Reinventing the Wheel?

October 23, 2009 - 14:57

To be an innovator in this industry does not mean constantly “reinventing the wheel.” Rather, today’s innovators are forward thinkers who set the established wheels in motion and change the vehicle’s trajectory — they know what needs to be done to meet the demands of today’s challenging marketplace, and they do it!

Their proactive approach and willingness to take risks to move their companies ahead is what separates them from the pack. They have keen insight into the needs of their customers and have embraced innovation to advance their operations to the forefront.

One has taken an industry lead by establishing a horticultural research organization; others have made leaps in automation and other greenhouse processes; one developed an eco-friendly pot to meet consumer demands for sustainable products; still others put employees and customers first in every situation, even in this torrid economic climate.

These growers definitely are not reinventing the wheel, but they are in motion to define the future. Read on to learn more about this year’s Big Grower Big 10 Innovators.

Altman Plants
Vista, Calif.
www.altmanplants.com

We are always on the lookout for ways to meet our customers’ needs and improve our internal processes. It is a cultural value in our company. Those who thrive in our company are interested in the new, and the company reacts quickly to changes even though rapid change can create disfluencies. There is an understanding that trying new things has made our company strong, so most people who work here go the extra mile to deal with new processes and new demands.

I read extensively (both industry and other literature), listen carefully to our customers and sales team and talk to university researchers whenever possible. Our universities have brilliant people and any opportunity to support them should be taken by the industry — we get back a lot more than we give. I also participate in trade organizations like American Floral Endowment and Farm Bureau, and I think that puts me in position to meet good business people and hear things early. And we support the Center for Applied Horticultural Research, a nonprofit we started primarily to help industry research. It also serves as a focal point to keep our company in the middle of new thoughts.

Sometimes our ideas put us on the cutting edge, but frequently we have been on the bleeding edge. We tolerate those situations and simply try to react to improve. Part of trying new programs and processes is having the stomach to ramp up those that are working but also the stomach to cut the ones that aren’t. We have built programs to as much as $5 million and then cut them when the profitability or time consumption made them not worth it.

In times like these, we work even harder to bring new products and ideas to the marketplace. In difficult times, there is often more openness to new ideas among our customers. They are combating a difficult sales environment, and they know that just staying the same won’t get them where they want to go. So they are happy to work with us to find another way to meet needs of their customers. And often, other companies are pulling back, so there is more space to grow. Also, in every recession, we have been able to improve our company by finding quality people to join us who are not normally available.

Past Innovations at Altman Plants

Better packaging: custom trays, Picture Pots, early use of large labels New plant introductions

Grower networks with common marketing programs

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Altman Plants was one of the pioneers in establishing plant brands that were not tied to a specific breeder or related genetics — and leverage them to add value and increase price points. — Ken Altman

Bell Nursery
Burtonsville, Md.
www.bellnursery.com

Necessity drives many things. When my partner Mike and I purchased the business from my parents in 1994, we needed customers. Long story short, we got a small foot in the door, and after two years we were furnishing 5 percent of the shelf space in the D.C. area. We wanted more and we wanted it with the Home Depot. We knew that quality and larger sizes were key, but we also thought we could differentiate ourselves through service.

Innovation means continuing to look at every aspect of what we do — and see how we can move each area to the next level, whatever that is. The culture at Bell allows for open dialogue at every level, and we try to make sure that ideas are acknowledged and successes shared and celebrated. We consistently share and promote new ideas. Technology has allowed us to share set ideas as they occur, and our entire leadership team is exposed to something new virtually every day. In some ways, we look at the stores we serve as laboratories — and we’ve seen some great things come out of the lab.

Quality must be a given. We have worked hard to provide consistent quality day in and day out. We were an early promoter of container gardening and large finished planters, and we have worked to stay on the leading edge in this area. Our approach to the merchandising portion of our business is where we seem to get the most credit for being innovative. We have great people working together to be the best that we can be.

Influences

The foundation of what we do will always go back to lessons learned from my parents. At a young age, we learned that service, innovation, quality and value were the key ingredients to success. The slogan that’s been an integral part of our business and all training that we do is, “Act like you own it!”

