Building for the bigger picture

Features - Cover Story

George Lucas, with his wife, Louise, built Lucas Greenhouses from the ground up — and now continues growing the business into the future with his son, Nate.

George (right) and Nate Lucas

George Lucas started his family business with a modest goal. When he founded Lucas Greenhouses in 1979 with his wife, Louise, he dreamed of building an acre of greenhouse growing space. At the time, George had been married to Louise for just two years and was still working at another greenhouse as he and his new bride worked to get Lucas Greenhouses off the ground.

And “Those first four or five years were really tough,” George says. “But we did it.”

George and Louise grew Lucas Greenhouses, in Monroeville, New Jersey, to 1 acre in 1985 and 2.5 acres by 1990. Today, they have expanded the operation to more than 1.7 million square feet of glass greenhouse space — in addition to 35 acres of field production — through an ambitious expansion plan George started in 2002. The Lucas family sells its bedding plants, young plants and various finished plants to independent garden centers, other growers and a few grocery chains along the East Coast and as far west as the Mississippi River.

“Every year, we’d grow a little,” he says. “And we kept adding on and adding on.”

What has driven George and his business forward since the beginning is his love of building and planning. According to Louise, George can often be found sitting on the roof of a greenhouse, somewhere on the property, thinking about the future, reflecting on the work he’s already done and the work that his son, Nate, will take on when he steps to the helm of the family business someday. And while George says he won’t ever stop working, he knows that eventually he will hand over what he and Louise built to Nate — even if he’s still observing from atop a greenhouse.

“I like watching something get done and having fulfillment of knowing we built this thing,” he says.

Nate (left) and George Lucas (right) in one of Lucas Greenhouses' facilities

Building a foundation

George and Louise met in high school through 4-H. They both grew up around agriculture, by fathers who taught them to work on a farm at a young age. They were raised by their families to understand that life requires hard work and perseverance to succeed. Those attributes still matter today, but were essential in getting the business off the ground.

Their days were long. During the first year, George worked at nearby Vast Greenhouses — where he took his first job at 14 years old — while Louise worked at their operation. He went out on sales visits to potential customers in the area when he could, selling himself and his vision as much as he was selling the plants. At night, they worked together to build greenhouse benches and get the two small gutter-connected greenhouses ready for plants. By 10:30 p.m., it was time for dinner, then a few hours of sleep, before starting over again the next day.

The initial funding for the greenhouse came from savings Louise had amassed canning tomatoes on her dad’s farm — a total of $13,000. They used the money to purchase the first piece of land Lucas Greenhouses sits on today and make the initial deposit on a greenhouse structure.

Money was tight at this point in their journey, too, as most of the $13,000 was used to start the business. The only car they owned was the same flatbed truck George used for deliveries. They sustained themselves on foods Louise canned for them and, on one occasion, they slaughtered a pig that Louise’s uncle had given them as a gift. Another time, George stopped to help a woman who had hit a deer with her car; George put the deer in the back of his truck, took it home and he and Louise made use of the meat.

The entire Lucas family works at the business, with George and Louise's grandchildren often visiting the facility.

“It was just him and I,” Louise says. “It was hard. But we knew unless we sacrificed and put in the work, it wasn’t going to make it. The first four or five years were especially hard because you don’t get to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s this tiny, little flickering candle in the distance and, as you keep walking to it, it doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer.”

“But we never envisioned being this size,” Louise says. “Glass greenhouses were absolutely out of the question. We thought, ‘That’s a fairytale, we’ll never have that.’”

But, in time, success came. George and Louise’s persistence paid off and the customer base grew as more independent garden centers (IGCs) started buying plants from Lucas Greenhouses — something George attributes to the quality of plants being sold, and word of mouth in the area. As the business grew, he says they expanded their offerings from crops like spring bedding plants, poinsettias and ferns to include spring flower baskets at a time when they were becoming popular at IGCs.

By 1985, he had reached his goal of having an acre of greenhouse space and started to expand beyond it. George is the oldest of five siblings, and his second-youngest brother, Bill, became his right-hand man at the business. He was George’s younger brother, but George and Louise came to view him almost like a son, with Louise often driving Bill places before he was old enough to drive. Bill had lived with George and Louise for a while after George and Bill’s mom died in the early 1980s.

Around the same time, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, George and Louise started having children: daughters Lacey and Corey, and son, Nate. Life was good. George and Louise had built something together.

“We learned to walk together,” Louise says.

Pushing forward

On March 20, 2002, at age 36, Bill — Billy to friends and family — died unexpectedly from sleep apnea.

“When he died, it lit a new fire for me,” George says. At the time, he says Lucas Greenhouses had about 100,000 square feet of greenhouse space. In the years since, he has built the business to more than 1.7 million square feet of glass greenhouses.

“Maybe I was just staying busy so I didn’t have to think about it,” he says. “I think about that all the time and I don’t really have a good answer for it.”

Nate, who was 11 years old at the time and was often hanging around the greenhouse “causing trouble” as 11-year-old boys tend to do, remembers Bill’s death as something that weighed heavily on everyone at Lucas Greenhouses.

