March 2, 2020
Conferences are illuminating

Conferences are illuminating

BY ROD McDONALD

For our readers who do not get out to the Prairies too often, let me assure you Saskatoon is one of our crown jewels. It has beautiful parks flanking the riverbank, interesting architecture anchored by The Bessborough Hotel, and some great restaurants. From The Broadway Café, which is an old-school diner where you can get liver and onions (don’t make that face), to Calories, a local gem where the food by Chef Remi is incredible. My wife and I love Saskatoon, and a weekend holiday includes staying at The ‘Bess’, walks along the South Saskatchewan, and great meals at the aforementioned eateries. 

Now that I have my love letter to Saskatoon written, let me move on. In November, I spoke at the Saskatchewan Greenhouse Growers Conference in Saskatoon. I had a chance to connect with long-time friends from High Q Greenhouses, Paridon, Jeffries, Aubin’s, Byland’s and Van Noort Nursery Products. I also had the chance to meet up-and-coming greenhouse operators who had questions and then more questions. This column is based upon those interactions. 

I often begin my lectures and seminars by asking How many people present have a mission statement and a business plan? A written one, not something inside their heads. I was not surprised when only two people put up their hands. 

Mission statements and business plans are similar to wills. They are important, and no one argues that point, however we take our sweet time getting around to writing them out. We procrastinate. So many new operators I speak with have no idea how important the mission statement and business plan are to their success. They worry that once written, they are forever and a day, stuck with those plans. Nothing is further from the truth. A mission statement and business plan are there to serve your needs, and they can and should be changed regularly. 

A mission statement, simply, defines who you are or who you hope to become, and a business plan outlines how you plan to get there. It is that simple. Yet, there are some who are afraid of this process. There is no need to be afraid or reluctant. Those two documents are there to serve you, and if done correctly and followed, will guide you through your career. 

I visit greenhouse and garden center operations and ask, “How is business?” 

I am always amazed when the answer is, “We are getting by,” or “We were able to pay our bills this year.” To me, those statements or expectations are not coming from someone who has success as a motivator. Phrases such as above indicate survival mode. None of us went into business to exist within survivor mode. 

We had, and have, much higher expectations for ourselves.

Another topic about which I am quite passionate is competing with box stores. I talked about how following the box stores’ low price policy was a recipe for disaster. A box store has so many products in the mix, they can afford items that are at or below cost. For an independent to follow suit, is a fast-track to bankruptcy.  

Every operator, big or small, needs to go after their vulnerable flanks. Box stores have no concept of what service really means, though they do pay lip service to it. You and I both know that throwing a warm body into customer service does not meet the customers’ needs. How often have we seen staff at the box stores who are tag readers? “It says it can grow in sun or part shade.” 

We can also compete with box stores when it comes to quality. No secret here, but box stores always look for the best price. Their drive for low pricing forces quality into a downward spiral. The independent, especially when we grow our own plants, not only understands quality, but we can achieve it in a marketplace dominated by price — but lacking in value. 

We must always keep in mind price is only one part of the equation. Quality, service and selection are the other three components that make up a sale. In those three areas we shine, and distinguish ourselves from the box stores.  
I mentioned how an independent does not want everyone as a customer, as some want to grind us into submission. They quote the lower price offered up at Wal-Mart. No mention of the difference in quality or care. Yes, they will talk our ear off to obtain all of the valuable information, but they are not loyal. They take that information and shop at the box stores. They see themselves as smart consumers, using our knowledge, but never rewarding us with the sale. We do not want those people as our customers. The audience nodded their heads as I made my points. They, too, have been burned in the trenches. 

During one Q and A, an independent asked for my opinion on half-price sales. That was waving the red flag in front of the bull. I didn’t snort, but I came close. I told my audience I was categorically opposed to half-price clearance sales. I told them when I was starting out in the ’70s and ’80s, it was standard procedure for greenhouses to put their remaining stock on sale for half price come June 1st. Why, I asked as a new operator, do we look after these plants with water, fertilizer and care, and then devalue our product by reducing the price? I refused to engage in the insanity of half-price sales, believing there was a much later market — not only into June, but July and August as well. I took heat for my decision. I had people arguing with me all those years ago, that “everyone else has their plants on for half price.” I held my ground, and eventually, those June 1st half-price sales were no more. When we reduce price, we are cutting from our bottom line, and that is not profit. Rather, that line is how we feed our families. 

The conference was an interesting experience, to see new and young entrepreneurs struggling with many of the same issues that I had to face years ago. There are answers to most of our questions, and when we look for those answers, we find we are well on the road to success. 

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.