A bigger & bigger circle
Photo by Allison Krieg

A bigger & bigger circle

Features - Cover Story

Green Circle Growers' CEOs discuss the biggest expansion in the company’s history.

November 29, 2021

Photo: Allison Krieg

This August, Green Circle Growers announced the largest expansion in the history of the company. This expansion will grow both their facility and their workforce, as they will add 30 acres and 250 new jobs over the next three and a half years. Founded in 1968 by John van Wingerden, Green Circle Growers has called Oberlin, Ohio, its home for over 50 years. Today, John’s son, CJ van Wingerden, and son-in-law, Scott Giesbrecht, run the business as co-CEOs, and they still consider Oberlin to be their home base, with their facility spanning over 120 acres of indoor growing space.

These additional jobs will bring the company’s workforce to over 1,150 people. According to van Wingerden, “Many of [these new jobs] will be at the executive level, including a mix of operations, IT, senior leadership, administrative, management, growers and more.”

Green Circle Growers' expansion plan was created with the help of Lorain County Community Development, JobsOhio, Team NEO and the Ohio Department of Development.

“It was really great working with all these organizations,” Giesbrecht said. “It was a true team effort from some very passionate and dedicated people.”

Planning pays off

When asked how they accomplished such a hiring feat during the current labor shortage that’s plaguing every industry, including our own, Giesbrecht attributed the accomplishment to Green Circle Growers' long-term planning.

And it’s that long-term planning that made this expansion possible in the first place, Giesbrecht says. Green Circle Growers was already working on this expansion with their suppliers before the coronavirus pandemic even hit the U.S.

“We had a multi-year master plan,” Giesbrecht said. “If we didn’t have that master plan, we probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish our goals through COVID, but all of our suppliers knew what we were going to be pointing to.” Green Circle Growers was able to alert their suppliers to their expansion plans when COVID started looking dicey, and together, they adapted. Giesbrecht further credits the company’s relationship with their suppliers, saying that “having those great relationships helped us work through this.”

Director of Growing Marcel Boonekamp oversees the growing operations at Green Circle Growers.
Photos coutesy of Green Circle Growers
With over 120 acres of indoor growing space, Green Circle Growers is one of the largest greenhouse operations in North America.

According to Giesbrecht, the company was due for one of their regular expansions.

“We typically expand every 12 to 18 months, and so this actually falls right in line with that.” However, these regular expansions are typically around 5 to 6 acres, so this 30-acre expansion is well beyond their usual growth.

What led to the decision to make this expansion project so ambitious? Giesbrecht says that even though Green Circle Growers had been consistently growing for a while and already had an expansion plan in place, the company, like many other greenhouses, saw unprecedented growth thanks to the pandemic, forcing people to stay at home. Demand for potted plants and indoor plants was increasing and Green Circle Growers' indoor and outdoor portfolio of products was expanding. Additionally, as Green Circle Growers has expanded into the digital marketplace, where they’ve been able to reach many more customers.

“It takes our brick-and-mortar distribution to over 30,000 store outlets and now makes it available to millions of consumers in the U.S. right now, and potentially in Canada, in the future,” Giesbrecht says. With all the growth that Green Circle Growers has experienced, they needed a massive expansion plan to keep up with their growth.

Green Circle Growers incorporates long-term planning into every level of their operations, not just for their expansion plans. Marcel Boonekamp, Green Circle Growers' director of growing, is already planning out their orchid production for 2025. Boonekamp explained that planning so far in advance is necessary not only because of the orchid’s long production time, but because the Green Circle Growers team values the consistency and reliability that come with such precise planning. Boonekamp thrives in this process, saying “I love planning — it’s a really strict program.”

Sustainability matters

Green Circle Growers is committed to sustainable growing practices, and this commitment is featured in their expansion plan. At Green Circle Growers, “sustainability is not a buzzword,” says van Wingerden. “It’s in our DNA, and a vital part of every decision we make.” As Green Circle Growers stated in their press release announcing their expansion, a core part of this expansion plan is “a substantial commitment to innovative, sustainable growing practices.”

Green Circle Growers already implements many sustainable growing practices, including water recycling. “We recycle a lot of our water right now, but really we’re going to try to take that to the next level — how we process our water and get everything we can out of there and recirculate it,” Boonekamp explains.

In this expansion, Green Circle Growers plans to implement rainwater conservation, retention ponds, tray recycling and wood-fired boiler systems that will be powered by scrap wood from local communities.

Plant expansion

With an additional 30 acres of greenhouse space, van Wingerden explains that “the additional acreage is going to be used to meet the increased demand of our existing crops.”

These crops include both indoor and outdoor plants, specifically the company’s outdoor container lines and their indoor tropical flowering lines. Anthuriums, succulents and bonsai are among the main players in this lineup, as well as the orchids that Green Circle Growers is especially known for.

In Oberlin, Ohio, Green Circle Growers cultivates their ever-expanding portfolio, which includes orchids, tropicals, foliage, succulents, annuals, hydrangeas, lilies, mums and poinsettias.
Green Circle Growers' orchid growing process is so automated that, over the course of an orchid’s growing season, which extends beyond a whole year, it will only be touched by a human being five times.

Solid structures

Emphasizing the importance of the company’s partnerships, van Wingerden says that Green Circle Growers will be working with longtime partner Prins USA to build the greenhouses included in the new expansion. Prins will construct Venlo-style greenhouses, which will feature diffused glass and shade curtains. As van WIngerden explains, the goal is “to make sure we have the best environment we can for our plants, so Prins has been a great partner.”

Green Circle Growers will also turn to another longtime partner, PL Light Systems, for the lighting of the new greenhouses. Being located under the dark skies of northern Ohio, it is especially important for Green Circle Growers to have a partner they can trust to provide them with quality lighting technology.

The grower relies heavily on its technology. Their facility in Oberlin looks as much like an Amazon warehouse as it does a greenhouse. Boonekamp says that all the technology they use helps them achieve high levels of consistency in their production. When it comes to their orchids, for example, their advanced technology helps them ensure that each one of their orchids is the same quality, same height, and faces the same way. Their goal is that, when a customer is looking at Green Circle Growers-grown orchids, the only difference between the plants is the color.

Teamwork makes it all work

Of course, no matter how much planning or automation or technology a company puts into use, it’s the employees that make up the backbone. The two co-CEOs have nothing but praise for their employees, who they consider to be their teammates, with Giesbrecht saying “Our employees are some of the best out there and we’re excited that they’re our teammates.”

Green Circle Growers plans to invest in their team with their new leadership academy. “Our absolute biggest asset always has been our team and it will continue to be so,” van Wingerden says. “We want to invest in them.”

“We can’t stress enough the importance of our team in this journey,” Giesbrecht says. “And we’ve got some fantastic team members from within the horticulture industry and outside of the horticulture industry that are just really teaching CJ and me a lot and helping us as we navigate a very complex environment.”

Not only will Green Circle Growers continue to invest in their team, but they’ll also invest in innovation, professionalize the customer experience, and professionalize their operations.

Both van Wingerden and Giesbrecht take pride in the fact that Green Circle Growers is family-run, and so they will always be looking forward and moving forward so that the business is in a good place for the next generation.

“The expansion sets us up really well for the next generation. We’re a multi-generational family,” van Wingerden says.