Lucas Greenhouses sells various bedding plants, mums, poinsettias and other crops, primarily to independent garden centers.

“Back then, it was a really small, tight-knit group and everybody had an awesome relationship with everybody,” he says.

Bill died during the spring season when everyone was busy. Louise says being active and busy with work may have helped everyone cope — her and George, especially.

Lucas Greenhouses added some key team members around that time that allowed George to shift his focus away from the day-to-day growing and onto big-picture planning. Joe Moore, the younger brother of grower Tim Moore, who had worked there since high school, joined the staff. Additionally, Scott Lucas, one of George’s nephews, filled Bill’s old role. In their own way, each became George’s new right hand at the business.

Meanwhile, George began planning. He first laid out the existing greenhouses’ building plans, evaluating what he might be able to move and what he needed to replace. He then purchased two other nearby plots of land, without really knowing what to do with them. The acquired land became the current 107 acres, almost all dedicated to production. George says the hope is that they can add more, or at least squeeze in a few different projects — finding a spot for mums is currently atop his wish list. The construction work has also been done in-house by George and a construction crew that once included Bill.

Bill left a physical reminder of his time at the business — the last project he and George completed together was the first glass structure built by Lucas Greenhouses. Just recently, Louise says she found the old tax records for the purchase and attached to the documents was a photo of Bill. When she showed it to George, she says he became sentimental in a way he normally doesn’t allow himself to be.

Louise also says that sometimes George uses his time sitting on top of a greenhouse to reflect, to grieve and to think of his brother Billy.

“Sometimes where he sits is right there and it is that greenhouse he and Billy built,” she says. “Or sometimes he’ll be walking through it and repair something and he’ll go, ‘Oh, this is the last thing Billy built,’ and then he’ll say, ‘He’d be really proud, he’d be amazed to see all this.’ And then he’ll walk on and change the subject because he doesn’t want to get too emotional.”

Lucas Greenhouses has more than 1.7 million square feet of greenhouse growing space.

The future being built in real time

On April 1, 2019, Lucas Greenhouses will celebrate its 40th anniversary. It’s a milestone that isn’t unexpected for the Lucas family, but its significance isn’t lost on them either.

“We never thought we would ever give up — that was out of the picture,” Louise says. “[But] sometimes we get on top of the greenhouse or drive up onto the mounds of dirt that come up as we are building, look out and just say, ‘Wow. How does this happen?’”

Both George and Louise are in their 60s now — George just celebrated his birthday, which was a day of work, plus some cake and time with family. Their daughters Lacey and Corey, who also work for the family business in accounts receivable, are in their 30s and have lives of their own. Nate is 27, with a wife and two young sons who can often be found goofing off at the greenhouse just like he did. Like his dad, Nate has an interest in building and a passion for the family business. Currently, he sits behind his dad in the office, learning actively through day-to-day work and osmosis.

Growing up, Nate says he wanted to become a Navy SEAL. When that didn’t work out due to a shoulder issue, he earned a business degree from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, and worked in the corporate world before returning to Lucas Greenhouses. When he met his future wife, Svetlana, in college, he told her that there was a good chance he’d run his family business someday.

“We dated a couple of times and one of the first things I told her was like, ‘Hey, I’m just letting you know, I don’t know what you want to do as far as moving around, but I’m pretty much in South Jersey,’” he says. "I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a family business. I help my dad there. He needs my help. I’m looking to take over the business. We’ll be comfortable.’”

However, George and Louise did not force any of their children to follow in their footsteps.

Lucas Greenhouses sells to IGCs across the East Coast and to two grocery chains with stores near Monroeville.

“My husband had this thing where he didn’t want the kids to feel like they had to take [the business] over,” Louise says. “We wanted them, if and when they decided to and if they wanted to, to join us. We didn’t want it to feel like a burden.”

“If you are not passionate about this business, you will not make it,” George says.

Neither George nor Louise know exactly when they’d like to step back fully and maybe take a vacation where they aren’t thinking about work the whole time. George jokes that the worms will be eating him before he stops working, while Louise says the hard part now is figuring out which pieces of the business to hand over to Nate first and when is the right time to do it. Recently, he worked with George on a greenhouse build and then oversaw one of his own. It isn’t just George and Louise anymore, with Nate, the Moore brothers and trial garden manager Jason Szymanski around full-time; Lucas Greenhouses will have as many as 300 part-time and seasonal employees working depending on the time of the year.

“It’s learning as you go, really paying attention to what the other person’s doing,” Nate says about learning from his dad. “And I make a lot of mistakes. I’m not the best person at doing this, but it’s been a really good learning process, I think.”

The Lucas family is working on figuring out the future of the business. George, Louise and Nate all consider labor a significant challenge, as well as pricing pressure and the long-term viability of selling to IGCs as more of the market starts selling to big box stores.

Finding solutions to those problems, even with his wife and son helping him, may mean a few more trips to the top of a greenhouse for George. From up there, he can look both backward and forward in time.