Changes in the US Garden Nursery industry

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Linus_Cello

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Is all this flux typical of the Industry?

From Plant Delights email:

Transitions

NC is losing another of its niche nurseries as Architectural Trees of Bahama closes its doors. Gardeners from across the country traveled to Bahama, NC (near Durham), to choose from the amazing woody plants assembled by owner John Monroe. Due to health concerns, John will be switching his focus from large trees to growing annuals…a decision that shocked us all. In the meantime, John has priced all plants at 50% off, so if you’re looking for some really cool large woody plants, you may want to schedule a final visit.

Our long-time friend and former Asiatica Nursery owner Barry Yinger retired and sold his family farm in Pennsylvania last fall, but retirement didn’t last long. Barry tells us that he was lured back to work by the opportunity to become Executive Director of the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research in Pennsylvania. The Henry Foundation is the 50 acre garden and home of the late botanical explorer, Mary Henry. Although Mary Henry isn’t a household name in the plant world, it should be, for nearly every keen gardener grows plants from Mary’s incredible work.


The Henry Foundation garden has never had much of a public face, although it contains a fascinating plant collection, which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. We wish Barry well in working toward renovating the gardens and hopefully making them more accessible to the public.

Congratulations also to our friend Fred Spicer, who has taken over as the Executive Vice-President and Director of the Chicago Botanic Gardens. This is Fred’s third garden, following previous stints with the Morris County, NJ, Park System, and more recently as Director of the Birmingham Botanic Garden. Fred replaces Kris Jarantoski, who retired after 40 years at the garden. We’re sure both will enjoy their new adventures!

A recent shock to the nursery industry was the unforeseen bankruptcy of California’s EuroAmerican Growers on January 23. While most folks have never heard the name before, EuroAmerican was one of three nurseries (along with Pleasant View Gardens in New Hampshire and Four Star Greenhouse in Michigan) who form the plant brand Proven Winners. Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock, you’ve heard of Proven Winners. According to our friends involved with the brand, each of the three PW members all signed a contract that if one partner went belly up, shares automatically went to the other partners, so hopefully the PW brand will be able to continue, despite the loss of its West Coast partner.

Fractures within the PW family had been widening for quite a while, but this was more like an Earthquake. The 47-acre modern production facilities just north of San Diego. which included sixteen acres under greenhouse cover, went belly-up when EuroAmerican co-owners Jerry Church (who owned the land) and John Rader (who partnered to start the business in 1992) couldn’t reach an agreement on dissolving their partnership, and the bank demanded its money back. At the time of the bankruptcy, EuroAmerican owed money to 350 creditors with some vendors owed as much as $10 million dollars. At its peak, EuroAmerican had 375 full time employees and estimated annual revenue of $46.7 million.

After being abandoned for several weeks during the initial Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, wholesaler Altman’s plants swooped in and purchased the facilities. You may not have heard of Altman’s either, but if you’ve ever purchased succulent plants from a big box store, you probably have some of Altman’s plants.

Another hit to the PW brand occurred in January when a fire at PW shrub producer Spring Meadow Nurseries, near Grand Haven, Michigan, destroyed their entire office complex. Fortunately, no staff or plant production was affected and the $1 million dollar loss was covered by insurance.

If that wasn’t enough, another large plant wholesaler for the big box stores (Lowes, K-Mart, Home Depot, etc.) declared bankruptcy…again. Zelenka’s had been a popular name in bankruptcy circles several years ago, when it was purchased out of bankruptcy by the Berry Family of Nurseries. The Berry Family of Nurseries (BFN) was then purchased by Insight Equity Holdings in December 2010.

Now the entire 3,577 acre Berry Family of Nurseries including its 1519 employees are going through the Chapter 11 process. Berry’s bankruptcy was blamed on a wet spring, but it sounds to us like the nursery was simply too leveraged…especially with bankruptcy debt of $187 million and annual sales of $135 million dollars. The top 20 unsecured creditors are owed more than $11 million dollars…ouch!

When Insight purchased the Berry Nurseries we wrote about our skepticism, especially after reading the canned statement by Chris Zugaro, a Vice President at Insight Equity, who stated, “We have been investigating the wholesale nursery sector for some time, and are excited about this investment and working with BFN’s industry-leading management team to build long-term value. Insight Equity and BFN are committed to the nursery business and look forward to considering further investments in the space in the future.” I guess Insight would have been better off investing in an Index Fund.

