Nursery operation grows on businessman
Unlike many nurserymen, Bob Terry wasn’t drawn to the industry by a fascination with plants.
As a financial turnaround expert, he was recruited by a bank in 1987 to operate an Oregon nursery that had fallen on hard times.
Terry at first refused the position, then accepted only reluctantly.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I didn’t know a petunia from a begonia.”
Within 18 months, Terry had returned the company to profitability and eventually sold it to another nursery operation.
By that time, the nursery industry — particularly the people in it — had seriously grown on him.
While the business world often seems populated with liars and fly-by-night operations, folks in the nursery industry are generally honest and work together, Terry said.
He was also ready to leave the hectic lifestyle of simultaneuously managing several firms across the U.S.
“I was tired of traveling to run all these companies,” Terry said.
In 1996, he went into business for himself and bought an existing nursery, Fisher Farms, in Gaston, Ore.
The company’s range of customers and products was relatively narrow at that point, selling about 400 varieties of rhododendrons, junipers, conifers and azaleas to three main clients.
The danger of relying on a small group of buyers became apparent as two of the three ultimately closed down.
“It almost killed the company,” Terry said.
Fortunately, Fisher Farms had already begun to diversify its products and customer base, enabling it to survive the demise of the clients.
Today, the company sells roughly 1,200 plant varieties to about 300 customers, with about 100 of them responsible for the bulk of the transactions.
Fisher Farms has about six large customers, but that list doesn’t include many of the “big box” stores that provide a large volume of sales for some nurseries.
Terry said he has ceased doing business with all the mass chain stores, aside from Costco, which treats “you as a partner in business.”
The quantity of plants that can move through big box stores can be enticing to nurseries, but Terry said he avoids them in favor of independent garden retailers.
Some big boxes have adopted a system that Terry describes as “pay-by-scam” in which the nursery basically sells plants on consignment, he said.
“There’s no money there,” he said. “There’s no incentive for them to see you do well.”
Aside from neglecting plants, some mass retailers also have bizarre misconceptions about the nursery industry, Terry said.
In one case, a well-known company requested that plants be delivered to its stores in February, even to frigid areas like North Dakota, he said.
Terry said he ended the relationship rather than risk losing a huge number of plants, which the retailer wouldn’t reimburse.
“Their idea was to be the first in the market with fresh product,” said Terry, noting that the nursery that filled the order went out of business.
Turbulence in the nursery industry has been particularly rough in the years after the housing bubble collapse, and Terry predicts the “shakeout” still isn’t over.
Improved genetics will be key for nurseries that want to stay competitive, as the demographics of the gardening market are changing, he said.
Younger plant consumers aren’t as enthusiastic about puttering around in the garden as the older generation, preferring plants that require little maintenance, Terry said. Houses are also being built on smaller lots, leaving less room for large trees and shrubs.
The solution will be producing tough, compact plants that require less watering, he said.
Fisher Farms, for example, sells columnar apples and container-grown raspberries that can be enjoyed by consumers who are limited to a balcony garden.
Consumers will also expect more of their plants in terms of appearance, favoring shrubs that flower throughout the growing season rather than only in spring, Terry said.
“A lot of the old standby products are going to go away,” he said.
On the production side of the business, Fisher Farms has been investing in efficiency.
“The idea is to get more done with the people we have,” said Robin Spreitler, the company’s production manager.
For example, the nursery bought an automated pruning machine.
Instead of a crew of workers clipping plants with shears, the containers are fed into a machine that spins them around and cuts them with mechanized blades.
“It is labor saving, but one of the biggest advantages is uniformity,” said Spreitler.
The nursery is also getting a specialized fork that allows forklift operators to lift and move 144 containerized plants at a time.
The equipment allows one worker to perform a task that typically required four.
Efficiency improvements don’t necessarily require spending money, Spreitler said. Waste can be reduced by simply shifting the layout of certain operations.
“We’re looking at really maximizing the amount we can get done in a day, and per man hour,” she said.
Occupation: Owner of Fisher Farms nursery and vice chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners
Hometown: Hillsboro, Ore.
Family: Wife, Penny, a grown son and daughter, and eight grandchildren
Education: Attended Jefferson College in St. Louis, Mo., for two years