Tom Smith of Four Star Greenhouse is an innovation-driven risk taker who has no qualms about viewing the market through rose-colored glasses.
A running theme in this issue’s "Floriculture’s Future" series of articles is the need of floriculture businesses to assume a greater role in ensuring that enough young people enter the industry and that they are properly trained. Does a company meet this crucial responsibility by merely offering work in the greenhouse or garden center for an intern (or for that matter, an entry-level employee)? Of course not.
At the very least, budding floriculture professionals merit the opportunity to experience first-hand how the horticultural or business principles they learned in the classroom are applied in the workplace. Rather than simply being told to perform a task, they need to understand the purpose of the task and why a particular production manager, for instance, performs the task a particular way.
Melinda Froning, winner of the 1999 GPN/Nexus Intern Scholarship, picked a winner when she agreed to serve her internship at Four Star Greenhouse. The University of Tennessee senior had the opportunity to intern at highly regarded operations closer to home, but she was confident that the ideal "learning laboratory" for her was up north in Carleton, Michigan. She wanted to learn how a large commercial greenhouse works. Furthermore, she wanted hands-on exposure to state-of-the-art production technology and innovative marketing strategies.
Four Star fits this bill and then some. Indeed, Tom Smith (co-owner with wife Sharon of Four Star) is one of a handful of U.S. growers with industry-wide acclaim as a leading innovator both in production technology and floriculture marketing.
"I’m sometimes asked what drives me to take innovative approaches, to sometimes even go out on a limb," says Smith. "I haven’t really come up with a good answer in my own mind. I guess it’s because I’ve always sought the best products, the best marketing ideas, the best ways to distribute products. And I’ve always enjoyed seeing how other companies do these things, inside and outside our industry."
Smith was among the first growers to incorporate zoned computer controls, bar coding, Co2 injection, DIF and Vapor Pressure Deficit into his production. His operation currently employs cylinder seeders, flat fillers, rolling benches, flood floors, retractable roof greenhouses, and a Flier sticking line that can accommodate 44 greenhouse employees.
But perhaps one of the most important of Four Star’s innovations is a nationally awarded labor tracking software program that Smith helped develop. The Innovative Software Solutions program, Picas (plant inventory control and accounting software) tracks labor costs and units per hour, while also enabling Four Star to boost labor productivity through bonus incentives.
"We were the first to incorporate this software (in 1993) and already in many cases it has tripled our productivity," says Smith, who believes that only two other growers currently also use the software.
Picas also integrates order entry, production planning, and accounts receivable and payable.
Smith’s zest for innovation occasionally results in products that represent what he calls a "true paradigm shift." He cites as a classic example the Magic Planter (distributed by Landmark Plastics, patent held by Four Star and English Gardens). This product, which he helped develop for landscapers and home gardeners, consists of two trays containing 18 plants that separate out into nine 3 1/2-inch plants perfectly spaced for landscape transplanting. Magic Planter is designed to be set on (not in!) slightly worked bare ground.
"This product works excellently and saves tons on digging labor," Smith explains. "But more people use it incorrectly than use it correctly."
As clearly explained in a companion video, once placed on the ground, Magic Planter flats need only be watered daily. Within two weeks, plants grow out to form a lush, low-maintenance bed of color. "I’ve shown the video on how to use this product to people who turn around and dig trenches for the Magic Planter flats or fill dirt around them," says Smith with a chuckle. "That traditional mindset that associates ‘planting’ with ‘putting it in the ground’ is deeply entrenched."
Despite his impressive resume as a greenhouse production innovator, the enduring legacy of Tom Smith may well be his role as one of the four founding partners of Proven Winners (as well as one of the network’s lead innovators).
"In 1992, I had just returned from Europe where I saw a bunch of different plants that I would have loved to bring to market," Smith recalls. "That same year, while at the OFA Short Course, I got to talking to John Rader (EuroAmerican Propagators, Bonsall, Calif.) and Henry Huntington (Pleasant View Gardens, Loudon, N.H.). We all wanted to get some of those plants because we all saw the pent-up demand. We decided there at the Short Course that a distribution network would be the best way to go."
Smith strongly feels that Proven Winners is an ongoing success because EuroAmerican Propagators, Pleasant View Gardens and Four Star Greenhouse share the same goals and ideas.
"I’ve heard myself and the other founding partners of Proven Winners described as progressive visionaries," says Smith. "Honestly, at the time we saw it as an opportunity very compatible with our own philosophies, which has always been to wow consumers with new, outstanding, easily grown plants."
The Supernova plug is a textbook example of Four Star’s ability to identify and capitalize on a potential consumer product desire. Like a number of growers throughout the country, Smith had been hearing reports in the mid-1990s from his sales reps about customer demand for basket and container plants in a smaller, transplantable size. Apparently, the consumer appeal of high-impact baskets had broadened to include a heightened interest in the plant material – the hot vegetative annuals such as scaevola and trailing petunias – most commonly featured in the premium baskets.
