Ryan Van Wilgen, vice president of Van Wilgen’s Garden Center
PHOTO BY JULIE BIDWELL
Clockwise from left, Garden Marts: Milford, Guilford, North Branford, the main location and Old Saybrook
PHOTOS COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN'S
Van Wilgen’s Garden Center hosts kid-friendly events and maintains indoor and outdoor activities at its North Branford headquarters to build loyalty with young families, who will hopefully become lifelong customers.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S

In 2020, Van Wilgen’s Garden Center, headquartered in North Branford, Connecticut, will celebrate its 100th year of business.

The family-run operation — which grows and sells Christmas trees, annuals, perennials, tropicals, herbs and vegetables, container trees, shrubs and more — has seen its share of ups and downs over the past century.

The recession of 2008, for example, forced third-generation owner Bill Van Wilgen and his son, Vice President Ryan Van Wilgen, to rethink the company’s business and marketing structure.

“We had lost a million dollars in revenue. We still had all the facilities to grow product and we weren’t maxing them out,” says Ryan Van Wilgen, who returned to his family’s company full time in 2007, following completion of his degree in ornamental horticulture and business at the University of Massachusetts and a brief tenure at another family-run garden center in Oregon.

The father-son team decided to expand their business to incorporate three new, quarter-acre “garden mart” locations along U.S. Route 1 in Guilford, Milford and Old Saybrook, all within roughly a half-hour’s drive from the main, 56-acre garden center in North Branford.

The model allowed Van Wilgen’s to offer easy access to seasonal plants and flowers for residents along the Connecticut coast who might make the trip to the main headquarters.

“We call [the garden marts] our booming plant vending machines,” Van Wilgen says. “We view them as a great marketing tool to get new customers and have further reach down the shoreline. The net margin on those stores is great because of their small footprint and high traffic count. They really kind of saved our bacon.”

Data-driven operations

In addition to extending its physical footprint to boost sales and customer traffic, Van Wilgen’s has also worked hard in recent years to streamline business operations to reduce costs and maximize profits across its four locations.

Ryan Van Wilgen believes strongly in the power of data — and in sharing those numbers with his staff.

Van Wilgen’s uses a robust point of sales system that it upgraded around five years ago, allowing the company to track and reduce inventory discrepancies and increase its gross profit margin. “We’re nice and lean there. We’re not throwing a lot of stuff away,” Van Wilgen says.

But he also tracks customer traffic, sales trends, staffing hours and more — comparing weekly, monthly and year-to-year numbers — in order to help his department managers prepare for and anticipate coming ebbs and flows in their projected future sales and labor needs.

“As managers, we have to be thinking two to three weeks out to ensure that needed inventory is coming in and to watch when revenue starts to dip, so we can be ahead of that in terms of our labor budget, understanding that in June, it’s always going to be half of what May was,” Van Wilgen says. “We’ve challenged our department heads to be conscious of what’s going on [sales-wise] and be quicker to respond with how many hours they actually schedule.”

This so-called “labor budget,” implemented by Van Wilgen three years ago, has saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to date, he says.

Currently, the company’s four-location garden center staff fluctuates from a high of around 100 part-time seasonal employees at the beginning of May to about 50 by July 1, dropping to a core team of about 10 full-time staff in the slow, winter months.

Prioritizing team communication

To keep everyone on the same page, Van Wilgen’s hosts a weekly Monday morning meeting with all its department heads, as well as its three garden mart managers. The team discusses “what happened last week, upcoming sales and promotions, safety reminders, year-to-date and month-to-date sales trends, and other housekeeping items,” Van Wilgen says.

The information is also summarized in a weekly email that is distributed to the company’s leadership team and its assistant managers.

Additionally, every Saturday, Van Wilgen’s hosts a teamwide staff meeting before opening where they share data on the previous year’s customer numbers for that day as well as monthly status goals for sales on Van Wilgen-branded products such as soils and fertilizers.

“It’s wonderful to work in an environment where there’s such transparency, because I know there are a lot of other companies that aren’t willing to share that info,” says Jason Scire, Van Wilgen’s nursery manager, who has been with the company for 20 years. “Communication and transparency with their employees is one of the benchmarks of this company.”

Rich Baker, manager of Van Wilgen’s Milford Garden Mart agrees: “Even though this is a satellite location, they really respect and value our input. Communication is open and we get to be privy to what’s going on at the main location as well, thanks to our Monday morning meetings.”

From Ryan and his father, Bill, down to the department managers, communication is valued across the entire company dynamic.

“Everyone is super approachable,” Baker says. “I feel like I can talk to any of them about any of the issues or problems we may be having.”

This culture of communication is intentional and consistently reinforced: “We’ve always had the philosophy that knowledge is power,” Van Wilgen says.

PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S
PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S
PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S
Van Wilgen’s three quarter-acre garden mart stores, like this one in Old Saybrook, act as “plant vending machines” for customers who may not make the drive to the main location.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S

Empowering staff

PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S

At Van Wilgen’s, each department head is encouraged to operate as if they’re running their own small business.

“They’re all basically handling a million and a half dollars’ worth of revenue,” Van Wilgen says. “I try not to micromanage and instead give them the autonomy to make decisions and come to me when they have a question or need advice. It definitely makes people take ownership of their department.”

By carefully tracking, analyzing and sharing data with his managers and department heads, Van Wilgen hopes to empower them to make their own sound, informed decisions.

“Giving us that autonomy to make our own day-to-day decisions, as well as long-term goals, is great,” Scire says. “It really gives us all great pride in what we do.”

Van Wilgen’s Garden Center has become a data-driven company that tracks sales trends, customer traffic and staffing hours, helping them manage inventory and staff hours.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S

Building customer loyalty

PHOTO COURTESY OF VAN WILGEN’S

Van Wilgen’s works hard to stay top-of-mind for current and new potential customers through its active YouTube presence; consistent, weekly email newsletter blasts; traditional postal mailers; social media posts; and carefully planned on-site, family friendly events like its annual Easter Egg hunt and summer butterfly release.

This past June, more than 300 children — and their parents — packed Van Wilgen’s North Branford grounds to watch the garden center release 200 butterflies.

“We’ve really narrowed our events, to make sure [the effort] is worth it,” Van Wilgen says. “We’re focusing on bigger events, like our butterfly release, that have been a huge hit and pack the parking lot. Kids can watch the butterflies and also receive a little butterfly bush to take home.”

By hosting kid-friendly events and offering a fun, indoor and outdoor playground for kids at its main branch, Van Wilgen’s hopes to build brand loyalty with young families, who can then become lifelong customers.

“We see a ton of young families with strollers walking around,” Van Wilgen says. “Once they buy a house and settle in, that’s when they start to become our customer, and our hope is they’re going to be our customer for the next 20 or more years.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.