Yet another huge shock to the industry came when Skagit Gardens, a 50 acre liner producer in Washington State with sales of $25 million, went bankrupt. Skagit Gardens was started in 1966 by Jim and Ruth Youngsman, but had been sold in 2008 to Oregon investment firm Aequitas Management LLC.

Unfortunately, Aequitas was recently sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for Ponzi scheme fraud for hiding its deteriorating financial condition from investors, who had invested over $350 million in funds. Top employees had been exiting for over a year, as word of Aequitas’s trouble spread. Mount Vernon, Washington, is already known for a lack of sun, and working under this additional dark cloud was obviously too much.

A bidding war ensued between Gardens Alive and Northwest Horticulture, a neighboring wholesale producer, and was won by Northwest Hort. Northwest Hort is known for growing far less interesting commodity crops than Skagit’s high end specialty niche, so nurseries around the country are holding their breath to see how the new owners change the businesses, which have now been consolidated under the name Skagit Horticulture.

Another industry retirement notice arrived from our friend Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens in Michigan. Scott built an amazing catalog business by focusing on old heirloom bulb cultivars for the last 24 years. In Scott’s case, he has sold the business to his employees, who have just moved into their new headquarters a few miles away. We wish them the best of luck as they continue filling this lovely niche. And to Scott, job well done!
 

Chicago Chad

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All I can tell you is I have always sold something for employment. I just hope orchids are never one I have to rely on to pay my bills. Probably as volatile as cryptocurrency :)

Tom Kalina told me ten years ago that if orchids is the business I want to be in, I better find a new hobby to make me happy. I'm still not willing to take that gamble.
 

abax

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The wholesale nursery business has been very shaky for
some years. Many smaller business, like our nursery, fell for the big business selling to places like Lowes and Home
Depot. It was a big mistake and I'm glad we didn't take
their offer. It's a big investment to grow the plant material they need to sell, quality goes down and the
small nurseries get into very deep debt. I'm very sorry
to hear other nurseries go down, but there was a choice
some years ago and many family run businesses took the
bait. I'm really glad we didn't. We can grow quality
plant material and sell to large landscapers and set our own prices. Dealing with corporations like Lowes etc. will
quickly set your prices for you...not good at all.
 
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Tom Kalina told me ten years ago that if orchids is the business I want to be in, I better find a new hobby to make me happy. I'm still not willing to take that gamble.

I started growing orchids when I was 9, and by 15 I was selling at shows- mainly repping for Carmela when they did not want to come over. I loved it, and back then there were no orchids at Home Depot or the local grocery store. I wanted to make it my livelihood, until I really started looking around and talking to other vendors.

Even back then, it was largely a game played by those with money from somewhere else. All of the big Paph guys- Rands, Topper, Charles- made their money elsewhere. Harry Freiberg- of Creole orchids which made a lot of great complex Paph crosses- owned one of the largest lumber processing operations in the country. John Martin- Phals, esp reds and equestris hybrids- had been an accomplished surgeon.

There are precious few people who are able to make orchids their primary source of income, or build that business not using other money, and especially so when you throw in the costs of culling and developing a cutting edge breeding stock.

The wide availability of orchids in grocery stores and big box retailers has certainly had a huge impact on the bread and butter business for many who catered to non-orchid growers. And I think this is what really has done in the nursery business in general in the United States.

But for orchids I think you have to make a special consideration for benlate. It was a miraculous fungicide supposedly- but when used on orchids it killed them over time. I still shudder remembering the fallout from that. The benlate debacle put far more orchid people out of business than anything else as far as I am concerned.
 

cnycharles

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Big box stores require expansion by their suppliers, at a pace which is not financially acceptable, and never give nurseries more money. They have put many wholesalers out of business. Also very bad is a company purchased by investors, going public etc. Bankers and investors have no care for providing quality, developing facilities and positive things for the business. A large west coast company bought our greenhouse group in ny/pa, and they tried to make a go selling flowers as if they were trees/shrubs, not responding to customers and making unsustainable deals with large store buyers, all the while eliminating individual plants that didn't make 'enough' profit and not supplying to little nurseries. We supplied many nurseries in ny and the northeast, and made good money doing it (which is why they bought our group, it was well in the black).
Initially the banker company who bought the four greenhouse group tried to run it the same way, but quickly realized they couldn't succeed with that model. They switched back to letting the site managers do what they'd done before and they made money
The last company to buy our group just squeezed all they could out of our sites, emptied everything of value and handed the loan they'd used to buy the group back to the bank and closed them


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