Q: You worked at Tonkadale Greenhouse through every stage of your life. What was your favorite part of that experience, and do you have a favorite story of something that happened while you were working at Tonkadale?

A: As a kid, my brother and I used to plant begonia and impatiens plugs in the old hoop houses and earn 50 cents per flat. That was a big deal.

My birthday is in May, so many times we celebrated after hours, using the check-out counters as our dining room, enjoying take-out, cake and ice cream. There was one year when my grandfather ate my birthday cake the night before the party. I think he was sleep walking, or so I heard.

Jessie Jacobson, front right, and the Tonkadale team.
COURTESY OF JESSIE JACOBSON

Q: Through all the years you were working there, did you ever envision yourself becoming an owner?

A: I did envision myself as owner or a leader of the company. I officially announced I was ready to take ownership in the fall of 2015. We worked on the purchase agreement/transition plan for 18 months with the guidance of a consultant, our future accountants and our attorney.

Making plants approachable — and presenting them beautifully — is a focus for Jacobson.
COURTESY OF JESSIE JACOBSON

Q: You took over once your grandparents were ready to retire. Did you also feel ready to become an owner?

A: Yes, we were all ready to take the next step. However, it wasn’t easy getting to this point. Over the previous 10 years, there was a lot of deliberation and big questions. I also was very busy personally — I got married, had two children, bought and sold a house. There is a huge learning curve when you take on a leadership role. Ten years was the magic number. I became proficient, or at least very familiar with, all aspects of the business.

Q: What changes are you hoping to bring to the business?

A: Many of the changes we are making are behind the scenes and have to do with employee culture, engagement, accountability and our core values. The success of our employees and the success of the workplace is essential to a productive workspace and successful business. We have also tried new and different events and strategies to bring in the next generation of gardeners/consumers of plants. We have been very successful at this, and the basis of our strategy is to make gardening and all that goes with it more approachable for gardeners of all levels and life stages. I am choosing not to elaborate on these strategies because this gives us competitive edge and uniqueness in our market. All of our strategies are rooted in our passion for the work that we do. You have to start there. If you have that, it shines through brightly. 

COURTESY OF JESSIE JACOBSON

Q: What does a typical day look like for you now that you’re an owner?

A: [It] depends on the season. During peak season, I am out on the floor 90 percent of the time. I like to be right in there with our team, leading the presentation of merchandise, welcoming and assisting customers. My favorite days are planting combination planters at the design desk. This makes my heart sing. During non-peak season, I create more routine and structure. Monday is my office day. Tuesday is my day off. On Wednesdays, our visual team meets to plan our strategies for presentation, display and details for the upcoming week and any events and workshops. Thursdays are [spent] on the floor working on presentation and design. I have labeled Fridays as “Friday fun day.” This is the day I get to do what I love to do, at least most of the time. Weekends are dedicated to workshops, events and customer service.

Q: What is your favorite part of being an owner, and what is your least favorite?

A: My favorite part of being the owner is the opportunity I have to create something of value for our community, our staff, our industry and our customers. These can be tangible and non-tangible items including beautiful product and design, education, community support/involvement, mentoring and inspiration.

I don’t think it’s fair to have a least favorite part. I am grateful for the opportunity I have. There are struggles, but that is what makes this real. I have learned and developed through mistakes and struggles. I guess the hardest hits to take are unsavory customer interactions. They don’t happen often, but they do happen, and it’s never fun. We are all just people doing our best, and sometimes we falter.

Since taking over as owner of Tonkadale, Jacobson says her team has come together to put the company’s core goals into action.
COURTESY OF TONKADALE

Q: Have there been any unexpected situations or moments that have come up since you’ve been owner, and did you feel prepared for them?

A: I wasn’t expecting to move to a place of gratitude in my role as the owner. As I develop as a leader, have successes and see my team be successful, I really have a sense of appreciation and gratitude. I was as prepared as I could be to take the job. Through the transition and through the first year of ownership, deliberative planning played a large role. We are now finally getting glimpses of what the future will look like, and that is exciting, rather than working day by day just to make it through. I am also currently working with an executive coach to develop leadership strategies for myself, my team and the organization.

One of the issues that I have encountered after taking ownership has been bias, implicit and explicit, related to being a young, female owner. This kind of bias, or you could even say discrimination, still exists. I really have to prove myself to gain traction in some situations especially when the going gets tough.

Q: How was your first spring as an owner?

A: I purchased the business on April 1, 2016. [That year] was my first spring. It was a tough one. We went into spring prepared and ready to go, but had a major set-back in production related to media quality and soil fertility. In these types of situations, you always look at yourself first — what external inputs can we adjust, [including] pH, fertility, water — before you look acutely at the actual inputs. In this case it was the soil. The soil we used devastated much of our 2016 hanging basket crop and caused an exorbitant amount of stress and anxiety for myself and my team. But you know what, we made it through and figured out how to capitalize in other product categories to make up the difference in sales.

The spring of 2017 has been phenomenal. The plants have never looked so beautiful, our presentation was the best ever and our team worked and is working like a well-oiled machine. That being said, there are tough days and we work really, really, really hard. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Maddie is an intern with the GIE Media Horticulture Group.