After a more than 17-year career working for Timber Creek Nursery and SummerWinds Nursery, longtime manager Mike Curran purchased the Ellisville, Mo., store that once carried both names on Jan. 31. He honored both companies with its new name, Timberwinds Nursery, and we caught up with Curran to find out about his new role and how he’s preparing for spring.
Q: You have been working at the Ellisville, Mo., location of SummerWinds Nursery since before the company took over, when it was called Timber Creek Nursery. When did you start your career there?
A: When I first started working here, it was 1999 or 2000, and Bob [and Geri] Specker owned it. The relationship with Timber Creek Nursery actually started in 1994. I had a contracting company called Curran Landscaping, so I did all of the installs and plants for Bob. Ninety-five percent of it was residential. I wasn’t mowing grass. There was a little bit of maintenance, but it was pretty much landscape installation and design. We’d go to Oregon with [Bob], and he showed me the ropes. I had worked with him for two years at the nursery as a sales associate, and then when SummerWinds bought the nursery from Bob, they made me assistant manager ... I became store manager three years ago.
Q: Why did you decide to make the career change from owning your landscaping company to working at a garden center?
A: I was interested in purchasing a retail nursery, so I wanted to see what it was like to work in retail since I was a landscape contractor, and it’s a little bit different. I wanted to see if that was something I’d be interested in, and then Bob sold it to SummerWinds. I stayed on as a manager. All of [SummerWinds] stores are in Arizona and California, and there is just the one store here. SummerWinds didn’t want to renew the lease, and [at the same time,] I approached them about purchasing the nursery, so it was a win-win.
Q: You’ve been interested in purchasing the store for more than 15 years. Was there any hesitation this time?
A: No. It was my direction a long time ago, so it came full circle. I really approached them. It was kind of funny. We were out in California at an HR meeting with Tim Businda, who is vice president of [retail] operations, and Frank Benzing, who is the [president and] CEO. I said to Tim, “Hey I have something I want to talk about with you.” And he said, “Well we have something we want to talk to you about.” (Laughs.) I went first, and [we had] the same thing [in mind]. They were seeing if I would be interested in buying it, because they knew I was always interested. So it just kind of worked out. I approached them first, technically. (Laughs)
Q: What does it take to transition the store from SummerWinds to Timberwinds? What work has been going on since January to get it ready for spring?
A: Pretty much the whole staff is staying on board, and some of the key staff has been here as long as I have, like the assistant manager and the perennial buyer. They worked with me when it was Timber Creek. The transition has been pretty easy. The paperwork [requirements] — that’s the hardest transition. And we’re getting and learning new cash registers, which is a challenge. I feel pretty comfortable with everything else.
Q: Are you installing a new point-of-sale system, too?
A: I think this summer we’re going to do that. I figure it was too much to try to do it with spring right here.
Q: Do you feel ready for spring?
A: Yes, except for the new registers. That’s the biggest challenge right now … I was just worried that if they break, we’d be in real big trouble. We still may have new problems with the new registers and working all of the bugs out. It’s better to do that now before it gets busy.
Q: How are you introducing the new store to customers?
A: We did a small promo in St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles, and probably after spring, we’re going to do a grand re-opening. We’ll change the sign. As soon as everybody (staff) is on board and we get everybody’s sizes, we’re going to do new uniforms. I believe I have six months with SummerWinds before I have to change the signs. It’s a great working relationship with SummerWinds. They even helped me with the new website, Facebook and an email blast. It’s been a great transition so far.
Q: Is there something you’re doing differently than SummerWinds or implementing now that you’re leading the business?
A: Right now, we sub-out landscape and deliveries, and down the road, that may be somewhere where we can expand. My son had a landscaping contracting company, and he closed that down to come work for me, as well. That’s not going to happen right away, but in the future.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue landscaping and a horticulture-based field initially?
A: When I was really young, we lived next door to a truck farm. They grew vegetables for local markets. When I was about 5 years old, I would help work at the truck farm, mostly planting. I think I got paid off in watermelons ... but I liked it. I used to sell tomatoes at their tomato stand off their driveway in the garage. I guess that’s how I got my roots in landscaping.
Q: Do you have any particular niches or strong departments?
A: I carry a lot of unusual plants. I go to Oregon every year and pick out unique conifers and Japanese maples, and I’d say that’s our niche here. We have a lot of collectors who come from other states to buy things. We try to have some of the newest varieties and cultivars, whether it be a perennial or shrub or annual.
Q: When did you get interested in unusual trees?
A: I’ve been collecting conifers since the 1980s. A friend of mine worked for a nursery, and he carried a lot of unusual things, and I was a meat-and-potato kind of person. He showed me weeping things, and I said, “I don’t really think it’s me.” Then I went and helped him dig a Weeping Norway out of his yard, and he gave it to me. It was nothing real fancy, but that’s when I got hooked, and now I can’t get enough; the uniqueness, the textures, the foliage. There’s so many different spruces and pines. I usually try to cheat with the trees that don’t really like it here.
Q: How is your role going to change now that you’re moving from manager to owner?
A: I’m going to be inside a lot more than I want to be (laughs.) More paperwork. I think that’s going to be the biggest change. I was really buying all of the trees and shrubs, and I still am … My passion is plants, not to be in an office all of the time.
Interview edited for length and clarity.