Transitioning to a new generation

Growers are a special breed, and for many people who grow up in the business, it has a special attraction. As many long-time family business owners start thinking about retirement, some of their children are coming home, taking a larger role and adding responsibilities in the family business. 

Anyone who has done this can tell you that the transition is so important to success. Four Star Greenhouse recently talked with four younger growers and retailers about their transitions into business leadership, and they were eager to share their experiences and advice for others contemplating the same move.

"The relationship is job #1"
After earning an M.S. in Horticulture at Cornell University and working several years as Trial Manager at Four Star Greenhouse, Betsy and her husband Derrick returned to the Twinsburg, OH location of her family’s business.

“My husband and I were expecting a child and we wanted to be closer to the family and make some lifestyle changes,” she explains.

Kollman’s Greenhouse has been in the family for 48 years, doing a mix of about 50% wholesale and 50% retail business. Her parents Scott and Sue Kollman handled the business together with the help of some long-time employees. 

“I came in wanting to understand the facets of the business that I hadn’t worked in before, like sales,” she says. Betsy and Derrick moved into the area, gutted their house, started in the business and had a child – all in the first year. 

“When we first came into the business, we had to adjust to all the new circumstances and just gave it time.  In the second year, we were able to pay attention to more details, and by the third year, we’d gotten very comfortable in the role,” she notes. “Now in our fourth year, we feel like we’re hitting our stride.”

Kollman’s Greenhouse Inc. in Twinsburg, OH, flourishes through the combined efforts of the family (shown left to right): Derrick Bresky (shown holding son James), Betsy Bresky, Susan Kollman and Scott Kollman.

She says the transition went very well because they didn’t start making massive changes right away. “The customers and the employees are passionate about the products, and drastic changes can ruffle feathers easily,” she adds. “If you need to change, do it. But if you just want to change, think it over first.”

Kollman’s grows various Proven Winners varieties and has taken advantage of Proven Winners’ free Certified Retail Training Program for her staff. “We also have several customers who have come in with the ‘Gardener’s Idea Book,’ and I can show them the plants they’re looking for,” she says. “I bring a huge knowledge about plants to the customers and I like being able to steer them to plants that will help them succeed.”

Betsy and Derrick have started expanding the contract growing part of the business significantly. “Fundraising is a growing part of the business too. We’ve focused on that lately with good results.” She works with local schools to sell plants (flats, hanging baskets or herbs) or vouchers for fundraising. She also has offered tours and given talks to local community groups to attract new customers.

Another successful way to attract new customers has been Kollman’s recent Facebook advertising. “I bought some Facebook ads and they paid off right away. And our Facebook page gets a lot of traffic in the spring,” she notes.

Both parents have now retired from the business after the three-year transition period, and they are “looking forward to taking a trip down south in May – something they’ve never done,” says Betsy. “Anyone doing this kind of transition needs to have a good relationship with their parents or in-laws. We didn’t really outline the actual transition process but if there are any concerns going in, an outline for that process will help everyone know what to expect up front.”

"Respect each other’s ideas"
Now starting her fifth season back in the family growing/retail business, Shanna Miller feels very much at home.  She graduated from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, then worked at Four Star Greenhouse in growing and marketing for 10 years.

“I started working in our family business when I was 10 and I loved working there,” she says.  “My work in the industry gave me a lot of experience and perspective to bring back to the business.”

Shanna Miller, center, works with parents Lori and Keith as they transition Miller’s Farm Market in Olean, NY.

She explains that she wanted her daughter to be closer to her family, which allowed Shanna to step into the business again. 

Miller’s Farm Market started out growing and selling vegetables, fruits and flowers in 1983. Shanna’s father Keith bought it in 1993 and started building a greenhouse on the production farm, which totals about an acre under cover.  That is in addition to the retail market located a few miles nearby in Olean, NY.

“We grow almost everything we sell – 99% of the plants we sell,” she notes. “My dad kept adding growing space, then rebuilt the market and added two greenhouses there. He did field production, maintenance, mechanical work and construction, while my mother Lori does accounting and bookkeeping.”

The family and two long-time managers who run the retail business share decision-making. According to Shanna, “We all understand the goals of the business and bounce ideas off each other.”

Shanna stepped into the marketing and production roles with a lot of ideas. She handles all planning and ordering for the farm and markets. “Every year, my dad steps back a little more from those roles. We ask ourselves how we can find him more time for himself.”

Miller’s Farm Market plants around 15,000 Proven Winners annuals and perennials every year, and Shanna has found that Proven Winners P.O.P. helps her customers. “We use the ‘Thriller-Filler-Spiller’ signage to help set up our 4-in. container retail sales and make it easy for customers to put together their own combinations,” she explains.

Miller’s Farm Market grows and sells a wide variety of annual and perennial varieties every year.

Shanna uses Facebook to reach her customers, especially before the spring season begins. “Facebook allows us to keep in touch with people between Christmas and Easter. I like to include a lot of photos, with sneak peaks of new varieties we’re introducing.”

She also has reached out to local garden clubs and structured events around their yearly focus. “It is a nice demographic to work with because they already have a basic understanding of plants and gardening. We have exclusive events for them in May and we make it fun with promos and discounts. This year, we’re adding a tour of the farm.”

The transition process has run well for the Millers too, over the past five years. “It is not an overnight thing and it requires patience and genuine respect for each other,” she explains. “At first, it took time to reacclimate to the family business and achieve a balance of respect for each other’s ideas.”

