On Aug. 30, Seattle-based retailer Swansons Nursery announced that three long-time employees were purchasing the business and forming a new ownership team. President Brian Damron, general manager Leslie Bruckner and nursery buyer Gabriel Maki bought the company from previous owner Walter Kerwin earlier in the year.
The new owners expect a smooth transition of leadership, as Damron and Bruckner in particular have been acting as de-facto owners since Kerwin’s retirement in 2009. We spoke with the team of new owners about their decision to buy and what it means for the future of the 95-year-old IGC.
Garden Center: What led to your decision to purchase the business?
Brian Damron: It definitely wasn’t a long-running decision. It was more of an opportunity that came up at the end of last year. There hadn’t been much discussion with the previous ownership about a transition until the end of last year. The previous owner, who bought the business in 1976, had actually retired at the end of 2009. So, he was involved in the business for a year or two after that part-time, but he hasn’t been involved in the business for close to ten years. We’ve all been here for longer than the owner’s retirement, and I had been running the business as president for the last four years, and when it was communicated to me that the owner was looking at his options for his assets, I took the opportunity to make an offer [in April 2018].
GC: Has there been any difficulty in the transition so far?
Leslie Bruckner: We’ve been doing our jobs here for over a decade and Brian and I have been running the nursery, pretty much, for the last four or five years. So, in the aspect of the business itself, that continues. We continue to engage our customers and look for ways to improve that. I think that piece [of the transition] has been really good. One of our goals in the transition is that customers and our team would really not notice the transition. I think that has been successful. Our customers are very excited that we’re continuing.
BD: It’s been a very positive reaction from the community, for sure.
GC: Are there any specific new goals or new directions you want to take the business in as new owners?BD: I wouldn’t say there’s any change in direction. What was a little bit unusual about our business was that I operated as an owner despite not being an owner. So, when I say the owner wasn’t involved, he 100 percent entrusted me with full autonomy over everything, so I operated as if I owned it and I care a lot about the business. So, as far as that goes, it’s actually just staying with the plan and the course we’re already on.
Q: Are there any big projects, improvements or new departments on the horizon for Swansons?
BD: Our business has improved a lot, especially in the last four years. We’re 40 percent larger than we were four years ago, and as far as investment, we’ve invested heavily in our facility and our team over that period, so that was part of a long-term plan. There may be new divisions in the future, but currently, it’s a continuation of creating an even better experience for customers in our store.
LB: Our mission statement talks a lot about partnering with our customers, and I think [we’re] continuing to look for ways to do that and help our customer. We started the hashtag #heyswansons four years ago, and that was one way we were able to expand how we work with our customers and help them succeed. I think our goal would be, how do we continue to improve that, so that our customers have what they need in their garden and the rest of their world.
BD: A big part of our strategy is that we take advantage of the opportunities our consumer market puts in front of us. That changes over time, and it’s not that it shifts from year to year, but it does move. So, we’re set up to take advantage of that.
LB: [#heyswansons] is part of the social media engagement that’s so important, especially in Seattle. We have a demographic - that’s how they communicate now. They can snap a photo and attach #heyswansons and ask a question or ask ‘what plant do I put here.’ So, it helps expand to more demographics than just the demographic that uses a phone to call us.
BD: “It gets our expertise outside the borders of our store and that’s a big thing we want our community to know; we are the experts and we’re there to answer their questions, whether its on our sales floor or off.”
Q: Brian and Leslie have been acting in significant leadership roles for years now, but is there a system in place for sharing ownership responsibilities among the three of you?
BD: Without getting into the complexities of the operating agreement and all that fun stuff, it’s going to work similar to how it has worked. We’ve been in these roles - Gabriel’s role is changing now, I’d say the most out of the three of us, but he’s been here a long time and has progressed to the point where he’s joining us in decision-making processes that Leslie and I have been involved in together for many years. We each have different areas that we take on. Leslie’s very much in charge of day-to-day operations and I set the strategic direction and work directly with our buying team and Gabriel is coming on to start taking over more of that role, working with our buying team.
GC: Any final thoughts on the transition process or becoming the new owners of Swansons Nursery?
BD: I’ve heard a lot of talk of banks not being interested in financing garden centers or other similar types of businesses in our industry. When I was approaching the decision of whether or not to put together an offer and work with a financial institution, I found that to not be the case. Banks invest in strong businesses. It has nothing to do with whether you’re a garden center or not. So, I think that gives hope to a lot of transitions for garden centers around the country. If your business is strong, there are people that will back you.
LB: One of the reasons that I was willing to go forward with this was because we have this extraordinary team that cares so much about Swansons and about our customers. It just makes it a really dynamic and engaging group to be a part of. So, to me, that is where our strength lies. The three of us bring lots of experience to what we’re doing, but it’s the team that has developed with us that makes this a really exceptional place for customers to come. They come and they raise their kids here. They just all want to be here, so we’re their second home. It’s the team that does that.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.