables
and a hunger to do more is how Leider Greenhouses got its start. After more
than a century of success, the Leider family supplies a number of major chain
stores with plants every year in the Chicagoland area.

Leider Greenhouses was first established in 1898 by Michael
Leider after he came to the United States from Europe. For many years, Leider's
had growing locations in Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois, along with several
retail locations. In the 1960s, brothers Jim and Jerry Leider started a
tropical business catering to interior landscapers. However, after building a
successful company servicing more than 15 states, in 1988 Tropical Plant
Rentals was sold to a large British service company, shifting Leider's focus to
the greenhouse growing business.

Currently, Leider Greenhouses is owned by Jim and Jerry,
while a number of family members take care of daily operations. Mark Leider,
Jim's son, is the general manager, Mary Barrs, one of Jim's daughters, is the
sales manager, and Meg Kreuter, another daughter, is the office manager for the
Buffalo Grove, Ill., location. "We are still a small family business, and
no matter what time of the year it is, we are all around helping out. I may be
driving a truck or working on sales while everyone else may be doing different
things as well. We all get along and are a very close family -- that helps us
all have the same goals to keep the business a good enterprise for the
future," said Mark.

In addition to the Illinois location, about two years ago
Jim built a nursery in Boynton Beach, Fla., that deals mostly with tropical
foliage. This added more than 40 acres of retractable-roof houses to the 15
acres of covered space and seven acres of outdoor space in Illinois.

The Customers

In Illinois, Leider Greenhouses supplies a number of major
chain stores in the Chicagoland area. The three major chains -- Costco
Wholesale, Jewel, a division of Albertson's, and Dominick's, a division of
Safeway -- give Leider Greenhouses a combined total of $4 million a year from
these customers alone -- a little less than half of the year's profits.
"We've seen the most amount of growth in Costco. For Costco we grow
poinsettias, Easter lilies, hydrangeas, blooming baskets, garden mums and
pretty much all of the spring products. That makes it a 12-month business that
a lot of greenhouses don't have. Since they sell for so much less, their
product looks really good and moves fast, so we sell a number of plants to
them," said Mark. Other chains they supply include Treasure Island, Sunset
Foods, Whole Foods, Steins (13 garden center Á locations in Southern
Wisconsin) and interior landscapers. In the spring/summer season, Leider also
has its own garden center open from April-September. 

Despite the success of the chain stores, things are
changing, causing growers to change right along with them. "The business
is changing a lot, most of our business is not from a greenhouse right down the
street, it comes from Canada. Primarily it's the difference between the U.S.
dollar and the Canadian dollar causing all greenhouses to be in the same boat.
For some reason they are able to grow it, ship it on a truck and sell it down
here cheaper than we can. Because of that we are focusing more on the upscale
items that we can sell to Jewel or Dominick's rather than individual plants.
More and more demand is going towards the mixed flower baskets and we have had
to change and adapt for the competition," explained Mark. Canada is able
to send down plant materials at a lower price, causing a lot of competition in
the greenhouse industry and forcing many to adapt to the changes that it
brings.

The Changing Trends

Change and competition give Leider Greenhouses a tough route
to follow, but at the same time it is learning how to adapt. Without offering
in-store service to its major chain store customers, Mark says they offer a
good price and excellent quality to keep a good customer base for this simple
reason: "Someone once told me that you can offer your customers three
things, and those are price, quality and service. But you can really only offer
two of those things without going broke, and we feel like we are offering good
price and quality." 

Another trend the Leider family has seen is in what people
want to buy. Customers are demanding a bigger and more colorful product. Buyers
want big hanging baskets, and large and mixed containers as opposed to the
everyday geranium, pansy, pot mum and impatiens that have been the standard for
so many years. Leider's has been following the trends of the industry and is
doing a good job of keeping up. People are coming from long distances to see
its products for the spring season, including buyers and consumers, because of
the high-quality plant material Leider's has to offer. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

Trends can only go so far when it comes to tradition,
however, giving Leider a good jump in the right direction. Leider still sells
more poinsettias than any other plant it grows or sells in the greenhouse. One
of the biggest poinsettia buyers was Costco for the 2002 Christmas selling
season -- it came to Leider and left with a large number of poinsettias for its
Chicagoland stores.

Not all trends are positive, however. For example, fuel
prices are one of the main concerns in the industry right now. "The scary
thing now is the energy cost. Especially now in the winter months, the price of
gas is going up again, which is very tough to pass on to your customer to
recoup that," Mark said. "It is something I wrestle with every day by
trying to figure out how to get an extra penny out of each plant to keep up
with the fuel costs."

The concern is that fuel costs will rise like they did in
2001, but this time, due to the fear of war and losing access to oil from
Middle Eastern countries. Growers all over the United States are concerned
about fuel and how this possible war may cause a number of financial problems.
However, Mark had some words of wisdom on that subject. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  "When we get right down to it, we
are farmers, and you have to be willing to go through some bad years, but that
is no reason to throw in the towel. The problems we are facing are not
something any other growers aren't facing. All we can do is be more efficient
in the greenhouse and make fewer mistakes and see where we are at that
point."

Fuel costs, changing trends, and cold weather in Illinois
and Florida this year have not been able to slow down the success of Leider
Greenhouses. With such a tight-knit family in control and a good product to
sell, these growers have had continued success for over 100 years and plan to
double that. With a good customer base and an owner who is involved in the
industry in every which way, there is no doubt that Leider Greenhouses will be
around and still selling millions of dollars in poinsettias while keeping up with
the times and the trends of the future.

About The Author

Catherine Evans is an associate editor for GPN.

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