Keep pushing forward
Kyle Canoyer and his brother Brad were just children when their parents Craig and Kathy started greenhouse growing in Griswold, IA, in 1986.  What started as a hobby greenhouse quickly expanded into a wholesale growing enterprise that supplied a large garden center in Omaha, NE for nearly 20 years.

Kyle and Brad both graduated with degrees in Agricultural Economics from the University of Nebraska, and by the early 2000s, were both actively taking over responsibilities in the business.

“In 2005, we realized that if we were going to be sustainable, we had to open our own retail centers in the bigger markets,” Kyle explains.  The first retail store opened in Papillion, NE (Omaha) in 2006, then others followed in Grimes and Ankeny, IA (Des Moines). 

Canoyer’s growing and retail operations in Iowa and Nebraska are managed by the family. Shown here are Amy Wyman (sister), Kyle, Kathy (mother), Craig (father) and Brad (brother) Canoyer.

This was a dramatic shift in the business, as the Canoyers moved out of wholesaling and focused on growing for their retail operations. “We want to be growing 99% of our own product,” he adds.  “Right now, we are at 80% of the plants.  The big push was with issues in trucking, quality, delivery, etc. We wanted to integrate our business to control those things.”

Canoyer’s grows annuals, perennials, shrubs, succulents and tropicals in their greenhouses. Craig grows for the retail stores in Griswold, while Kyle and Brad have additional growing space at their locations.

“My father is probably the best grower I’ve ever seen, and he is now doing what he loves.” Kyle runs the Grimes and Ankeny stores and Brad runs the Papillion store, while Craig handles growing. Each is accountable to the family but has independence to run the operations their way. “In the last 10 years, Brad and I have been doing the financial and decision-making on ordering and growing, and we continue to take on more in our roles,” he adds.

Canoyer’s growth has been steady and rapid.  “The family has done 17 construction projects since it started in 1986,” Kyle notes.  “I’ve just finished four multimillion-dollar projects in the last five years, so we’ve been busy!”

Canoyer’s grows a huge amount of Proven Winners varieties, and the family serves on the Proven Winners Retail Advisory Board.

The business grows an extensive collection of Proven Winners products and the family serves on the Proven Winners Retail Advisory Board.  “Proven Winners has helped us grow our business and we give Proven Winners about 75% of our retail space.”

Kyle says that his transition has gone well and his family’s support has helped him move through business challenges over the years.  “People will tell you ‘No’ a lot, ‘You can’t do that,’ or ‘It doesn’t work.’ But I believe in pushing forward anyway.  There’s no such thing as a plateau in business – you’re either growing or dying.  You’ll never be successful if you don’t want to do what is hard.”

"Go in with an open mind"
After college at Ohio University and a few years at an accounting firm, Leah Grant rejoined her family business in spring of 2017. Grant’s Farm and Greenhouse started in 1978 and now has evolved into a grain farm and retail center operated by her brother Jason, and two additional retail stores located in Batavia and Milford, OH. 

Grant’s grows annuals, hanging baskets, combinations, over 100 types of tomatoes, 40 types of peppers, herbs, and more than 120 varieties of perennials. They grow about 85% of their products for retail and another 15% for wholesale customers. 

Leah Grant (center) rejoined the business in 2017, working closely with her parents Ellen and Danny.

Leah jumped in learning about the business and now does all the ordering and a lot of critical work for the business. “I listen to what customers want and then research it and make our plans accordingly,” she says. “Last year was the first time we sold 12-in. hanging baskets, which we sell for almost double the price of 10-in. baskets. We sold them all, so this year we’re growing five times more because they looked amazing and sold so well. I spent forever researching ideas on what to plant in them because I wanted them to be our very best baskets. I ordered 18 different Proven Winners combinations, so I know those are going to turn out great!”

Her parents Danny and Ellen continue to be active in the business, with the help of long-time managers at the retail locations. “When I first joined the business, I was surprised because I thought I knew what they did from my work in the business before,” she recalls. “I had no idea how much work was involved – it was shocking! And I had worked as an accountant up to 70 to 80 hours a week.”

“Originally, I had thoughts like “Why don’t they do it like this?” she explains. “Now, I understand – it’s difficult and there’s a reason for it. Now I appreciate it.”

As she transitions into the business, Leah’s parents are placing more trust in her judgment, too.  “Our customers have been asking for new perennials, so I went all out and ordered as many as I thought could fit in our greenhouses. My parents were a little shocked when I told them I ordered 5,000 perennials for 1-gallon containers, but I think we will sell them, so they said, ‘Go for it!’  They trust my brother with the farm and me with the greenhouses. I won’t make any crazy decisions.”

The extended Grant family of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and even friends pitch in to help at the annual Open House sale at Grant’s Farm & Greenhouses in Williamsburg, OH and two nearby locations.

With an eye to innovating, she recently replaced old cash registers with iPads using the Square credit card processing, and now has employees clock into work using the iPads, rather than time clocks.

Leah’s interest in the Proven Winners brand is one reason why Grant’s is expanding their orders. “I really like their brand. I know that whenever I order something from them, it will be a great performer and seller.  I just had our first lunch and learn, playing a Proven Winners training video.  I love how they put it together and all I had to do was play it. We all learned things we didn’t know before.”

As Leah continues to transition into more responsibilities, she offers advice for others considering the same thing. “Go in with an open mind and be prepared to work a lot! I consider it fun, and it doesn’t really seem like work at all because it’s with the family. We’re doing what we want to do, and if we do a good job we can make a lot of money too.”
For more information:
Four Star Greenhouse

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