It’s a family affair at Civano Growers

Features - Cover Story

The Shipley family slashed hundreds of SKUs to refine Civano Growers’ focus on desert plant material.

April 22, 2020

Chris, left, Nick, Les and Alex Shipley have taken their family business to the next level by focusing in on desert plants.
All photos courtesy of Civano Growers

The Shipley brothers grew up working in their father’s greenhouse in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he grew tropical houseplants for interior plantscaping. Nick, the middle son, remembers mixing soil as a child — getting paid 50 cents per bag and coming home covered in peat moss.

But then, in 1989, Leslie “Les” Shipley retired from the plant business. He moved his family to Victoria, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where the boys attended school.

“I wasn’t even thinking about a career in horticulture,” says Nick, who pursued a business degree. “I never thought we’d get into the horticulture industry again until my father started to get bored of retirement and started doing landscaping jobs on the side.”

At the end of his third year of college, Nick got a phone call from his father that instantly changed his career path. The Shipleys’ next-door neighbor asked Les to landscape a sustainable neighborhood he was developing in Tucson called the Community of Civano.

“He came to us and said, ‘Boys, I have a business proposition: I want to start a landscape business in Tucson,’” Nick says. “His proposition was that he would front the money from his retirement savings, and he would give us three brothers each 25% of the company, making all four of us equal partners.”

Nick jumped on board — as did his younger brother, Alex, and his older brother, Chris. The Shipleys moved to Tucson in 1997, and Civano Growers was born.

Since then, the Shipley family has built Civano into a major commercial greenhouse and nursery that supplies landscapers and independent garden centers throughout the Southwest, specializing in desert-adaptive plants that thrive in harsh conditions.

Civano Growers started in 1997 and has become a major commercial nursery and greenhouse, supplying landscapers and independent garden centers throughout the Southwest.
To combat labor problems, Civano Growers has developed an academy for its plant care technicians consisting of five levels, with rigorous testing on plant knowledge and basic skills.

From salvage to savvy landscaping

Civano Growers began as a tree salvage operation — transplanting desert mesquites, palo verdes and ironwood trees to make room for new construction, and then replanting finished developments. The business soon expanded into other landscaping services as the family began selling trees to upscale communities and resorts in Scottsdale and Phoenix.

“We saw a big opportunity to expand the business,” Nick says. “We focused on slowly growing the company.”

In 1999, the family opened Civano Nursery, a retail garden center, at the entrance to the Civano community. Nick oversaw the growing operation, but with less than 5 acres available, he quickly outgrew the space. So, in 2002, Civano Growers moved out of the retail location and onto a 100-acre property about 20 miles away, where they grow on 80 acres.

Today, Nick manages production as chief operations officer of Civano Growers, while his brothers handle sales. Chief Sales Officer Alex manages the wholesale division, focusing on “black pot” sales to landscapers, while Chris heads up the retail division as regional sales manager, focusing on selling plants to independent garden centers throughout the southwest. He is also the president of Civano Nursery, where his wife, Melanie, serves as general manager.

“In companies that have a lot of family members, there might be resentment if one family member isn’t pulling their weight, but with us, there’s none of that,” Nick says. “Everybody’s doing their fair share.”

Even Les, who turns 80 this year, is still involved as construction manager. He’s responsible for greenhouse facilities, as well as the 10-acre compost yard where the company recycles green waste material — including tree trimmings from Tucson’s electric company and yard scraps from local landscapers.

Nick credits his family’s strong working relationship to the structure of their business, since all four of them share ownership in both companies.

“Being equal partners has really helped,” he says. “We don’t fight or have huge disagreements because we each have our own path within the company.”

To keep these different areas of the business in alignment, the Shipleys stay in constant communication.

“Every single day, Monday through Friday, [the four of us] have a lunch meeting where we discuss what we did that day and our goals for the week,” Alex says. “We’ll share anything that’s on our minds, good or bad. Our discussions are sometimes heated, but by the end of the meeting, we’re all on the same page. If one of us is extremely passionate about something, we’ll go along with it.”

The Shipley family opened Civano Nursery in 1999, and in 2002, moved to a 100-acre property nearby.
Civano Growers now grows on 80 acres in Tuscon, Arizona.
Civano Growers serves landscape and IGC customers in six states.

Adapting to a new landscape

The sprawling desert landscape of Tucson looks nothing like the lush, wet climate that the Shipleys left behind in British Columbia. But the men quickly adjusted to the extreme southwest conditions — honing a specialization in desert adaptive plant material “that can take high heat, low humidity and a decent freeze,” Nick says.

Through the years, Civano Growers introduced a palette of patented plants bred specifically for low- to mid-elevation desert landscapes — including the Leslie Roy Mesquite, named for their father, the Sweet Katie Burgundy Desert Willow, named for Nick’s wife, and the Doris D Willow Acacia, named for their mom.

