Finding the Next Level

Jake Pierson is steering Pierson Nurseries into the future.

Jake Pierson is a second-generation nurseryman. His father, Dale Pierson founded Pierson Nurseries in Biddeford, Maine, with his wife, Mike, in 1973. Jake technically joined his parents’ business in 2004, after a few years of college and a ton of student debt forced him to re-evaluate his situation.

Of course, like with most family businesses, he’d been working in or around the nursery since he was a kid. “I practiced my multiplication on a potting trailer by counting how many rows of plants there were and how many plants were in the row to figure out how many we’d potted,” Jake says.

However, Jake’s story is not one of those in which the second-generation son was a lock to take over the family business ever since he could walk the rows of containers. 

“When he was younger he worked a bit there and didn’t enjoy it at all,” Dale says.

For a while, Jake didn’t think he was going into the family business. A voracious reader who typically has two or three books going at any given time, he studied political science in college before leaving without a degree. 

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I had always been at the top of my class in school. And when I went to college, it didn’t click with me. It just wasn’t what I expected. I really was disappointed that I was paying a lot of money to be taught the same way I was taught in elementary school, middle school and high school.”

Leaving college the way he did brought Jake to a few realizations. Just because a path worked for other people, even people you know and trust, doesn’t mean that you have to follow that same path. Different people experience things differently, and that’s OK. The lessons applies to leadership, as well. Your vision isn’t always correct and your way isn’t always the right way.

“To be cognizant of that, I pay attention to know that not everybody sees everything the way you see it,” Jake says. “And that’s really going to help us as a company. It’s helped me as an owner, as a boss and as a partner with my dad, understanding that conversation and discussion has to happen for anything to move forward in a positive way.”

Now 38, Jake is a co-owner of Pierson Nurseries, Inc., a wholesale grower and rewholesaler of trees, shrubs, and perennials that primarily serves clients in the furthest reaches of Maine and New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and beyond.

Industry advocate

After leaving college, he came home with a different perspective. He had always gotten along with the nursery industry folks he’d met, and he liked their outlook a lot more than some of the individuals he met in the collegiate political arena.

“We’re farmers in the big picture, and farmers are a different breed,” he says. “We have to be a little independent and we have to roll with the punches a little bit more than other industries.”

He’s used his background in political science to become an advocate for his people, from navigating tricky legislative issues to understanding how the system works and how to get elected representatives to care about the same things growers care about. 

He’s stepped up to take leadership positions in state, regional and national associations. As vice president and then president of the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association (MELNA), Jake launched and grew his state’s Plant Something! Program into one of the most successful in the U.S., according to Donald F. Sproul, executive director of MELNA.

Plant Something! is the brainchild of Cheryl Goar of the Arizona Nursery Association. It’s a national marketing campaign aimed at convincing consumers to buy plants. It’s a simple program that is adaptable to anyone in the green industry. Other attempted national marketing programs have failed because they tried to be too specialized, overshooting their consumers’ horticulture education level.

“They don’t know, they don’t care whether it’s a hydrangea, magnolia, juniper or potentilla,” Jake says. “They just see it as plants.”

It irks him to see so many companies in other industries touting their environmental initiatives. To Jake, that seems like a missed opportunity for horticulture and the industry needs to do better.

“We’re the original green industry. When you think about it, we’re growing oxygen-making machines,” he says. 

He’s also been a driving force behind the Maine Flower Show, which became an instant hit with the gardening public, homeowners, and professionals when it was launched in 2017. It’s wasn’t his first rodeo in show management, as a past president of New England Grows, the regional trade show and education event that folded in 2018 after 25 years. 

With MELNA, he’s also handled annual charity work landscaping projects. One recent project was the landscape of the Travis Mills Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills to support recalibration and wellness goals of the families of veterans injured in active duty. Jake worked on the implementation of a world-class landscape for the foundation, which serves as a vacation destination for these families. 

