Celebrating 50 years in business is a milestone for any company, but Moana Nursery’s success is even more admirable given its geography. The independent garden center’s three stores sit in northern Nevada’s high desert country, where sage brush and scrub comprise the native landscape and harsh, extreme weather rules. From its 1967 beginnings as a Reno lawn mowing business, Moana’s emphasis on high desert growing has set it apart and sustained it.
Dispensing targeted, top-notch advice
Owner Bruce Gescheider credits the quality of Moana’s gardening advice as the single biggest factor behind its success. “Understanding the high desert separates us,” he says. “We have so many microclimates, it’s literally ‘What side of the mountain are you on?’” Combine climate challenges with a large influx of people from across the country, and accurate growing advice is in demand.
Since Gescheider and his wife, Christie, bought Moana on 2001’s final day, they’ve built on the high desert expertise established by the original owner — who still works for the nursery today. “We often make the claim that we have more certified nurserymen — meaning they’re certified through the University of Nevada’s cooperative extension program on growing in the high desert — than all the other stores, including the big box stores, combined,” Gescheider says.
Each store always has at least one to two “plant doctors” who work in-store and do on-site consultations. “They are all certified arborists, certified nurserymen. Many have horticulture degrees. Perhaps most importantly, they’re all avid high desert gardeners,” Gescheider explains. These key experts are frequent guests on local news stations, and the IGC boasts a strong seminar program and an extensive library of fact sheets on its website. “We’re not hoarding the information, we’re dispensing it freely,” he says.
Providing high-quality, high desert plants
Along with expert advice, Moana is known for plants adapted to high desert gardening and specifically prepped for area conditions. Since the 1980s, the nursery has owned a growing range in Clackamas County, Oregon, where the focus is hardy trees and shrubs. Before the Oregon property, plants brought in from California or other moderate climates simply couldn’t withstand the challenges of the Reno/Sparks area. “Larger trees were really a crap shoot,” Gescheider recalls.
Using native plants wasn’t an option given the region’s sparse natural landscape, so all ornamental plants were brought in. Early attempts to grow in Nevada were unsuccessful, but the Oregon growing range solved that problem. Moana was able to select hardy, adaptable tree and shrub varieties, grow them under beneficial Oregon conditions, then harden the plants to be high desert ready. “Vertical integration was key for us,” Gescheider says. “As a result, our plants were better. It became clear our mission in life was ‘Better Plants. Better Advice. Better Results.’ That’s us.”
Gescheider finds it surprising that more grower-retailers don’t do shrubs and trees. “Trees and shrubs are critical to us,” he says. In the future, Moana will likely expand into growing the types of plants many IGCs grow — annuals, vegetables and perennials — but these crops would be grown in Nevada, close to home.
Conquering economic challenges with diversity
Economic downturns in recent years hit the Reno/Sparks area hard. Moana’s business dropped by two-thirds, but it’s bouncing back. “Thankfully, the eight-year recession is finally over, and we’ve been blessed by some nice economic development in the area,” Gescheider explains. “We’re nowhere near 2006 sales levels, but we’re on the way.”
Rather than shrinking back during the recession, Moana expanded in what Gescheider describes as “a knee-jerk reaction” to generate revenue. They opened a third store, which he says finally looks like a smart decision. Their commercial landscaping division expanded into residential. Interior plant design, rental and maintenance services were added as well. Moana also added a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise store to each of its three garden center locations. This thriving “birdscaping” segment continues to grow.
With the recession finally over, Moana’s biggest problem now is a shortage of qualified labor and housing — a problem shared by every employer in the Reno area. “Compared to eight years of a recession, it’s nice to have these problems,” Gescheider says. “But we’re so far over minimum wage, with full benefit packages, and we still can’t attract enough people to do the skilled jobs, much less the unskilled jobs.”
Focusing on the future and new leadership
Moana’s plans include expanding service-oriented programs. “There’s no question the consumer is changing dramatically from a do-it-yourself to a do-it-for-me, so services are more and more important,” Gescheider says.
He also predicts a fourth store is ahead. However, his immediate attention is on a change in leadership. In July 2017, Gescheider announced he was passing the title of president and CEO to his son Scott, a former naval supply officer and M.B.A. who led Moana’s landscape division for the past 12 years.
Gescheider expects improvements with his son at the helm. “It’s rewarding to see the young leadership of our organization take control and change things that need to be changed,” he says. “There’s certainly an energy difference, but mainly it’s in the technology area and a more disciplined approach to the business across all aspects.” A new Epicor POS system is one example of change that is underway. Gescheider and Christie will remain active owners. Their efforts will focus on expanding marketing and customer service as Moana continues to grow.
“We were so fortunate to hang onto our key people during the recession. We have strong ownership of every single piece of our business that we’ve never had before,” Gescheider says. “You can go right down the list; it’s the strongest team we’ve ever had. The key now is bringing in new talent to that core of people.”
As he considers Moana’s future, Gescheider advises other IGC owners to have a succession plan in place. “It was nice that we had a family member, but it doesn’t have to be family,” he explains. “You have to be willing to both pay for talent and turn the bus over to those talented individuals. That’s not an easy thing for an independent retailer that built their business, but it’s absolutely crucial.”
With Moana’s well-planned leadership transition in progress, Gescheider expects new levels of high desert success ahead.