The genuine article

2018 Horticultural Industry Leadership Awards - 2018 Horticultural Industry Leadership Awards: John Hoffman

John Hoffman’s sincere love of people and plants is reflected in the exemplary business that he and his team have built.

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July 5, 2018
Kelli Rodda
John Hoffman treasures the relationships he’s forged with people in the green industry.
Photo: Eric Waters

When John started Hoffman Nursery 32 years ago, solely growing ornamental grasses, it required a leap of faith. While risky, his decision was inspired by one of his biggest mentors, J. C. Raulston.

When he attended North Carolina State University, John heard J.C. say that the plants of the future were grasses, bamboo and aquatics.

“When he said that, it made quite an impression on me and I took it to heart,” John says.

At the time, John owned a landscape installation company and was using basic commodity plants. He met Edith Eddleman, a landscape designer from Durham, N.C., who was using grasses and perennials in new and interesting ways.

“It also spurred my interest, and I felt like there may be something to grasses,” he recalls.

With motivation from two people in the industry he admired, John sought to start his own nursery, growing and selling grasses. He went to his new bride Jill, who was in the toxicology field, and asked her to start this new venture with him. After a year of marriage, the pair founded Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, N.C., in 1986.

“A lot of other nurserymen and people in the industry thought we were pretty crazy. Here we are doing nothing but grasses and most everyone else is doing all types of plants,” John says.

But he believed in his vision, the one first cultivated in the classroom by J.C., who became a trusted collaborator.

The Hoffmans began growing 1-, 2- and 3-gallon grasses, but realized somewhat quickly that shipping was problematic with the larger-sized containers. They decided liners were a better fit and a viable solution to what the market needed.

“John saw an opportunity in the world of grasses that was unmet. He fulfilled it and stayed with it,” says Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nurseries, a close friend and competitor of the Hoffmans.

Because the market for that crop was new, it took a lot of education and marketing to make growers and landscapers understand the benefits of grasses and how to use them.

“Grasses add so much texture and movement to a garden,” John says. “Plus, they solve a lot of problems in the landscape and they help clean the water, air and the soil. It took time, but we were able to get people to listen.”

Tom Demaline, owner of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio, was an early adopter and started buying grasses from John almost 20 years ago.

“John was a pioneer and jumped on ornamental grasses. We started growing ornamental grasses early on too, and they’ve been a big part of our business,” Tom says. “And they continue to provide a steady market. We can rely on John. With his product, we know what we’re going to get.”

John is quick to credit his team for the success of Hoffman Nursery. Jill deals with the minutiae of running a business, which allows John to be the face of the nursery, interacting with customers, colleagues and friends.

“So many people have been involved in taking this nursery to another level,” John explains. “Jill is instrumental in the business. Our son David has joined us and is the customer experience officer, and Scott Epps, our nursery manager, has been here over 20 years. As marketing director, Shannon Currey has been instrumental in building that department.”

John enjoys collaborating with other growers and is quick to share his experiences.
Photo: Eric Waters

New markets, collaborations

The Hoffmans, with a lot of support from Shannon, have forged relationships with landscape architects, helping that customer base better understand grasses. Groups of landscape architects tour the nursery, and Shannon travels to their offices and hosts a lunch and learn, giving presentations about the benefits of grasses and how they can be successfully incorporated into designs.

“It’s been really worthwhile,” John says. “She’s been getting out around the Southeast. She gets architects excited about the plants. It’s worked out extremely well, because once they start working with grasses, they keep coming back to us.”

The nursery also added green infrastructure (GI) plants, an emerging market that appeals to the landscape trade and municipalities. Green infrastructure refers to the use of natural features to manage water while providing additional benefits, such as recreation space, support for wildlife and increased aesthetic value. Grasses, sedges and rushes are the ideal crop for GI uses because their fibrous root systems anchor soil, slow down water flow, and increase infiltration. They help remove pollutants, and many are well-adapted to the demands of GI features.