"All of us at Four Star were amazed by the demand for Proven Winners in four- and five-inch pots," says Smith.
Growers who were attempting to respond to this demand were confronted with a double-edged sword: the vigor of the popular vegetative annuals, which makes them ideal for baskets and containers, caused major headaches in four- and five-inch pot programs.
"Their challenge has been in managing the growth of these plants in small containers so they don’t grow into each other before they’ve flowered," Smith explains. "We were stunned to see so many of them sold either not in color and small, or grown together with very little impulse sales appeal. Because we recognized the potential impulse sales, we had to find a way to help these plants realize their full glory in small pots."
After four years of trials (with technical assistance from Michigan State University and the University of Tennessee), Four Star developed Supernova, a treated plug with established breaks and buds, which consistently flower in small containers.
"We’ve done this without the need of a lot of growth regulators, which as we all know, can stunt or delay the explosive growth and flowering that are the hallmark of these plants," says Dennis Crum, Four Star’s head grower.
Crum explains that the Supernova program begins with determining what initiates bud set and the days to flower for each variety. With this information, Four Star can then manipulate the plant with day length, temperature, different crop times, and some chemical regulation.
"Each plant variety is different and requires some or all treatment," says Crum. He adds that a couple varieties require additional growth regulator treatments after transplant from Supernova liners into small containers before sales." (Four Star will provide information on additional PGR treatment, if appropriate, with shipments of Supernova liners.)
Not all Proven Winners will be available as Supernova liners when the product line rolls out this growing season, says Smith, adding that "Four Star Greenhouse won’t rest until we achieve success with all our Proven Winner offerings." Smith also notes that some varieties like ‘Snowstorm’ bacopa, ‘Golden Beauty’ helichrysum, and ‘Sugar Baby’ argyranthemum don’t need the Supernova treatment.
Not surprisingly, Smith touts a Four Star "special." It’s a quick-turn program that he claims will net a nice return. "Doing a program mixed with Supernova standard Proven Winner liners and tuberous begonia (another Four Star specialty crop) with eight plants per tray, plant material cost will be about four dollars. If the plants are wholesaled at $2.25 per pot or $18 per tray, you will net approximately $14 for four weeks of overhead, container cost, and the labor it takes to plant the eight plants. This is more profitable than most crops that are produced year-round. In some cases the grower’s net per square foot will exceed the gross per square foot on other crops. You’ll also thrill retailers because they can sell containers that turn over more quickly than do pots produced from standard liners, and at a retail price about double that of standard bedding plants."
Having logged one-and-half years’ tenure at Four Star, Julie Bergmoser, who handles sales and marketing, says she is continuously impressed by how focused the company is in finding solutions that dovetail the needs of both growers and consumers. "I can’t imagine why growers wouldn’t incorporate Supernova into their 4 1/2- inch pot operations," she says. "Most growers are fully aware of the consumer demand for Proven Winners in small pots."
Along with his brother (now in real estate), Smith started growing plants commercially fresh out of high school. He has shepherded Four Star to its current stature as one of the nation’s most recognized and influential greenhouse operations by applying the philosophy of "viewing business as an optimist, always eager to try new ideas, knowing that new ideas don’t always pan out, but willing to learn from mistakes."
Smith acknowledges the conventional truism that successful risk-takers gamble with a loaded deck – lots of preliminary research, fallback options, and strategies designed to spread risk or minimize potential losses. Yet, Smith insists he has placed great faith in that elusive quality he terms "gut intuition."
So, with this in mind, what advice would Smith offer an aspiring grower (Mindy Froning, for instance) who would seek to emulate his success?
"In a word, network," he states. "Networking is the wave of the future. My keystone growth phases were sparked by networking, first with Kientzler and then with Proven Winners. In today’s market no one can truly do it all alone.
"We’re currently trying to network with some of the better growers, and I’d like to see a network that goes all the way from the supply side to the consumer side. Why? Because in the market today’s young growers will be entering, the bottom line is going to be consumer recognition."
Years in business: 23
Size of operation: 10 acres of covered production (3.5 acres glass, 3.5 acres poly, 3 acres acrylic) and 3.5 acres of outdoor growing area.
Number of employees: 150 full-time (during peak season), 80 part-time (during off-peak).
Crops grown: perennials, vegetative annuals, tuberous and fibrous begonias, fall pansies and other select bedding crops.
Customer base: Young plants through brokers, finished product direct to independent garden centers and landscapers.
Market area: Young plants are shipped to all 50 states. Finished plants are shipped primarily throughout Michigan and into Chicago, but some as far as the East Coast.