A quiet leader

Gary Hennen’s dedication to horticulture and the industry has led Oglesby Plants International to success over the past 35 years.

Photo: Cartherine Taylor

Gary Hennen’s love of tropical plants started when he was a teenager growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The now-president of Oglesby Plants International, a young plant company specializing in tissue culture propagation in Altha, Florida, developed a fascination with orchids. “I started collecting orchids and then eventually I started collecting rare tropical plants,” Gary says. He worked part-time at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), where he worked with the ornamental horticulturist. This served as inspiration to pursue a master’s degree in horticulture.

After obtaining a master’s degree with a focus on tissue culture in 1978, Gary went to work for a large tropical plant nursery in West Palm Beach, Florida. There, he learned how to start the commercial tissue culture propagation process, in addition to “growing plants outside, growing young plants, [and] loading trucks at night.”

His interest and skill with tissue culture led Ray Oglesby to offer Gary the position of laboratory manager at Oglesby Plants International in 1982. It was a dynamic time to be in tissue culture production, and Oglesby was one of more than 25 producers in Florida at the time vying for a top spot in the market. “Tissue culture is a wonderful process for propagating plants,” Gary says. “There are a lot of great benefits to it in getting products out faster and cleaner, and generally high quality. The fact that everybody started to get into the game just made Ray Oglesby and myself work harder to prove that this could be a viable business.”

Lessons in leadership

The path from laboratory manager to owner of Oglesby Plants International wasn’t always a smooth one, but Gary says the “leader among leaders” that was Ray Oglesby taught him a great deal about how to get there. “Ray was my mentor. He gave me great opportunities, not only to own a company,” Gary says. “Eventually I became an owner in Oglesby Plants International, but I started off as his laboratory manager and through his mentorship I grew in my abilities.”

One of the leadership lessons that stuck with Gary was Ray Oglesby’s willingness to let Gary take risks — even when they didn’t always work out as planned. “He allowed me to make a lot of mistakes on his nickel and he would yell once and then we would move on,” Oglesby remembers. “He was a leader among leaders as far as I was concerned, and he taught me an awful lot about the business and philosophies that he had developed. Now, Oglesby is celebrating its 70th year in business. He had a long run before me and we’ve had a long run since.”

Gary’s business philosophies have also been shaped by Ray. “He always told me ‘Don’t look in the rearview mirror. If you look in the rearview mirror you’re looking backwards. Continue to look forward. Don’t worry about what the guys behind you are doing,’” Gary reminisces. “That philosophy has continued with me. I try to look forward and not look back. I might take a peek every now and then, but [I] keep looking forward; keep innovating; keep changing with the markets — and the hard part is to keep changing as the markets need you to change. If you don’t you become a dinosaur.”

Gary will be the first to tell you that the success of a business isn’t dependent on one person- the leader. “You can’t do it all yourself,” he says. “Yes, okay, I’m considered the owner, president of Oglesby Plants International, but in many cases I’m a referee. I’m a coach. I’m the one who is directing the band, but I’m not doing it by myself. Whatever we do every day, it’s always a team effort.”

To build the company to its present success, Gary always strived to fill the company with top-notch employees and support them as they grew. “My philosophy of leadership is to hire good people and let them work and be creative, let them make mistakes now on my nickel, and try to be available at all times to help when they have questions,” he says. “I try to let people be creative, [because] that’s one of the things that Ray Oglesby did with me. He kind of showed me the rules and showed me what we do, but then there was nothing that said you couldn’t be creative, you couldn’t try something new.”

Gary encourages employees to try new things and look for different ways to approach products and situations. “The worst thing you could ever say to me is, ‘Boss, we’ve always done it this way,’” he says. “I hate that saying. I like to think that I give people enough space to be creative and for them to grow in their careers as well.”

“Family first” is another one of Gary’s mottos for employees. “If there is a family need or crisis, we’re always there to help the employees,” he says.