“We’re seeing more contractors asking for native grasses and sedges. Landscape architects and designers are dealing with more bioremediation projects and they need plants that can be used successfully in those situations. And if it’s in a community with ponds and catch basins that are front and center, they need something that looks good, too,” John explains.

Hoffman Nursery’s core purpose is “To promote better living through plants,” which dovetails nicely with the GI market.

“The Hoffmans see their opportunity as not just growing and selling high-quality plants, but influencing quality of life for plant users across the country,” says Dr. Charlie Hall, economist and chairholder of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University. “And not just for the plant user, but for everybody, because everybody benefits from green infrastructure projects.”

As they educate the market about GI plants and projects, it’s not just their own nursery the Hoffman team wants to benefit, but the entire nursery industry.

“They’re taking the lead and embracing green infrastructure to help the entire industry drive this market,” says Richard Olsen, director of the U.S. National Arboretum and longtime friend of the Hoffmans. “It’s a tall task to keep this planet livable — down to keeping these urban areas and landscapes livable and beautiful, and John and his team take that very seriously.”

Top to bottom: The Hoffmans first grew larger containers of grasses before switching to liners. John and Jill have complementary skills that have allowed their business to flourish. The couple’s first trade show was in South Carolina. John loves traveling and touring, such as this visit to Penny’s Bend Nature Reserve in North Carolina.
Photos courtesy of Hoffman Nursery

Connections and camaraderie

John possesses an encyclopedia-like knowledge of grasses and is known around the industry as “the grass guy.” But it’s his connection to people that really makes him tick. His mission in life is spending time with family and friends, and meeting new people, he says.

“That makes it all worth it,” he adds. “We’ve made a tremendous amount of friends in the horticulture world. Customers and acquaintances turn out to be friends for the rest of your life. People in this industry are so wonderful — they’re an amazing group of people. They’re so open and answer your questions. I don’t know any other industry that’s like it.”

John loves trade show season, says Jill. It provides him with the opportunity to be with his friends, make new friends and visit new places.

“He can never stay still for too long. He loves to collaborate with people, especially in the plant world,” Jill says. “Collaborations are very important to John. He makes friends with his collaborators, or his friends become his collaborators.” One example is when John and Jill met Richard Olsen, who was then a student at North Carolina State University, and working under John’s mentor, J.C. Raulston.

“We met him on a stone wall in Cullowhee, N.C., at the Native Plant Conference when he was just a mere pup — back when he was an undergraduate at NCSU,” Jill says. That friendship has continued and flourished over the years. Richard and his in-laws even helped construct buildings at the nursery. We followed him as he progressed to where he is today at the National Arboretum. John values what Richard does and appreciates his dedication to the industry and wants to support him whenever and however he can. This collaboration has been a bright spot in John’s life.”

John excels at making connections that benefit others, Steve says.

“He’s a super personable guy and he makes people feel comfortable. He’s a compassionate person about what he does,” he adds.

Not one to sit as his desk for very long — one of the reasons Jill can share an office with him — John is the most content at the nursery during his daily walkabouts.

John’s first soil mixer.
Photo courtesy of Hoffman Nursery

“He loves to see the plants grow. He loves talking to the people who grow the grasses and sedges. He listens to what they have to say and asks them for innovative ideas about how to make things better,” Jill says.

John’s participation in the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) has provided him with the ability to travel, both domestically and internationally, and blessed him with many friends. He was PPA president from 2009 to 2011 and has been a member for dozens of years.

Through PPA, he became part of the International Hardy Plant Union (ISU) and has toured some of the most magnificent gardens in the world, including Piet Oudolf’s home in 2013.

“New plants are always exciting for John. He enjoys travelling to new places to see the plants, but also the people behind the plants. He loves to hear the stories. Drinking in all of the beautiful gardens at Piet’s home was a spectacular day for John, David and me,” Jill says. “Creating relationships and collaborations are what keeps John moving forward and excited.”

And thanks to that international collaboration, Hoffman Nursery now has some of Piet’s selections that will be released this year and next.