Advice to Other Growers

Continuing to invest in strategies that make you better and give the end consumer the best experience possible pays off. We have to help our retail partners make their customers successful with our products. Really good tagging is crucial, giving the customer a strong root system has to be a given, and making sure that we present the plants in an appealing way at retail will help ensure growth in our industry. At Bell, we do everything possible to promote gardening to youth — and I think that we all have this obligation to our future.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Bell Nursery was a pioneer in pay by scan and is still an innovator in marketing and merchandising at the retail level. Their biggest capital investments are in people and systems — not equipment, structures and buildings. — Gary Mangum

Hermann Engelmann Greenhouses
Apopka, Fla.
www.exoticangel.com

Innovation is the core of our Exotic Angel brand. During the last 40 years we never stopped looking for new ways to make our retail customers more profitable and our end consumers more successful with our plants. We introduced over 430 varieties of exotic foliage plants, we customized our soil mixes to fit the needs of each plant, and we designed packaging that enhances the look of our product. Innovation to us is not a single bright idea with huge proportions. Instead, it is a long-term, meticulously designed process that focuses on small details and minute improvements on weekly basis. All of these small things add up to results that sometimes deliver innovation with breathtaking dimensions.

Our industry came out of “classic farming,” and often the production-centered mentality of “if we grow it, somebody will buy it” hindered the development of creative marketing and packaging ideas. We took a different approach in our business by entirely focusing our attention on the consumer and retailers’ needs first. Then, we adjust our product plans according to the ever-changing winds at the marketplace. Very often this strategy comes with tremendous costs for us, however, it allows us to react and adapt relatively quickly. This delivers a lot of value to our retailers and provides exactly what the consumer wants.

The economic downturn delivered a new need for high quality plants with a good ROI. Plants became the most affordable form of home decoration. Despite the demand for value and lower prices, people didn’t lose their preference for quality.

The current economic environment confirmed our strong belief that product quality is the most important attribute of any company.

Influences

The main influence on our business model is our incredible dedication to quality. This core value dictates every single detail in our strategy: from product mix, to logistics, and marketing. With quality in the center of our universe, we constantly look for inspiration that makes us discover and design new collections each year. Our influences come from a variety of sources: from newest home décor trends, clothing fashion, designer consumer goods, and high-end retailers of horticultural products around the world. During the last few years we recognized the need to become a consumer-centered company, and our primary goal when it comes to innovation is always the home décor fashion need of today’s consumer.

Advice to Other Growers

Focus on quality and innovation. If we all grow and market more interesting products with outstanding quality, the consumer will spend more on our category. It is imperative that we all recognize the need for better products, inspirational marketing, and advanced understanding of the marketplace.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

The first major player in marketing and branding of foliage, Hermann Engelmann was creating added value with packaging and decorations when most producers were still using recycled cans for containers. — Bisser Georgiev

Ivy Acres
Baiting Hollow, N.Y.
www.ivyacres.com

Innovation is defined as an improvement that is better for the customer or the employee. How do you incorporate it into your company culture? Innovation is part of our culture through management’s encouragement, training and open dialogue that there is a better way.

Innovation means many things at Ivy Acres — all positive, and all about becoming better! Jack Van de Wetering, the owner of Ivy Acres, is constantly striving for new ideas. Through his travels around the world, Jack has brought back and introduced many innovative packages to the U.S. market. His latest and most notable is “The Straw Pot,” which is manufactured in a joint partnership with a Sri Lankan organization. Beyond packaging, innovation is instilled throughout the organization through our commitment to continuous improvement. We constantly ask our managers and associates, “Is what you’re doing for your next process customer meeting or exceeding their needs? Is there a better way to do it? If so, is the change going to result in enhanced customer satisfaction or internal efficiency? Can it be done easier, cheaper or faster?

Today, we are pushing harder than ever. I believe the innovative will survive now and in the future.

Influences

I was influenced by my time at Florida Power and Light. During my time at FPL, we underwent a complete transformation and won the Deming Prize. I was amazed that when you tap into all employees, great things can happen.

How did they impact your decisions in business that brought you to this point? The transformation was structured around continuous improvement. I believed in this approach, brought it to Ivy Acres and have seen the results. Once a business is organized it is a fertile ground for innovative thinking.

