Continuing the family legacy

Continuing the family legacy

Features - Cover Story

Marjolein Berbee-Dzmura and Bob Berbee from Leo Berbee Bulb Co. carry their father Henk’s business into the next generation.

From left to right: Marjolein Berbee-Dzuma, Dave Dzuma, Bob Berbee, Mattie Berbee

In the 1960s, Henk Berbee left his native Holland to work at a cut flower grower in New York for a time before returning home again to work at his family’s flower business.

“He really fell in love with America,” says Marjolein Berbee-Dzmura, Henk’s daughter.

But as one of 11 children, there wasn’t a guaranteed path to a large role in the family business. So, in the early 1970s, Henk told his father, Leo, that he wanted to set up a sales territory in the United States. His father agreed and recommended the Midwest — Ohio, specifically. He said it was a great place to expand the business due to its status as an agricultural hot bed and location in the middle of country, making it an ideal shipping hub.

There was only one problem. Before moving, Henk had no idea where the Midwest was, what it was like or what moving there would mean for him beyond a chance to carve out his own niche in the family business.

“At that time, Ohio was the No. 1 agricultural state, so my father said, ‘That sounds great. I would love the opportunity to go to the Midwest,’” Marjolein says. “[He] then looked at my grandfather and said, ‘Where exactly is that?’”

Henk emigrated to the U.S. in 1972, founded the Leo Berbee Bulb Company and made Marysville, Ohio near Columbus, the business’ permanent home in 1982. Today, Henk no longer works full-time, but is still around the business almost every day. Running the business now are his two children, Marjolein and Bob. Marjolein runs the Berbee wholesale division, while Bob manages Dutch Mill Greenhouse, Berbee’s retail division. Additionally, Bob’s wife Mattie is Berbee’s marketing and outreach director, and Dave Dzuma, Marjolein’s husband, oversees the brokered product division.

“[Henk] is here every day still. It’s less and less every day. He comes in for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon,” Bob says. “That really started about three years ago. He loves to listen to our stories, but he always said, ‘You’re on your own now.’ He trusts our judgment.”

“He likes to say, ‘I know you’ll make the right decision,’” Marjolein adds.

Dutch Mill Greenhouse is the garden center retail expansion of the Leo Burbee Bulb Co.

Maximizing shipping

Berbee’s business is centered around the wholesale shipment of bulbs across the United States, but can also include in-season plants such as some produce crops, hostas and a variety of different lilies, as it does currently. Berbee uses FedEx or UPS for the majority of its shipping.

“We have started to use a little bit more of the [U.S.] Post Office to have the customer save on some freight, especially on the smaller orders,” Bob says. “On the larger orders, we usually do an LCL carrier.” He adds that, because their customers are so widely spread out across the country, it would not be cost effective for Berbee to purchase its own fleet of trucks and hire its own drivers, instead of relying on third parties for shipping.

“We do deliver to customers in the Columbus area,” Marjolein says. “[And] I know that if, say, my dad is on his way to Illinois to visit a customer, he’ll plan it to drop that customer’s order off at the same time.” They also have some customers drive in from Michigan — a two-hour drive at minimum — and Indianapolis — about a three-hour drive — to pick up orders instead of paying for shipping. Customers include independent garden centers, landscapers and cut flower growers, as well as a few well-known Columbus institutions such as The Ohio State University and the Columbus Zoo. Berbee has fostered relationships with these institutions by attending trade shows, building relationships with distributors and joining different industry organizations like AmericanHort and the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association (ONLA).

“The Ohio State University picks up the flower bulbs from us,” Marjolein says. “We have a great relationship with the Columbus Zoo. We do all their labeling for all their crates. When they receive their products, everything is labeled for them so they don’t have to guess where bulbs go.”

Currently, Berbee’s biggest shipping concern is cost. Because they’ll ship anywhere in the United States, certain orders can become more expensive — especially when Berbee is shipping bulbs that need to be maintained at a certain temperature. Some bulbs are stored in one of the nine coolers Berbee has in its business that range from 28o to 80o F, depending on the type of plant and variety. In some cases, as with irises, they can be stored for up to two months before being shipped. In other cases, as with lily bulbs, plants could be in the cooler for a year before Berbee ships them as part of an order.

“Cost has gone through the roof right now, especially with the temperature control and all the new laws that the truckers have [to adhere to],” Bob says. “We obviously try to get costs down to a minimum, but the larger the order is, the less money [we save] on freight. We’ve shipped out product where the freight is more expensive than the product. That’s usually on the much, much smaller shipments, but that sometimes happens, unfortunately.”

Shipping different products, and at different sizes, also means carefully packaging every item. For example, some bulbs are packed in what Berbee calls its “winter pack,” an insulated box that keeps the plant snug and prevents it from freezing en route to the customer. Bulbs are packed by hand in Marysville by seasonal workers, some of whom are employed through a partnership with a nearby correctional facility.

