Growing (Boston) strong

Matthew Piscitelli’s entrepreneurial spirt led him to Olson’s Greenhouses, where he revived a century-old family business to new levels.

Matthew Piscitelli’s initial flash of entrepreneurship happened on the school bus on his way to grade school. 

“The first thing I ever did in business was buy one-cent bubblegum and sell it for a nickel,” says Matt, who grew up in Brockton, Mass., about 30 minutes south of Boston. “That was the first sense I ever had that I wanted to be my own boss, and I’ve never really had a boss since then.”

Although Matt’s business aspirations were unmistakable, he didn’t feel a strong pull toward any certain industry as he progressed through school. The thought of working in the horticulture industry never crossed his mind—but now, as co-owner of Olson’s Greenhouse, with an award-winning flower documentary to his name, Matt can’t imagine working in another field. 

“Even in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Matt, who earned a Bachelor of Science in marketing from Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he was highly involved in student senate and fraternity leadership. He cemented his business acumen at Northeastern University, where he taught introduction to business classes as a teaching assistant while pursuing his MBA in finance. “I wanted to own my own company. I just didn’t know what it was going to be yet.”

By following his entrepreneurial spirit from one successful business to another, Matt forged a career path that finally led him to horticulture—where he’s making a big impact through flowers and film festivals, alike. 

Olson’s Greenhouses Inc. was a challenging business opportunity for Matt Piscitelli because he didn’t know the horticulture industry.

From startup to success

After completing grad school in 2001, Matt found his first business opportunity right inside his home. 

“I had a friend who was storing some home respiratory equipment in my house, and I had all kinds of questions,” he says. “Once he explained what it was, and what the reimbursement rates were from the federal government and private insurers, a little bell rang over my head. That’s how Orion Home Health was born.”

Matt partnered with his friend to found the company after writing a business plan based on his financial projections. They launched early the following year and began selling home respiratory equipment. The operation taught him a lot about running a business—and even more about working effectively with a business partner.

“My strengths are finance and accounting,” Matt says. “I had no idea about healthcare, so I needed a business partner who understood the industry, the product, and the trends. Our strengths didn’t overlap completely, but they touched like cogs in an engine, and that was important.” 

Matt Piscitelli considers himself a serial entrepreneur.

The pair worked well together with this complementary approach—growing the business past the million-dollar milestone within three years. Their quick success caught the attention of Rotech Healthcare, a public company that acquired their startup in 2005.

Following the successful sale of his first business, Matt took an extended four-month vacation with his newlywed wife, Stephanie. They traveled to the Greek island of Mykonos, then spent several weeks in Naples, Florida, along with several trips to Cape Cod, Vermont, and other spots around New England. 

Then, the entrepreneurial itch returned. “I need to get back into business,” Matt told his wife. “I have to either start something or buy something.”

Joining Olson’s family

Matt began writing business plans to develop his next startup, leaning toward an opportunity in computer hardware sales. But it was a routine trip to the local garden center that planted the seed for his next business venture. 

Matt and Stephanie had been shopping together at Olson’s Garden Center in Wareham for years, gradually developing a friendship with the owner, Clive Olson, Jr. Around this time, as Matt was exploring his next career move, Clive mentioned that his father wanted to sell the family’s wholesale flower business, Olson’s Greenhouses Inc. Following the sudden losses of two top employees, along with a devastating fire that destroyed about 40,000 square feet of greenhouses—all within the span of just a few months—the business patriarch was, at age 75, ready to retire.

“Thinking I knew everything, I said, ‘Let me help you put together a prospectus and market [the business for sale],’” Matt says. “Once I did the prospectus, I understood why Clive Olson, Sr., wanted to get out of the business. But it had a premium product with a great name attached to it. There were real opportunities to capitalize on it.”

Even with Matt’s help, the Olson family couldn’t find any interested buyers for the greenhouse, which Clive Sr.’s father established in 1916. Yet Matt saw potential in the antiquated facilities, so he took matters into his own hands and asked Clive Jr., to buy the business with him. “I said, ‘Listen, there’s value here, but I can’t do it alone. I don’t know the product. I don’t know the industry. I need to work with somebody,’” Matt remembers.

