Monday, July 13, 2009

Top 100 Growers Dish On Industry Issues

Greenhouse Grower hosted its second annual Top 100 Growers breakfast roundtable Monday morning. The roundtable gives Top 100 Growers a chance to get together, discuss their spring outcomes and dish on other industry topics.

This year, our roundtable included a panel of four Top 100 Growers: Gary Mangum of Bell Nursery (Md.), Mike Rimland of Costa Farms (Fla.), Brian Sullivan of Ivy Acres (N.Y.) and Mike Treiber of Color Spot Nursery (Calif.). The four answered questions about the markets and big box retailers they serve, buying decisions and spring demand.

All four growers were upbeat about Spring 2009, as were several Top 100 Growers in attendance. Costa Farms now focuses 75 percent of its production on indoor foliage, but the rest of the business centers around annual bedding plants. Rimland says Suntory’s mandevillas were standouts this year. Costa increased production of the mandevillas, and sell through of them was extraordinary.

The weather was the biggest factor in Ivy Acres’ success this year. Mangum, whose operation is well known for serving Home Depot, says spring weather hampered the business a bit but sales were better than usual when the sun shined. “I don’t believe the economy had the effect some thought it might this year,” he says.

A reason Bell Nursery, Costa Farms and Ivy Acres are traditionally successful during spring, they say, is because of the grower and retailer relationships they’ve formed over the years. Color Spot grows all of its own product, but as merchants asked the other three growers to increase their SKUs, they turned to other growers – some who’ve become monoculturists – who’ve helped them meet the quality and quantity needs of the retailers they serve. Partnering with operations that focus on one or two crops increases consistency of the product grown – and consistency is, of course, one major component all big box retailers emphasize.

“We count on partners from the outside,” Sullivan says. “We moved from 15 to 65 SKUs a few years ago. We can’t do 65 SKUs all by ourselves. Seventy percent of our revenue is earned in eight weeks, so we build more relationships each year.”

Mangum says Bell Nursery has a waiting list of about 20 growers that are capable of serving as competent partners. And all four panelists agree their merchants leave it up to them to find growers who can be good partners.

On consolidation, Mangum says he still has a lot to learn. Risk and responsibilities have shifted from the merchant’s balance sheet to the grower’s, and Top 100 Growers like Bell Nursery are continuously adjusting as risk and responsibilities shift.

One thing has not changed for growers like Bell Nursery, Costa Farms, Ivy Acres and Color Spot, though: They say all growers, vendors and merchants should be treated with respect, and all four expect the same business treatment in return. It’s increasingly important bills are paid on time, too. If they’re not, big growers can partner with others.

“I come from an era that paid bills the day they were received,” Mangum says. “We get product from people who do that. When there are problems, we’ll deal with them head on.”

Rimland agrees: “You build a long-term relationship with people you treat with respect,” he says. “People call us and say they want to work with us still because we treat them with respect.”

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