Hoffman Nursery crops are found in numerous projects, including New York’s Battery Park.
Photo courtesy of Hoffman Nursery

Through the ISU, John also met Klaus Peters of Germany-based grower Stauden Peters who eventually employed his son David.

“It was a wonderful growing experience for David. He came back with new ideas and a new perspective on the world,” Jill says.

The family also toured nurseries and garden centers in Switzerland and England, and they will visit Poland this summer.

“John has cultivated many friends and collaborators with this group, leading to good times and new plants for the nursery,” Jill says.

He’s brought a lot of grasses into the mainstream that may not have been as popular without his help, Steve says.

“He’s spent a lot of time exploring the market, learning the product line and being ahead of the curve of plant introductions,” he adds.

Nursery, people innovation

John and his team constantly look for ways to reduce labor costs through automation and efficiencies, some of which he first saw in European growing operations. Some of the nursery’s automation includes a transplanter and a trimming machine.

“The trimming machine is pulled over the plants, trims them and vacuums up the trimmings,” John explains. “It’s the biggest labor saver we have, saving weeks of labor. We went from clipping a house in one full day down to 10 minutes.”

John is not afraid of innovation, Richard says.

When you discover you have a passion for plants and are able to hook up with people in that world, it guides you for the rest of your life. — JOHN HOFFMAN

“He’s never beholden to ‘We do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ He’s always thinking, ‘How can it be better?’ He takes tactical risks,” Richard adds. “His was one of the first nurseries I saw that used a hanging trolley system like you’d see in a large greenhouse production system. And he translated it to his poly and hoop houses to increase efficiency and take some strain off his employees.”

Buying in plants from tissue culture helps cut down on some production and labor time.

“We still vegetatively propagate several plants by divisions, but we’re looking at ways to push our business to use more tissue culture and seed,” John explains.

People also bring efficiencies to the nursery. Certain team members have been trained in Lean Flow production (a systematic method to minimize waste) and Six Sigma (a set of techniques and tools for process improvement).

Both Jill and David graduated from the EAGL Program, the Executive Academy of Growth and Leadership, an intensive course that, upon completion, nursery and greenhouse growers receive a continuing education Certificate in Applied Horticultural Business Management from Texas A&M University.

John takes “walkabouts” through the nursery and asks employees for feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
Photos: Eric Waters

Grooming the industry’s future

Since John makes such fast and lasting friends in the industry, it’s no surprise he’s just as happy to help students and the newest nursery recruits.

“If a young nursery professional asked me for advice, I’d tell them to be passionate about what they want to do, care about what they do, and be proud of what they do,” John says. “They may have to fight for it, but it will pay off over time.”

He visits with the young workers at the nursery, asking for their feedback on what’s working and what’s not, which they appreciate, John says.

The Hoffmans have spent countless hours helping horticulture students, something that is extremely important to John.

“We’ve participated in the NALP [National Association of Landscape Professionals] National Collegiate Landscape Competition [NCLC], and we’ve been sponsors of the perennial plant identification competition for the last several years,” Jill says. “John gets to talk to all the participants and gets them excited about the industry. It pumps him up every year.”

With the help of Lean Flow processes, the Hoffmans have made production improvements and adopted some automation to help save labor and take care of their employees.
John, a humble and appreciative person, is quick to credit his team for the success of Hoffman Nursery.
Photos: Eric Waters

In conjunction with the NCLC, the Hoffmans host volunteer work days where college students are paid by the hour, which goes toward their travel fund for the competition.

Since a PPA tour is stopping at the nursery this summer, the Hoffmans hosted a competition to local landscape students to design the front office garden. Two winners were selected from almost 30 drawings, and those winners get free registration to the PPA tour, which offers an excellent networking opportunity with industry leaders.

The Hoffmans are on their fourth year of hosting general nursery management interns, where they work in different areas of the nursery during the 10-week program.

Whether he’s reminiscing with an old friend, making a new acquaintance, or inspiring the next generation, his interactions with people are what makes the biggest impact on the industry and on John’s heart.

“When you discover you have a passion for plants and are able to hook up with people in that world, it guides you for the rest of your life,” he says.