May 9, 2002
Mori Nurseries celebrates a half-century of growth

By Rita Weerdenburg

With most of Canada's major wholesale growers having recently celebrated or soon anticipating milestone anniversaries, the Canadian nursery industry is coming of age. They are doing so at a time of unprecedented growth. A booming North American economy and a healthy export trade have supplemented the gardening trend and the subsequent demand for nursery stock. As a result, most wholesale nurseries are engaged in major expansion programs of a magnitude that no one would ever have considered possible when they first started their businesses.

     Having expanded from growing a few hundred ornamentals to supplement their fruit tree production, to their current status 50 years later as one of Canada's largest wholesale nursery growers with locations across Ontario and into the U.S., Mori Nurseries is a classic example of how the nursery industry has grown and matured to meet the needs of our increasingly garden- and landscape-conscious society.

     The son of Italian immigrants, by his early 20's Leno Mori was ready to branch out from the family fruit farm and into the nursery business, but his father Vittorio took some convincing. A year later, however, and over the objections of his skeptical father, Leno planted a few hundred ornamentals along side the fruit trees and vines on the family farm. As a consequence, Mr. Mori Sr. wasn't too anxious to come to his son's rescue either, when he felt compelled to ask for assistance for his young and struggling business. "He told me to figure it out on my own," says Mr. Mori, "and many times since then I've come to realize the wisdom of his approach. Helping doesn't always help."

     Those first 500 ornamentals planted 50 years ago may have even been considered overproduction at the time, but convinced he was on the right track, and aided by aggressive marketing - including door to door sales of residential landscape plantings - Mr. Mori continued to convert part of their fruit tree production to nursery stock production.

     While reinvestment has always, and continues to be, an ingredient to the company's success, the price of land in Ontario's banana belt has always fetched a premium price and consequently, it was not until 1962 that Mori's embarked upon their aggressive land acquisition strategy. Once they did start, however, there was no turning back and Mori's acquired at least one additional farm - some large and some small - every year for the next 28 years.

     One of the company's first acquisitions was a 90-acre farm in Harrow, Ontario, 400 km away from their home base. Recalling the details of that transaction, it was a deal that was meant to be, says Mr. Mori. "I had always admired that particular farm," he reminisces. "On this particular day I felt compelled to stop and ask the owners if they would consider selling. To my surprise, they asked me to name a price." Fearing he might develop the proverbial cold feet on the drive home, Mr. Mori spent the night at a local motel so that he could submit his formal offer the next day. He soon learned that a number of people in the area - including the lawyer he had retained - had made previous, unsuccessful offers on that property, a fact that slowed down the transaction. He persisted, however, and soon, with the help of a brother-in-law, Mori's established a growing farm in southwestern Ontario.

     Whether owned by the company, by Mr. Mori personally or by a group of family members, this was to be only the first in a long string of real estate acquisitions away from the company's home farms. With Mori's strong history in the business, fruit tree farms made up the bulk of land purchases. Revenues from fruit production helped to offset some of the initial investment costs until such time as the orchards became less productive and were subsequently cleared to make room for ornamental nursery stock production.

     By the late 1970s, the nursery was well established and ornamentals production had grown to 50 per cent of the company's annual sales. And, with sons Rob and Bill, and son-in-law Jim Garrett taking over the day-to-day sales, administration and production responsibilities, Mr. Mori found himself with even more time to pursue new and challenging growth opportunities.

     One such opportunity took the company south of the border to New York State and the purchase of 550 acres of the 1300-acre Gerber Foods farms. Again, the farm was cropped as a fruit farm and gradually converted to fruit and nursery tree production. Even with a U.S. location, however, Mori's found tapping into the U.S. market to be difficult. Some inventory remained south of the border, but most of the production returned to the Canadian marketplace. Fortunately, the superb growing conditions at this location made it a more than advantageous investment, says Mr. Mori, and today the New York location continues to produce top quality caliper trees for the landscape market.

     The company's venture a few years later into the Michigan marketplace proved to be yet another entirely new learning experience, and highlighted the differences between starting from point zero and taking on an existing nursery operation. Where it was difficult to create a marketplace for their new, Canadian owned and operated New York nursery, Hilltop Nursery, renamed to Newark Nurseries, had a loyal, if somewhat disillusioned client list, based on two previous bankruptcies. In New York, Mori's just naturally adopted those production techniques that worked so well for them on the opposite side of the border. In Michigan, it became necessary to revamp a long tradition of poorly managed, labour-intensive production methods. "There were 27 office staff when we took over in 1989," recalls Mr. Mori. "It took us two years to streamline the administration to eight people."