Advice to Other Growers

Continue to find new ways to do business; continue to ask your people to help you. What do you think they can learn from your experience? Anything is possible…no idea is crazy!

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Ivy Acres is consistently among the first to adopt European marketing and merchandising techniques in North America. They’re production nonconformists and pioneered the marketing of bedding plants in the green stage. — Brian Sullivan

Delray Plants
Venus, Fla.
www.delrayplants.com

Innovation is the act and willingness to make new. Delray has always tried to incorporate new, updated items into the market. As a company, we are always looking for a better, more efficient way to operate. We define it in many ways — from our state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities and receiving and loading areas to best management practices. We know the industry and we stay plugged in to changes — in the market, environmentally and economically.

We have always monitored our costs, streamlining where and when possible. But today’s economy demands that we focus even more on our business practices. We encourage our entire team to think outside the box, to be accountable for what they can control and offer solutions for problematic areas. Pressure equals creativity, which gives us a positive visual even in tough times. With the economy down, we have to always think how to save a penny here or there to save a penny for the end consumer.

Influences

The changing market and consumers are our top influences. If we aren’t in tune with the wants of the public, our product gets old very fast. We have a young staff that knows how to target the kids of tomorrow, the instant-gratification mobile generation!

The consumers steer business, and the direction can change overnight. Delray Plants is eager to stay ahead of the curve and enthusiastic to bring in new, exciting product. We take great pride when the stores look good and the customers are happy — everyone wins.

Advice to Other Growers

We are on a constant Iditarod! Keep your running shoes on, your eyes and ears focused, take care of your teams and move on.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Delray Plants started out producing high-quality, unique or rare cultivars for higher prices — then grew to serve big boxes. They take risks and have pioneered in-store merchandising and contract producers. — Holly Koornneef

Kube Pak Corp.
Allentown, N.J.
www.kubepak.com

Innovation means never being satisfied with the status quo. It amazes me that no matter how much we have learned in the past, there is always more to be learned. Innovation starts with an attitude that causes one to seek the better way to accomplish an established task or invent a new one. The changes can be large or small.

If the individuals taking the lead in a company exhibit the desire to improve, the rest of the company will see this attitude and follow suit. Encouraging and rewarding employees for innovative ideas is important as well.

Right now, we are in a phase where we are looking at ways to run the business more efficiently without spending lots of money. We are placing more emphasis on internal procedures that can be improved by use of our computer system.

Influences

One of our greatest influences was Prof. Bill Roberts from Rutgers University. He is now retired, but he brought many suggestions to our attention and then we implemented them. We also have been influenced by our own inquisitiveness. Never being satisfied with the past, we have always tried to push the envelope further and further. This hopefully keeps us one step ahead of our competitors.

Competition probably provides the greatest incentive to innovate. If almost everyone has a problem growing a particular crop, the company who solves the problem first is the one that will benefit financially.

Advice to Other Growers

The only way to benefit from the experience of others is to become acquainted with the work they have done and see how you can apply it in your own greenhouse.

If you have the ability to be innovative, than pursue it as best you can; if not, learn to be a good follower. There is no shame in being a follower: The innovators have all the headaches and expense, while you get to apply proven technology without all the trials. For the small grower this is especially true.

Innovations at Kube Pak

  • First commercial application of an air-inflated double-poly film to the roof of a greenhouse
  • Invented the first rotary drum seeder for plug production, capable of sowing 1,200 trays per hour with excellent accuracy.
  • Test site for solar-heated greenhouse in mid-’70s, including use of heat curtains and heated floors
  • Test site for first IR poly film
  • Designed and built a soil mixing system that was computer controlled and capable of making up to 99 different mixes, supports four production lines simultaneously
  • Developing a costing model to predict the true profitability of running a greenhouse business, in conjunction with Dr. Paul Fisher from the University of Florida

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Kube Pak is business first, plant grower second. They’ve taken big steps in energy conservation in production at their facilities — and are always open to sharing findings. — Bill Swanekamp

Masterpiece Flower Company
Byron Center, Mich.
www.masterpieceflower.com

We define innovation as bringing added value to the goods and services we provide our customers. We try to incorporate it into our company culture by encouraging one another’s ideas about crops, decorations and methods of doing business including adopting new technology.

