Third Generation, Limitless Potential

September 13, 2010 - 13:49

Susie Raker-Zimmerman is not Gerry Raker’s daughter. She is his niece.

Her father, Dave (who recently retired from C. Raker & Sons), is Gerry’s brother.

But one of these days, Raker-Zimmerman jokes, she is going to get herself a T-shirt that spells it out, so no one will have to ask her, “Are you Gerry’s daughter?”

Susie is the third generation of the Raker family to take the helm of C. Raker & Sons and pilot it forward in the 21st century.

But today, Gerry and Susie are the brain trust responsible for running the very successful grown-to-order plug and liner operation in Litchfield, Mich.

In the Beginning
Since its inception in 1978, C. Raker & Sons has evolved from a wholesale produce farm started by Gerry’s parents into one of the largest plug and liner suppliers in the United States.

In the late 1970s, Gerry, his brother Dave, and his other brother Roy’s son, Tim, got into the bedding plant business using the knowledge they had gained growing produce on the family farm. From there, they got into the plug business.

The Rakers were in the right place at the right time: Growers were just starting to take advantage of the production and business benefits that plugs had to offer. “Demand exceeded supply, so we were on a rocket ship” of growth, Gerry says of the company’s early days.

“I was intrigued by the whole plug process,” he says. Back then, “there was a ‘club’ of growers just trying to figure out how to grow plugs, more so than the competition [plug growing] is today. Everybody was helping each other get into the new technology, and it just kind of grew from there.”

Today, the company offers its customers grown-to-order plugs and liners from a list of more than 3,200 different plant varieties from both seed and vegetative propagation. Raker also grows finished and prefinished product during its slower periods. The company has approximately 90 full-time, year-round employees — and approaches 250 employees during peak time.

C. Raker & Sons currently serves growers in all 50 states as well as Canada using more than 30 different brokers. According to Susie, after the “big three” auto makers, Raker is FedEx’s biggest customer in Michigan.

Quality is ‘Job One’
The culture at C. Raker & Sons is all about quality. There are signs posted throughout the greenhouses with the motto, “Quality is not what we do. Quality is who we are.”

You see other signs in the offices, in the shipping area, on employee shirts, everywhere — espousing the importance and the company’s commitment to quality.

“Our quality systems aid in training. They aid in accountability,” Susie adds. “It is the ability to walk anywhere [throughout the facility] and see where we stand for the week and be able to identify the biggest hose issues immediately.

“We are not a high-volume, low-margin company,” Gerry says. “We are a value-added, higher-margin company. We need to know what is being valued in the marketplace and be sure we are supplying our customers with that value.”

“We are not the cheapest, and we will never be the cheapest. And we will be the first to say that,” adds Susie. She says the company constantly evaluates its products and processes to differentiate itself so growers can rely on them for the highest-quality plugs and liners.

Tuned Into Technology
Gerry has always been a big believer in and an early adopter of technology. He saw the benefits of computers very early on and bought his first computer when his brothers didn’t think they needed one. In those days, Gerry and his team were developing computer programs for scheduling and bar coding before anyone else in the industry — and, in some cases, before there was even equipment to handle the computer programs. He has been hooked on the technology ever since.

Raker’s IT department is pretty much the nerve center for the company: “We carry a lot of overhead in the form of technical resources. We engineer, fabricate and build a lot of our equipment. We do a lot of our own development and manufacturing,” Gerry says,

“Necessity becomes the mother of invention around here,” Susie states. And the company has used it to its competitive advantage.

Today’s Challenges
Gerry says the market is much more challenging today than it was 30 years ago. “Here we are today, very successful, but the profitability picture is nothing like it used to be.” “From my point of view, right now we are in a quadruple whammy,” Gerry says. “The markets mature, our management structure is preparing for a transition, consumer buying habits have changed and the global economy is stagnant. Any one of those things can sink your business, and we have been dealing with all four of them,”

That is why C. Raker & Sons is constantly evolving, Gerry says. “There was a phrase around here that anything two years old was permanent and if it was three years old, it was forever. That is just the kind of attitude we have here,” Gerry says.

Three years ago, Raker created a Blue Sky Projects program to develop new products, projects and ideas that would provide future opportunities for the company. The idea is to leverage the knowledge the company already has and turn “blue sky” ideas into reality.

Raker says the company is constantly evaluating the list of Blue Sky Projects to make sure they are attainable and still make sense. Those that do continue to move forward, while others may be deferred to a later, more appropriate time.

What’s Next?
Susie has been in (and around) the plug and liner business her entire life. She worked in the greenhouses as a teenager, went to Michigan State University and got a degree in horticulture, worked with several companies allied to the industry and Raker, and came back to Litchfield to work in and help run the family business.

She admits she gets a little nervous when she takes the time to think about the future and where she would like to see the company go. “There is a lot of history here, but… I have to put my mark on it as we move ahead,” she says.

One of her challenges is maintaining the company’s independence. Despite the current business climate, she says, there are no plans to align with a large corporate partner. “We like to do things our way,” she says.

“We are looking at emerging businesses. But we need to continue doing what we do well,” she says. “There will always be a focus on plugs and liners.”

But she says the company’s distribution and technology expertise also provides new avenues into the future. Using that expertise “and thinking outside the plant box” will allow the company to differentiate itself from others.

Susie says the company’s ongoing Blue Sky Projects, under Gerry’s directive, are putting the company in a strategic position for the next 50 years. “Right now, we have a lot of lines in the water, and hopefully one of those lines lands us a big whopper,” Susie says.

SIDEBAR:A Fashionable New Endeavor

Hort Couture is a plant brand created exclusively for independent garden centers. Designed with a flair for fashion, Hort Couture provides unique and exclusive genetics, sophisticated packaging and creative displays.

For several years now, C. Raker & Sons has had a license to produce plugs and liners for Hort Couture. But that recently changed.

“Hort Couture is a hot topic around here,” says Susie. Especially for Gerry: He and his wife, Patty, are now partners in Hort Couture Plants LLC, a limited liability corporation created with Hort Couture’s founders, Jim and Jennifer Monroe. The LLC owns the license to the Hort Couture brand and can sublicense it. Raker and Monroe announced the deal at OFA Short Course in July.

Hort Couture Plants will manage all activities for the Hort Couture brand, including genetic evaluation, product development, broker relations and distribution of all of the Hort Couture programs.

Gerry says C. Raker & Sons “will provide a fair amount of horsepower” to get the Hort Couture Plants program off the ground, handling such things as supply chain, providing IT resources, research “and some of our plant geek–ness,” Susie adds.

Hort Couture’s potential really intrigued Gerry. He says he likes what Hort Couture has to offer, “creating a virtual, vertically integrated company.”

“Instead of mergers and acquisitions, we are creating an integrated company through agreements and partnerships. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do from a business point of view” for Raker to wholly acquire the Hort Couture brand, he says.

There is currently a group of allied brokers selling the brand, and they are creating a group of allied wholesale growers who can finish the product and sell it to IGCs.

“The whole thing about Hort Couture Plants is that it is all about the collaboration of businesses,” remarks Gerry.

You can learn more about the two companies at growers.hortcoutureplants.com and www.hortcoutureplants.com.

About The Author

Tim Hodson in editorial director of GPN’s Big Grower. He can be reached at thodson@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1019.

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