     The most dramatic difference, however, came at harvest time when Mr. Mori immediately implemented the field-to-trailer-to-cold-storage system the company had perfected for their Canadian locations. "In the past, harvesting at Hilltop used to employ 125 casual labourers. I instructed our production manager to arrange for 50 to 60 people. For whatever reason, only 35 showed up, and in the end, we were still able to accomplish what had taken four times as many people in previous years."

     The purchase of Hilltop Nurseries also led Mr. Mori into the fascinating world of plant patent ownership. Part of the Hilltop asset base included - or so it seemed - North and South American rights to the Gisela dwarf cherry rootstock. The ownership rights were not as clear cut as Mori's had originally anticipated, however, necessitating a trip to Germany to negotiate full patent rights in conjunction with former Hilltop Nursery owner Wally Heuser. As world demand for cherry trees grown on the Gisela dwarf root stock is beyond the capacity of any single grower, the new company, Gisela Inc. has negotiated growing rights with seven U.S. and one Canadian fruit tree grower.

     Eventually, Mr. Mori found the arm's length management of Hilltop to be too onerous. Heeding the advice of his family to lessen his personal workload, the company was sold to a small consortium of investors and supervisory personnel, on the understanding that he would continue to remain involved as a consultant for a suitable transition period.

     Always willing to try the new and the different, Mori's also made some tentative forays into Mexican marketplace with the intention of developing a customer base for their fruit tree production and possibly a container growing location. Once again, overcoming prevailing customer resistance proved to be difficult. "Even when the quality was there, Mexican fruit farmers were simply not willing to pay the same price for quality locally grown stock that they gladly paid for U.S. grown stock," explains Mr. Mori. While Mori's continues to maintain a Mexican presence through their joint venture with the Armendariz family fruit tree business, market resistance and weather that has proven to be too hot for successful container production have convinced them to all but discontinue their Mexican growing operations.

     Their many land acquisitions have made it possible for Mori's to sustain their policy of crop diversification, as farms in different micro-climates and with different soil structures allow them to tailor their production to each region's specific growing conditions. While they closely followed the industry trend to container production, Mori's strength continues to lie in their extensive field production. Continually expanding to meet marketplace demand, the nursery division, growing a complete selection of inventory, from caliper trees for the landscape market to evergreen and deciduous ornamentals for the retail marketplace, now accounts for 85 per cent of the company's annual sales. And, while fruit tree production now stands at 15 per cent of company sales, Mori's remains as one of Canada's major producers of hardy fruit trees. The company's early 1990s purchase of the former Downham Nurseries, (since legally renamed to Downham Nurseries [1993] Inc.) provided Mori's with an ideal opportunity to quickly tap into the ever-expanding mass merchandiser market. Operating as a completely separate entity, the 500-acre Downham Nurseries is the major supplier of nursery stock to the Canadian Tire chain of stores.

     One opportunity not aggressively pursued by Mori Nurseries is the large, apparently insatiable U.S. marketplace. "We try to keep our sales to the U.S. market to 10 per cent of annual sales," says Mr. Mori. The company instead considers it a priority to focus on developing loyal relationships in their Canadian marketplace, which covers the Quebec and Maritime as well as Ontario markets. "I don't want to build a dependence on a market that is directly tied to the fluctuating value of the Canadian dollar, " explains Mr. Mori.

     Part of his own personal quest to always be on the look-out for the exciting new challenges keeps Mr. Mori closely tuned to the production side of his nursery business. A current project being conducted in cooperation with the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario (HRIO) and five other local fruit farmers to study the feasibility and viability of close-planting of orchard trees to improve yield per acre, for instance, is now in its fifth year and showing great promise.

     The techniques used in the propagation department, which continues to be Mr. Mori's personal domain, are under constant evaluation to ensure maximum efficiency. He is consulted regularly by their production staff to develop the strategies and techniques essential in meeting the endless challenges inherent in the day-to-day operation of a diverse growing operation. This ongoing consultative process has led to numerous innovations, including the development of the weed sleeve, essential in achieving the company's goal of reduced herbicide use.

     Time passes on, allowing for the evolutionary process of change. The celebration of a milestone event, such as Mori's 50th anniversary, allows for the opportunity to not only reflect on their nature and impact, but also the role they have played in being a part of those changes. From the introduction of container growing to the development of sophisticated irrigation systems, Mori Nurseries has played a key role in the development and implementation of new production techniques. It is, however, says Mr. Mori, the changes that have arisen as growers continue to respond to their customers' expectations that represent the most significant changes to the industry. From improved transportation methods to better service the needs of their clients, to the implementation of merchandising programs, which allow Canada's leading growers to take a more active role in the marketing of their products, the nursery industry has evolved far beyond even the most enthusiastic of expectations.

     No doubt we will be saying the same of the changes to come over the next 50 years.