Like most companies in this industry, we view ourselves as growers — flower farmers with a roof over our crop. However, we try to stay open-minded about what we can do with and for our customers beyond supplying great-quality plants. We have been a grower for nearly 60 years, but we also have been a logistics provider and product distributor for more than 30 years. We try to stay aware of what we do well but also what other growers do well, and offer those products to our customers. We adopted the attitude a long time ago that we do not have to grow everything we provide, but we do need to hold standards high for everything we sell.

Influences

Our customers have had a huge influence on our business over the years. We were a Frank’s Nursery supplier for many years, and Frank’s held up high standards for quality plants. They helped us develop a mindset always to strive for better quality. However, their retail model didn’t change with the times, and we learned from that, too. We have been a supplier to Meijer for 50 years and to Home Depot for 14 years. Both of these customers also place a high value on quality plants and service. They have taught us a great deal about retailing and what their shoppers desire for garden products. They also encourage us to become far more involved in understanding their business.

We have also been very fortunate to have the support of Michigan State University’s Horticulture Department. We continue supporting research at MSU with both money and active participation in research projects. MSU faculty taught us how to grow orchids which have become a featured weekly item at all Meijer stores. Greenhouse production is a significant part of Michigan agriculture and we also enjoy a high level of support from the MSU Cooperative Extension Service.

Advice to Other Growers

Really push the products that you know you are good at producing and that gives a good value to the consumer, but be open to change. Avoid saying, “That’s not what we do or not who we are.” Those who are willing to step outside their comfort zone often capture new opportunities.

Recycling

We worked closely with East Jordan Plastics to provide a plastic recycling system at both Home Depot and Meijer. This was originally motivated by the “green” movement over the past few years and reinforced by the rapidly increasing cost of plastic two years ago. Cal Diller from EJP suggested we could work together on a plastic recycling project. Henry Mast Greenhouse was already a large customer of EJP; Peak Transportation was a major transportation supplier to EJP, Masterpiece makes weekly deliveries to all Meijer and Home Depot stores, and we have merchandising staff at the stores. We had created a closed-loop system that just needed a way to gather the reusable plastic. Together Masterpiece and East Jordan Plastics met with Home Depot and Meijer and described what we wanted to accomplish.

The idea was well received, but we were cautioned not to allow pot and tray collection to make a mess at stores. This past year, we had plastic recycling carts at all 265 stores we serve and have collected more than 300,000 pounds of pots and trays. Many of the trays are reused by our growers, which is the ultimate in recycling. The pots and trays that cannot be reused are collected and sent back to East Jordan Plastics to be processed into next season’s pots. Even at this time of year, we continue to receive plastic returning from stores. Admittedly, the majority is coming from our own merchandising efforts; however, the consumer is beginning to become aware they can recycle their containers at our stores.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Masterpiece Flower Company is among the most progressive industry newcomers. They’re a one-source supplier that has used contract growers, central warehousing and proprietary branding. — Tim Stiles

Metrolina Greenhouses
Huntersville, N.C.

Innovation at Metrolina is a constant process. Everyone is expected to bring us ideas and methods to make us a better company every day. Innovation is not just technical or mechanical; it can involve marketing, office administration or any department in the company. It is all about innovating to get 1 percent better every day. We cannot wait for someone to come up with the “BIG IDEA”; every idea is cultivated and utilized to make us better.

We have been involved in a good number of industry innovations over the years (such as transplanters, MX-Roof Greenhouses and crane systems), but the more overriding measure is a set of principles that our company follows that says, “It can always be done better.” By the time we are implementing an innovation, our team’s desire is to find the next innovation.

We found that the common solution to most problems in our industry is labor; just throw more people at the issue, and it will go away. Our goal is to mechanize and innovate mundane tasks and assure we can do it faster with less people. People want to work on new ideas and new work, and the only way we can do that is to innovate that current job away. The key is to create an atmosphere where it is OK to have someone innovate their way out of a job. They need to know a better job is there waiting for them.

In today’s economy, we innovate more. We have to do more with less, and the only way we know now to do that is innovate. We have not lowered our investment in innovation; in fact, we have increased it. The only way to save money is to innovate the processes by which you do work.