When asked what his biggest accomplishment has been in his 35 years at Oglesby, Gary says that it’s maintaining the company as a top plant producer in tissue culture and young plants, but also making it a viable business for his employees. He’s proud that they’ve made it “a stable place for people to work and be creative and not have to worry about their paychecks, whether they’re coming next week or not.”

“My biggest accomplishment is keeping 90 people employed even through a deep recession and coming out of the recession with new vigor and new hope that we can continue this, create new plants, get new customers and make everybody happy,” he says.

“I [also] try to look at some of these very large companies and Google’s and the Microsoft’s and how do they let their people be creative. What do they do?”, he asks. “Now naturally we don’t have a Starbuck’s in the back where our employees can go, or a large exercise room, but some of the ideas they bring to the table on how to inspire their employees, this is where I try to look at how they do things and try to implement it on a much smaller scale here.”

Industry viewpoints

Gary’s leadership and dedication to the industry isn’t only noticed within the walls of Oglesby. “The way Gary has run Oglesby sets the bar for the entire industry at a very high level,” says David Fell, president of Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery, who has done business with Gary for 30 years. “I think the success of Oglesby Plants International is adequate testimony of his leadership skills. He’s easy to work with, intelligent, funny and an all-around nice guy. He has been an excellent role model, friend, mentor, vendor and business colleague and my life is richer for him being in it.”

Although Dave Dagen, a former Oglesby colleague and the current general manager of Creek Hill Nursery, hasn’t worked with Gary for several years, he remembers vividly how Gary’s guidance impacted him and the company. “When I wasn’t sure which way to go, I’d give [Gary] the options and we’d work through it,” Dagen says. “He’s a good friend and a reliable person that employees could talk with openly and frankly and discuss things without any concern. [The employees had] total trust in him and his leadership.”

Above: Gary Hennen with Ray Oglesby; Above right: Gary is well-respected among his peers.
Photos Courtesy of Gary Hennen

“You might call him a bit of the quiet leader,” says Randy Strode, president of AgriStarts, a “very friendly competitor” of Oglesby. Randy has known Gary since 1975. “He’s not the one that likes to be out in the forefront and be president of any national organization,” Randy says. “He’s just very supportive and has been on a lot of the boards and committees.”

Gary, as a part of Oglesby Plants International, has been a longtime and active member of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA). In 2012, Gary won the Wendell E. Butler Award, FNGLA’s most prestigious award. “The FNGLA has been a great experience for me, and has allowed me to interact with a lot of other people in the industry, people a lot smarter than myself,” Gary says. “I highly recommend it.”

He has also served on the board of the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition (TPIE) event, including a time as chairman. In addition, Gary has been “involved with the National Foliage Foundation, (NFF) which is now the National Horticulture Foundation (NHF), which helps distribute funds for scholarships,” he says. Joe Cialone, a colleague who has worked with Gary for many years on the NFF/NHF, says that his work with Gary has allowed him to get to know Gary as a leader in the industry. “Gary is one of these people who is constantly looking to make the industry better in any possible way,” Joe says. “He’s done everything unselfishly. I think everybody in the industry that’s ever had contact with him, as a customer, a vendor or in other areas, such as NHF, has great respect for Gary and what he stands for.”

Time to change

Change isn’t easy, and oftentimes leaders may shy away from taking risks and implementing changes for fear of failure. However, Oglesby Plants International has undergone significant changes over the years, many of which Gary was a part of. Oglesby started as an outdoor landscape grower of woody ornamentals, introduced tissue culture propagation and now exclusively grows young plants, specializing in propagation. They’ve also shifted from being a major tropical foliage plant producer and breeder to also introducing perennials and ornamental grasses. “We are celebrating 70 years, but if Ray Oglesby could see the company today, it would be a very different company than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he says.

Gary stresses the importance being cognizant of the changes going on around you. “I stay aware of what’s going on and don’t panic,” he says. “Be aware of the events that are going on in your community and the world, that may or may not affect you.”

