View of downtown Denver

Garden Center magazine’s first-ever educational conference took place in Denver, Colorado, February 18-20, 2019. More than 130 people from Oregon to Massachusetts and Florida to Canada attended. Here are just a few highlights from the event, which included more than a dozen educational sessions, several networking opportunities and an awards ceremony to celebrate the 2018 Top 100 Independent Garden Centers.

1. The Garden Center Executive Summit kicked off with a keynote from Chris Taylor, president, CEO and co-owner of Fisher’s Technology based in Boise, Idaho. He detailed his company’s process for hiring, recruiting and fostering a positive work environment. Tips he shared with attendees included:

Always Be Recruiting – keep a pipeline of people who might be a good fit.

From left: Michelle Simakis, editor; Susan Bachman West and Mark Bigej
Chris Taylor

Don’t take notes during interviews — jot down thoughts before and after — note-taking hinders trust with candidates. Also, do less than 10 percent of the talking during interviews.

Interviewing requires time and careful questioning, but monitor gut feelings during the process, too. Don’t ignore them.

When hiring people, move from a probation mindset to a celebration mindset. Welcome them with something as small as a personal note or a new hire kit that includes things they may need for their jobs or branded company apparel. This small gesture creates a positive culture from the get-go.

From left: Tammy Behm, Casey Landa and Madison Landa Williams
Ian Baldwin

2. Professional Speaker Mark Graban of Constancy, Inc., shared advice for how garden centers can implement lean principles. A lean mentality centers on putting customers first and prioritizing the most valuable resource at any business — people. When companies implement lean business strategies, their first step should be pinpointing problems they are trying to solve, which will vary. One suggestion he provided is to organize a daily staff huddle, a 5- to 10-minute stand up meeting, to ask employees what ideas they have to improve the business and what they are hearing from customers.

3. Susan Bachman West, president of Bachman’s, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with six lawn and garden center stores in addition to more than two dozen floral outlets at a local grocery store chain, said that fostering a positive company culture helps contribute to staff longevity. “We’re a family business, but my family is much, much [bigger] than just my blood relatives,” Bachman West said. She is one of many family members who has worked for the company during its more than 130-year history. “Everyone who works in this organization is my family, and I treat them like that, as well. And I think that’s really an important part of our culture, and our employees know that. Our employees know that they are valued, and they stay for those reasons.”

Sarah Vanek and Mick Mulhall
Rob Sproule

4. Mark Bigej, COO of Al’s Garden & Home, with four retail locations in the Portland, Oregon, area, echoed Bachman West’s sentiment and discussed how his family-owned company engages employees. “We encourage employees to help make improvements,” he said. “We continually express that we want to hear from them. We want them to make their job easier, which … makes us more efficient.”

5. The conference included talks from established garden center executives and also three leaders who are in their first year of ownership. Madison Landa Williams and Casey Landa, third-generation owners of Virginia-based Boulevard Flower Gardens, said despite construction delays and other issues that occurred during a rebuild of their garden center, engaging with the community helped them rebound. Landa Williams said taking a “head over heart” approach helped in determining which key categories they would keep and which they would eliminate as they reimagined the business and built a smaller retail store. Tammy Behm, owner of the new Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop in Webster Groves, Missouri, said it was a conscious decision to put coffee in the name first instead of garden. “We want to attract people in the coffee world, because we feel that’s an opening of a dialogue,” she said. She also encourages customers to enjoy the space, as word of mouth is one of the most valuable marketing tools. “People will have their business meetings in our greenhouse, or people will play chess [or other] games and hang out, “Behm said. “We rent our greenhouse for all kinds of things — [including] birthday parties and bridal showers.”

Jessie Jacobson

6. Ian Baldwin, veteran retail consultant in the garden center industry, unveiled the five most important metrics for garden centers. They included sales volume, customer counts, and — the one most often overlooked — labor hours. He encouraged attendees to not sweat the small stuff — “sweat the big stuff” and closely monitor what garden retailers spend the most money on — inventory and employee pay.

7. Mick Mulhall, president, and Sarah Vanek, education and outreach manager at Mulhall’s in Omaha, Nebraska, outlined the considerations that went into creating their robust and well-followed Instagram page. Although the company sells much more than just houseplants, the Instagram account showcases mostly indoor plants because they dominate the horticulture conversation on Instagram. Mulhall's established a voice and personality for the social channel, considering traits like “sentimental” and “sense of humor.” They also solidified a look and feel for images, one of the guidelines being that they are realistic depictions of plants in real environments.

8. Jessie Jacobson, president and owner of Tonkadale Greenhouse in Minnetonka, Minnesota, took some cues from the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High,” and considers both “caring personally” and “challenging directly” when interacting with employees. She discussed her company's review process, which includes the essential self-review and a 360 model, with feedback from the whole team.

9. Rob Sproule, co-owner of Salisbury Greenhouse and owner of DIG Marketing, provided marketing expertise and advice catered for independent garden centers. He explained to attendees why they should move away from words like “quality” and “service,” and why Millennials are “immune to traditional marketing.” Email marketing is one of the strongest tools garden centers can use to engage customers. The key is shifting from selling and promotions to providing education and experiences. When brainstorming ideas for newsletters, consider what you want to tell customers, what customers are asking, and what the general public is asking, he said.

10. Independent garden centers’ competition isn’t just big box home and garden stores and online retailers like Amazon, said Julie Kouhia, CEO of Molbak’s Garden + Home in Woodinville, Washington, during her keynote presentation on day three of the event. IGCs are competing with any other retailer hiring employees and any other business vying for the disposable income of customers. Garden centers are also competing with grocery stores, apparel brands and gift and home stores, which include Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Target. That’s why it was more important than ever, she said, for Molbak’s to go through the process of redefining who they were as a business and examining what changes they needed to make to be a great employer and retailer for this generation. One aspect they reviewed was how they paid and compensated employees to be sure they remained competitive.

Julie Kouhia and Ian Baldwin

11. Richard Christakes, CEO of Alsip Home & Nursery, with three locations in Indiana and Illinois, shared reasons why retailers need to be selling products online. He also reviewed his best practices and what he has learned along the way. His research included online plant purchases from dozens of retailers to determine the best packaging, for example.

12. Lindsay Squires Chrisp of Tagawa Gardens in Centennial, Colorado, explained why it's important and how garden centers can become trusted gathering places in their communities. One quote that has stuck with her during her tenure at the garden center came from Ken Tagawa: It’s not just about selling. It’s about giving back to the customer. It’s about adding value.

Richard Christakes and Michelle Simakis
Lindsay Squires Chrisp

“Things are broken and aren’t quite what they were meant to be. So how can we create a space where [customers] can come without putting up their guards and filters?” she said. She said the key is to invest in them and to care for them. “Our community needs that, and I know as garden centers, our industry can answer that need.”