Influences

It is a constant desire and push to get better every day. We do not know “cruise control.” We are full blast every day. This starts at the top with our executive team, but it also comes up through the ranks at our line leaders, group leaders and section leaders. Nobody can be exempt from providing ideas and methods to get better. Our influence started with our founder, Tom VanWingerden, and even in retirement, his “always find a better way” principles are still ingrained in all we do today.

Advice to Other Growers

Innovation is not meant only for the biggest players in the industry. Most of the best innovation in any industry comes from small pockets of industry players or small pockets within bigger players in the industry. We all can innovate, and we must do all we can to assure we continue to do so every day.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Metrolina Greenhouses is a family operation that has stayed true to its values while forging ahead with automation and taking business cues from outside the industry. — Abe VanWingerden

C. Raker & Sons
Litchfield, Mich.
www.raker.com

Our company mission is, “To satisfy our stakeholders by delivering quality, service and profitability through innovation and teamwork.”

Innovation is integral to everything that we do. It is the engine that allows us to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers in a world economy that moves faster every day.

Innovation at Raker is striving continuously to develop new and better ways to meet customers’ needs, never accepting status quo and asking why five times. Good can always be better.

We have incorporated innovation into our company culture by developing self-directed teams that are encouraged to make decisions and question the status quo in all that they do. We have integrated lean techniques and concepts like Kaizen and 5S while implementing a total quality system throughout the organization. People will make the difference if given the tools, training and opportunity to make decisions and succeed.

Influences

Clarence and Nora Raker (Mom and Dad/Grandma and Grandpa) and the Golden Rule would have to be the greatest influences on our business day to day. Raker is also influenced by being a community with a purpose comprised of its people. All of our collective influences impact our business on a daily basis.

Advice to Other Growers

Many businesses have found their own recipe for being successful. For Raker, innovation is the key to embracing change, and it is what has allowed us to be in the right places at the right times to be successful. Innovation takes hard work, dedication and sacrifice.

Work hard. Have fun. Flowers enhance people’s lives!

Why they’re in the Big 10:

C. Raker & Sons has made a major investment in information systems and technology — they were among the first to use bar codes, handheld devices and developed business software in-house. — Jim Whitehill

Riverview Flower Farm
Riverview, Fla.
www.floridafriendlyplants.com

Innovation in our world involves production practices, procedures and products that evolve through the process of parallel thinking. We meet regularly as a team and listen to what managers want to implement to streamline processes. Our team works in a positive environment that encourages looking for better ways to produce the best-quality product for the consumer. Rarely do you invent something new, but often you improve processes and products that we all profit from.

We are certain that aggressive accounting and measuring, managing while using software innovations has kept us profitable in recent years. We developed GrowerLive, a web-based software, to keep us informed of what is going on inside all of the stores we service every day with accurate numbers, images and accountability records.

Influences

Growing retail-ready plants, like manufacturing, has a parallel with the Toyota Way and Lean Flow manufacturing. When everyone is aware of and working together toward these goals, the business succeeds.

The need to stabilize profitability in a business that is subject to the weather as the main force behind the timing and total volume of sales lead us to take measures to streamline processes. In the pay by scan environment, we are able to mitigate production losses and market timing misses while maximizing sales at each outlet.

Advice to Other Growers

No matter what size you are, there is opportunity to profit if you are in tune with your market. Market channels have narrowed and we all have to identify and maintain positions and recognize profitable opportunities. Without the ability to produce and deliver consistent quality on time at a profitable margin, your chances of success are low.

Surviving the Florida Economy

The economy in Florida started trending down in 2006 and continued to slide while hundreds of big box stores continued to be built. Florida will remain in a recession long after some recovery is realized in other parts of the country. Oversupply of homes and commercial property, declining population, low tourism and an oversupply of big box garden centers directly impacts growers like us. We have streamlined production and supply to meet the needs of our customers with greater efficiency. We have used the reporting tools in GrowerLive to help right-size our business.

Why they’re in the Big 10:

Riverview’s Florida Friendly Plants represented an early leap in brands, packaging and simplified pricing. They’re also innovators in inventory control and merchandising. — Rick Brown

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