As the company’s plant inventory increased, Civano expanded beyond Tucson to serve a six-state footprint throughout the southwest — spanning southern California to Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

“Our philosophy for the last 20 years was trying to grow everything for everyone,” Alex says. “We’d ask customers what they wanted and grow it for them so no one had to go to Phoenix or California.”

While that approach helped the company increase market share throughout the Southwest, it eventually caused inventory issues.

“There’s always pressure to grow a new plant because a landscaper or retailer asked us to do it,” Nick says. “But we can’t just keep adding product. I’ve found over the years that if you grow too many SKUs, then you never get great at growing any particular plant. Our product line was getting too large and too diverse, so a few years ago we all agreed to start slashing SKUs.”

Slashing SKUs

Reducing Civano’s plant inventory was tougher than Nick expected. “As a grower, you get attached to certain plants,” he says. “But at the end of the day, we’re entrepreneurs first and growers second. It’s not necessarily our job to push plants on people; we need to be entrepreneurs and ask ‘Do people really want this plant?’”

Guided by that question, the Shipleys worked together to tackle their overgrown inventory — blending insights from both sales and production.

“We’re constantly watching our numbers and looking at [sales] trends,” Alex says. “Just because we sold 10,000 of this plant last year doesn’t mean we’re going to sell 10,000 this year, so we try to look at two or three years of numbers so we can see the trend going up or down. The items that we sell a lot less of, we stopped growing.”

However, sales statistics are only one side of the equation. Nick’s production perspective was equally valuable in determining which plants offered the best margins.

One of the ways we retain folks is by improving their skill set. As they obtain more skills and more knowledge, they get pride in themselves, and they also get a wage increase.”

“Obviously, we need to able to sell it, but it also has to be fairly easy to grow,” he says. “Is it prone to pests and diseases? Does it require a lot of maintenance? Do we have to take up valuable greenhouse space to protect this plant from freezing? It might be a popular plant, but if it’s difficult to grow, then we have to consider that.”

Finishing time was another important factor in selecting which SKUs to keep and which to cut. While Civano Growers can turn around two crops of leucophyllum per year, for example, an agave plug takes two years to finish in a No. 5 container.

“Agaves are a big seller in the Southwest because they’re drought tolerant, but we’re not able to get the margins we want because it takes a lot longer to produce a finished product,” Nick says. “It’s taking up valuable growing space, and as it sits for that long, it tends to get weed prone — and since agaves are sharp, they’re very difficult to hand-weed.”

As a result, the Shipleys cut crops like agave from production. Over the last few years, they’ve whittled their “black pot” landscape inventory from more than 400 SKUs down to about 80.

“You’ve got to keep simplifying your product line, just like In-N-Out Burger,” Alex says. “They have four things on their menu. We can’t have just four items, but we can pare it down. We don’t need to [grow] every single plant that people ask for.”

Although Civano stopped growing certain varieties, the Shipleys didn’t want to turn down customer requests. So, the company’s purchasing manager regularly visits nurseries across Phoenix to procure quality plant material to bolster Civano’s stock.

“If somebody really wants a 15-gallon Shoestring [Acacia], or something that we don’t grow anymore, we’ll bring those in [from other growers] so we’ll have it for our customers,” Alex says. “That leaves more room to grow more of our specialty items, so we can perfect those products even more.”

In addition to growing its own branded “Civano Select” product line for garden centers, Civano Growers is also the only network partner for Monrovia in the state of Arizona.
Civano serves customers in six states, from California to Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

Slow and steady

Under the collaborative leadership of the Shipleys and their more than 100 employees, Civano continues to grow steadily. The company brings in almost $10 million in sales annually just in the wholesale division, Alex says.

“We’ve always experienced a manageable growth of 5% to 10% a year,” Alex says, noting that the only exception was during the 2009 recession. “We’ve never been interested in huge growth because if you have crazy growth one year, you never get caught up.”

Alex says part of the company’s success comes from being in the right place at the right time. Retiring baby boomers continue to flock to Arizona, promoting ongoing development that keeps Civano Growers consistently busy.

But the firm’s success also has a lot to do with the family’s modest approach to growth. Instead of taking out loans to bolster the business, they keep reinvesting in the company — regularly adding new greenhouses and other facilities to increase capacity without adding debt.

“A lot of people want the fast buck, but we’ve always been in it for the long haul,” Alex says. “We put our profits back into the company, so we’ve been able to grow without borrowing from the bank.”

With their sights set on long-term stability, the Shipley brothers would love to pass the family business down to the next generation. All three have school-age children, so it’s too early to predict their career trajectories. But for Alex, continuing the family tradition is a lifelong goal.

“We would love to have our children work in the company,” he says. “I always ask my daughter, who’s 6 years old, if she’s going to work for daddy. She says, ‘Only if I can have lunch with you every day,’ which would be my biggest dream.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine.