In 1990, Rick and Beth Simpson sold their landscape construction company and focused on building a nursery business. Today, Rolling Green Nursery is the largest retail grower in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. We spoke with Beth Simpson about Rolling Green’s journey to become a Top 100 IGC.
Q: What is the foundation of Rolling Green's success?
A: Our commitment to a good show every day. Around the time we started the nursery, Rick and I did Landscape Magic at Disney. That really stuck with my husband, who tends to be a purist and likes it neat and tidy. That commitment comes through with all our employees — they get it right away. There’s a commitment by everybody to keep things edged and raked, and the mats swept off. That’s been key.
Our customers get it, too. We can be retail therapy for some people. They like to come in and just wander around. They might go out with a perennial or two or five, but they come in and just chill.
Q: How do you communicate your vision to employees?
A: I’d love to be better at training, but I think it’s by example. We ask the right questions, greet everybody when they come in, and just check in with them. If they need help, we’re there. By example is the best way we communicate that to our employees.
We also have our “What It Takes,” which someone gets when they fill out an application. It’s our expectations for customer service and what they can expect as far as physical demands of the job. We’ve worked with an outside HR company for 10-plus years, so we also have an in-depth employee handbook we go over with them.
Q: What are the core strengths of your business?
A: The depth of knowledge in our friendly staff, plus our uncommon palette of plants. One of my bylines is “natives, edibles and ornamentals,” but we have a really nice selection of annuals and herbs, veggies, fruits, perennials, shrubs and trees — a little deeper in Japanese maples and dwarf conifers than most places.
Also, we’re on the floor every single day, listening to our customers. We keep a request book for all the different categories, which we refer to all the time. We try to be able to help people with their projects.
Q: What are the biggest challenges Rolling Green faces?
A: Our unemployment rate in New Hampshire is 2.5 percent, so hiring is sometimes very hard. We have an outstanding core staff, but sometimes there just aren’t enough of us.
Seasonality of the business is hard. We’re open five days a week in March, and then seven days a week from April through December 23rd. In January and February, we have to lay people off. Either they find a temp job or they collect unemployment or we give them a few hours when we’re doing farmers markets.
We expanded and put up a 5,000-square-foot Nexus greenhouse six years ago. That’s helped us expand our season and have some more under-cover shopping, but the seasonality is one of the hardest things in keeping people employed long-term.
“[Plants] are not kittens and puppies. If they look bad, get rid of them. Yes, it’s live stuff, but if it’s not looking good, get rid of it and keep your store looking fresh.” — Beth Simpson, co-owner, Rolling Green Nursery
Q: How does your connection to community and local agriculture figure in?
A: Our marketing philosophy is that what’s good for the community and the environment is going to be good for our business. We do a winter farmers market. We close off about 2,500 square feet of the greenhouse, and we can accommodate 24 farmers and other vendors. We do three Saturdays in November and then the first and third Saturdays through the beginning of March. Weekends in November will be pretty busy, and that’s usually a painfully slow month.
Q: What programs are most popular with your customers?
A: On the plant side, we do a 1-gallon shrub program with Spring Meadow for Color Choice that piggybacks onto our perennial production. It’s a nice entry-level price for people to get into newer flowering shrubs.
On the sales side, we do Bonus Bucks, which drives a lot of traffic in July and August. We give them out in May and June, and it’s $5 for every $50 spent. Then they’re redeemable in July and August.
We also do fundraiser/sales events where we partner with nonprofits. In June, we have a sale and silent auction. Then we have a nursery-wide sale that day and do themed gardens on pallets. I’ve learned less is more; I used to do 20, now I do 12 and sell through them all. The opening bid goes to Rolling Green and anything over that goes to the nonprofit. This June, we raised $2,500 for the nonprofit.
Q: What is your focus for the future?
A: Just watching trends and adjusting inventory to maintain profitability are my biggest priorities, and visiting other garden centers that are doing really well. It helps to know what our colleagues are doing, especially those in the Northeast who have the same weather and the same demographics.
Also, improved efficiencies — we’re always trying to do that. We’re working now to upgrade our Wi-Fi and maybe put up a building where we can get bagged goods under cover for potting to give us more efficiency there.
Q: What advice do you have for other IGC owners?
A: Get out and see what other garden centers or other businesses are doing, and keep inventory fresh. I’ve said to my employees all along — I say this as the daughter of a veterinarian — “these are not kittens and puppies.” If they look bad, get rid of them. Yes, it’s live stuff, but if it’s not looking good, get rid of it and keep your store looking fresh.