“Through Jake’s leadership, and the efforts of numerous volunteers, the project was a resounding success,” Sproul says.

Getting started 

Peter van Berkum remembers Jake as a teenager working at New England Grows as a show official, zipping around the show floor on an electric golf cart and helping anyone with anything. Peter became a mentor to Jake, even though their personalities are quite different. 

“I always joke that I’m a loud-mouth Mainer and he’s a quiet Dutchman, and we have very different styles, but we always have really interesting and educational conversations,” Jake says. “Every time we talk, both of us come away with something different that we will want to try in our businesses.”

Van Berkum agrees with Jake’s assessment and enjoys their frank and honest chats. 

“We’re totally different people, which makes it fun,” van Berkum says. “You know just where you stand with Jake, he’s not going to sugarcoat it. I always appreciate that.”

Unlike other industries, the nursery business is not ruthless. Even your competitors are often willing to share their thoughts, successes and difficulties. 

“You’d never get a Microsoft and an Apple executive in the same room talking about the trouble they’re having with their operating systems,” Jake says. “But I could call my biggest competitor in New England about a certain plant that we’re having trouble growing, and they’ll tell me that they do too. And they’ll give me tips about how to do a better job on it. That gives me a lot of inspiration because there are other people struggling with the same issues you’re having.”

Because of the willingness to share, Jake says the advice he would give to anyone starting out in the industry is to join your local associations and organizations. When his father was just getting started, he joined NENA, the now-defunct New England Nursery Association. Dale attended a meeting and ended up sitting next to Neil Van Sloun, the founder of Sylvan Nursery in Massachusetts. Both men politely introduced themselves and began chatting. The elder Pierson left with a notebook full of ideas to jumpstart his fledgling business.

“My dad always jokes that ‘that one day has paid for my entire life of any trade association membership fee that I will ever pay. And probably any fee that you’ll pay, Jake,’ he says. “And it was all because of one meeting where he sat down next to somebody who ran a business like we wanted to be like.”

As Jake became more involved with the nursery, he’d answer the phone and Dale’s business contacts would think Jake was his father. They’d often comment to Dale upon meeting Jake for the first time that his son was so like him that they couldn’t tell the two men apart. Dale would thank them with a smile, wait a beat and drop the hammer: telling them he and his wife adopted Jake when he was 3 days old. He loves watching the surprised reactions. 

For his part, Dale was aware of the pressures that come with being the scion of the business owner. Dale never had expectations of Jake or his sister joining the family business. As a compulsive planner, Dale started to devise exit strategies when he was 50, picking the best of the few options available to him at the time. That all changed when Jake decided he wanted to be involved.

“He started at the bottom, and did everything,” Dale says. “My nursery manager gave him the title ‘manager in training.’ I used to ask him once in a while, ‘you still in it for the long haul?’ He is. I’ve stepped back away and let him run more of it by far than I do.”

The partnership has been working well. Dale still provides his son with the occasional bit of tempering advice. 

“In general, we do a good job together,” he says. “I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve been mad at each other for more than an hour. That’s not bad for the last 15-or-so years.

Finding the next level

One tip Jake says has helped him along the way is to be prepared for failure. No matter what you do and in spite of your careful actions, plants will die. And it’s not necessarily because anyone did anything wrong. Growers need to make peace with that fact.

“We’re dealing with living things,” he says. “We’re not dealing with a 2x4, a computer chip or a piece of plywood. We’re dealing with living organisms that no matter your best intention, may not survive. But every time it’s an opportunity to learn and you’ll get better at it.”

The toughest challenge Pierson Nursery faces now is labor. The nursery pays competitively and has ramped up its use of the H-2A program. Still, there are times in which workers are left short-staffed. Each morning, Jake leads a “big picture” meeting that discusses the happenings at the nursery that day. Jake says if his team has a sense of why some employees are being shifted to another part of the nursery, they won’t be resentful about being left to handle their task with less help than usual.