The risks Gary has taken over the years have paid off for Oglesby. But how does he know when it’s the right moment? “I think it’s a gut thing. Sometimes it’s a glaring, bright light out there that you know you need to get to, but other times it’s just pure risk,” he says. “You roll the dice and hope that it’s right. A successful company has more wins than losses and luckily for us we’ve had more wins than losses.”

Tough times

When tissue culture production was in its infancy in the late ’70s-80s, “if it was a tissue culture plant, you could sell it,” Gary says. But around 1982, the market was overwhelmed with product from 26 companies, only one of which still remains today: Oglesby Plants International. “The people that failed, failed to figure out that this is a business and not a hobby,” Gary says. “But if you have a good reputation and you have the wherewithal to stay through the tough times, then the good times are even better.”

More recently, the Great Recession that started in the late 2000s was the biggest threat to Oglesby. Gary explains that getting through it “wasn’t pretty,” but they made it through in the end. “That five to six year framework was one of the most difficult times for me personally and for the company,” Gary says. “I was not used to a company that was shrinking. We were always growing, and during that period we started to shrink and I didn’t know how to act. Luckily, I had some good friends and some peers in the business and we talked it through and maybe [had] a little panic here and there, but we managed to muscle through. We cut back where we needed to, reduced employments slightly, and made it through. Now things are looking much, much better.”

While Randy and Gary may head up companies that directly compete in some categories, they have teamed up for the greater good in the past, and Randy says that being friendly competitors is “wonderful.” “We try and help each other out where we can, when we can,” Randy says. He gives the example of when the Affordable Care Act was mandated. Both companies were unsure how to proceed and worked together for two years to figure out how their respective companies could both comply and stay financially solvent. “It’s no fun when you’re bitter enemy competitors,” Randy says, adding that he and Gary have lunch every year at TPIE. “We’ve been friends from day one and stayed friends over the years and helped each other out in various, numerous ways.”

This resilience and willingness to adapt to changing market conditions is part of what makes Gary a respected leader. “Gary’s experienced a lot of volatility and the up or down years, [and] it’s the same for him — he’s very good at evening out things for the company through challenges,” Dagen says. “He has led the company very steadily since Ray Oglesby entrusted him in that position. Oglesby has garnered a lot of respect because of Gary’s leadership.”

Thoughts on the future. Where does Gary see himself in the next 10 years? “I would like to keep my hand in part of the business and retirement is definitely in my future,” he says. “I’m working hard, trying to make sure that the management is in place for those type of transitions, and my partners are younger than myself.” However, he’s experienced firsthand how challenging the labor market can be. “It is difficult finding young people who are interested in this industry,” Gary says. “We’re trying to find young people to help us out and to keep the company young, but eventually transition has to happen and I have to have a plan for doing that.”

If given the opportunity, he would tell young professionals this about the horticulture industry: “There are some cool jobs in horticulture; there are some dirty jobs; there are some sweaty jobs; and you’re gonna have to do them all with the goal to grow to the point where you become a manager or a creator of some type and you work hard. It’s a good career. There are good people in this industry and it could become a good living for you as well.”

Oglesby offers scholarships, internships and summer employment to those interested in horticulture, and gives tours to schools and community and agriculture groups, all in the hopes of encouraging more people to become a part of the horticulture industry.

Gary sees many changes on the horizon for the next decade. “In 10 years, I think the technologies are going to change. We’re going to be talking about cannabis as part of the horticulture industries, and that industry alone could be the driving force in a lot of new technological innovations.”

But the one constant he sees is change. “What I can say is that I would expect change, because change is always there. Every year there are changes,” he says. “The customers come and go. The plants are new and different. The economy is always a challenge. My prediction over the next 10 years is there will be change.” And Gary is ready to lead Oglesby Plants International through whatever may come his way.

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