Henk Berbee, Marjolein and Bob's father, founded the business after emigrating from Holland and still is around the greenhouse most days.

Meeting a variety of customer demands

Because Berbee sells a variety of different products to a diverse customer base, a key part of their business in putting thought and planning into their offerings. And because they ship to every part of the U.S., Berbee must account for any potential needs and wants its customers have. Take tulips, for example.

“We’ll probably sell more red tulips than any other color, but we have to be able to offer other varieties to customers who want to stand out,” Marjolein says.

In selecting the different varieties for different seasons, Berbee is accounting for holidays, landscape demands and any other potential reason a customer could want a plant over a certain period of time.

“Just picking out our tulip program took us almost six hours to decide on which tulips to bring in because we’re focusing on customers who want to do pot varieties for Valentine’s Day, [and] pot [varieties] for Easter,” she says. “We have landscapers. We have cut flower farmers. We have such a diverse grouping of customers. It’s not just honing on one type.”

Some of Berbee’s products can take a significant amount of time to grow as well. Many of their bulb varieties are grown bare root — meaning they were dug out and packaged while dormant and will begin growing once planted again.

“It’s basically exactly what it sounds like — it’s roots with a little bit of a start,” Bob says.

The timeline for growing bare root all depends on when the customer wants the plant and what size they want it in.

“Our customers would either grow those in a quart or a gallon size container,” Bob says. “Depending on the size and the temperature that they’re growing at, it could take anywhere from five weeks to 10 weeks to finish off that particular item. I’m using hostas as a general reference. You could do the peonies the same way, the day lilies all the same way. That’s a general guideline for bare roots right now.”

For full bulbs like tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, Bob says they could be planted any time from September or October up until the ground is frozen, although Bob does not recommend the latter option. But sometimes, depending on demand, it’s necessary.

“If you’re going to be forcing those for spring sales, you would have to pot those up in containers and have your minimum of 14 weeks cooling in a cooler, and then bring those out about five to six weeks before your anticipated sale date,” he says.

Berbee grows many of its bulbs using bare root growing methods before shipping them to customers across the U.S.
Berbee stores many of its bulbs in coolers at temperatures that range from 28o to 80o F.

Taking the business into the future

While the business Henk started is now fully in his children’s hands, Bob and Marjolein embarked on diverging career paths before ending together, working their up as a team.

For Bob, a career in horticulture was always in the cards — although he did joke with Henk for a time that he was going to be a professional golfer instead. He ended up attending the Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI) at The Ohio State University and graduated right around the time the retail operation opened. He also interned at Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center in Arvada, Colorado, before returning back to Marysville.

However, to make sure his son really wanted to take over the family business, Henk required Bob to get work experience somewhere else first.

“He wanted me to work at some of the other local garden centers, some of the other local nurseries, because he wanted to make sure that’s what I wanted to do,” Bob says. “He encouraged me not to work here. Even when I did my internship, I did it out of state just to ensure that’s what I wanted to do.”

Marjolein, meanwhile, had a different career before coming back to Berbee 16 years ago when the retail division opened. She has a degree in early childhood development and still co-owns an on-site childcare center at a Columbus-area hospital. But she also has a background doing administrative work and applied that expertise to Berbee.

“Sixteen years ago, when our garden center opened, I was going to work in the garden center and I was going to run the register. That was my intro into the business,” she says. “Then, that stemmed into answering the phone calls [from customers] during the day and facilitating them, and then taking orders. The next thing you know, I have my own office and started taking orders and working with distributors and salespeople on the phone. It evolved from basically being a cash register worker to running the wholesale business.”

Now, with the help of each of their respective spouses, Bob and Marjolein are putting their own mark on the business their dad started. Mattie, in her marketing and outreach role, has helped the business add different classes and community events at the garden center. She also helps oversee Berbee’s online brand — Berbee’s Best — which allows the business to sell individual products to customers from out of town who aren’t in the market to buy wholesale quantities. Currently, this accounts for roughly five percent of Berbee’s business. (Editor's Note: For more on Berbee’s Best, read Three Questions on page 66 and listen to the full Hort Report podcast interview here)

Dave, Marjolein’s husband, oversees the broker side of the business, working with more than 50 different suppliers, in addition to filling at the garden center. 

It helps, too, that both of Henk’s children have a passion for continuing the business that their father came to America to start.

“We are fortunate that we have a garden center where we successfully increase sales every year,” Marjolein says. “We are fortunate that we live in [Union County], the fastest-growing county of Ohio, but us having a garden center makes us aware of that garden center excitement. We’re growing our own material in our garden center, so that gives us the capability to connect with our customers too.”

“There are certain items that are a little scary for us, especially with fall bulbs because everybody wants instant gratification,” Bob says. “But I think our industry is great and strong. It’s our job to get new items on the market, push our product and get excitement out of our customers.”