Help was on the way, however, from Jamaica. Most of Pierson’s full-time staff works from February to December with a few high-school kids for summer help. This year, the Pierson’s brought in six H-2A workers who’ll stay from March to November. The nursery industry’s labor force is Latino-heavy, but New England apple growers have traditionally used Jamaican labor. Finding an employee who speaks Spanish is difficult in Maine, and with Jamaica, the language barrier is a non-issue. Jake spoke with several area growers, who recommended the program, and he’s glad he took the leap. The extra hands help when “the wheels come off” in spring. 

“I’m really, really proud of how well we’ve integrated the folks from Jamaica into our team and our family,” Jake says. 

Jake also worked with FlowVision to improve efficiency through their Lean manufacturing principles. Jake says Gary Cortes’ firm was an incredible asset that helped the nursery streamline its potting system. He’s got plans for future improvements to their pulling, loading and shipping departments, as well.

He’s also changed the irrigation system so that all of Pierson’s field-grown material is under drip irrigation. This keeps labor costs down, through not moving pipe around, and is better for the soil health, reducing the chance that they will compact the soil by excessive overhead irrigation. 

“We’re being much more targeted with what we’re watering,” Jake says. “We can just water the rows of plants, not the weeds.”

Jake has pushed for growth and the nursery has substantially grown since he joined. The staffing level has doubled, sales have significantly increased and production has had to grow to keep pace. Being in Maine, the nursery is physically the farthest point from West Coast suppliers. Jake wanted to increase the amount of their own grown material to give them more control over their inventory. Last year, the nursery bought its third parcel of land, about 120 acres which will be in production within the next two years. Before that acquisition, Pierson had 50 acres of field, 10 acres of B&B holding area, 6 acres for wetland production and 12 acres of containers.

What the future holds

The business is set up for success, which is one of the reasons Jake decided to stay. Located in Southern Maine and witnessing the push of people moving northeast from Massachusetts, the nursery is well-positioned for growth. Pierson’s Nursery sells to landscape contractors, who have stayed busy in the Northeast for a long time. There have been downturns, but they’ve come back strong after each setback. Pierson’s product can’t be outsourced; it’s heavy, in-demand material that is not readily available just anywhere. The region’s public is demanding more and more. And it’s capital-intensive to set up shop, which means it’s less likely that a large competitor will move in.

Peter van Berkum says three qualities have helped Jake succeed: curiosity, drive, and the willingness to make changes.

“Being 2nd generation isn’t nearly as easy as people think, from what I’ve seen,” says Peter van Berkum. “It takes a real special kind of mind and determination like Jake has to take something your father’s done and make it go, because your old man’s been doing it for 30 years. He really took that ball and ran with it.” 

He also thinks Jake’s wife, Allie, has been a great asset to the company due to her cool and collected nature. 

Jake and Allie have two children, Kay and Theodore, who are eight and seven-years-old. Jake loves being a dad, and says that just like the nursery industry, parenthood provides something new every day. His family loves boating and spends a lot of time on the water. Jake also enjoys golf, even though he isn’t very good at it, and he’s hoping to rekindle his love of skiing as his kids get older.

“I don’t have any doubt that that nursery is going to do fine over the next 25 years,” van Berkum says. “He’s one of the few people in Maine that really does a lot of growing and rewholesaling and has a good formula going on. He has a great breadth of knowledge about herbaceous and woody material and in the general running of the nursery. He’s got a great vision of what he needs to do and how to get there.”

Dale and Jake have been executing their succession plan for the nursery, which becomes more weighted on Jake’s side each year. Currently, Dale is working two days a week (plus-or-minus a day here and there) for the next 2-5 years. After that, he’ll be officially done. And he believes he’s leaving the nursery in the best of hands.

“He does an excellent job and he’s taken our business to the next level, which I wouldn’t have done,” Dale says. “As I’ve aged, I’ve become a little more risk-averse. (The nursery is) certainly larger than it’s ever been. All excellent moves.”

July 2021
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