After seeing Matt grow his first business so successfully, Clive Jr. couldn’t refuse his friend’s offer. “I would typically never have a business partner, but I saw him work with his previous partner to build and sell their company within a few years, and they got along great,” Clive says. “[Because of] our friendship, I knew we were going to do great, too.”

Matt and Clive purchased Olson’s Greenhouses in April 2006—taking the (then) 90-year-old business into the third-generation of family leadership while introducing the company’s first non-Olson owner in history. By combining Clive’s industry knowledge with Matt’s business acumen, the two young co-owners brought the perfect balance to revitalize the operation.

“The quality of Olson’s product was second-to-none, but we saw inefficiencies in management, production, and shipping. It was just a matter of streamlining [the process],” Matt says. “They had to get out of their own way, because they were mired in nearly 100 years of doing things the same way. So, we had to come in and shake things up. The business wasn’t going to be around if drastic changes weren’t made.”

Revitalizing a century-old operation 

Matt and Clive shared a vision of growing Olson’s Greenhouse to carry on the family’s legacy under a new era of efficiency.

“We had to make sacrifices, for sure,” Matt says. “For the first two years, we [basically] took no salary—$50 a week; it might have been $100 in year two, but that was our investment. When two owners don’t take a salary, that’s a big chunk of money going straight back into the business. That [reinvestment] repaired the greenhouses, rebuilt the loading dock, bought new trucks and shipping carts, and fixed a lot of broken things that made production more efficient.”

The new leadership duo began implementing automation to modernize the aging business, which turned 100 in 2016. Automated pot filling machines and conveyor belts sped up production, while boom irrigation replaced hand-watering to reduce labor needs and improve consistency. These changes allowed the operation to scale smoothly as they expanded the business—adding more growing capacity while diversifying their retail avenues.

In 2009, they decided to open a garden center in one of the greenhouses, mainly selling product grown on-site. Naming the store was one of the easiest business decisions Matt ever made. “Clive Olson Sr.’s favorite term is ‘lovely day.’ That’s what he’ll say when you leave the room,” he says. “So, we decided to take the first greenhouse, which is right along a busy street, and turn it into Lovely Day Garden Center. It’s a little jewel.”

The on-site store serves customers with “middle-of-the-road pricing,” Matt says, whereas Olson’s Garden Center (which is fully owned by Clive Jr.) offers a high-end retail experience, complete with statues, fountains, bushes, trees, and shrubs. In 2010, Matt and Clive partnered up again to open a coffee shop called Cup 2 Café adjacent to Olson’s Garden Center.

Then, in 2012, another retail opportunity walked right into the greenhouse. “We had one of our largest customers come in and say, ‘I’m done. You guys want to buy the business?’” Matt says. “As a business guy, my ears perked up, and we worked out a deal.” They purchased Klein Greenhouse, about 20 miles away, to complete their retail portfolio with a “high volume, low margin angle.” 

“We saw the value in having another retail location that we could expand on,” Matt says. “It creates a larger customer base for Olson’s Greenhouses when we control the product from the seed to the consumer, and there’s a [better] margin versus just selling it [wholesale].”

Documenting daffodils

As a diehard Bostonian, Matt always looks forward to Patriot’s Day, on the third Monday of April every year, when the city hosts the world’s oldest annual marathon. “I go every year,” he says. “It’s my favorite day in Boston.”

The annual marathon festivities have become personal traditions for Matt, who has lived within an hour of Boston his whole life. Whether it’s raining, snowing, or beautiful that day, he’s there. In fact, he was standing at the finish line in 2013 when the bombs exploded — killing three people and injuring hundreds more.

“I was 70 feet away when the bombing happened. Another three minutes, and I would have been dead,” he says. “It was a scary day, and it had a big impact [on a lot of people.]”

The tragedy unified the city around a slogan of emerging “Boston Strong.” As a tribute to this movement, a local horticulturalist named Diane Valle began organizing community support to place tens of thousands of potted daffodils along the route, as a way of welcoming runners back to symbolize a new beginning. Matt loved the idea—given his personal ties to the event and his professional connection to the flower industry. He joined the board of directors for Marathon Daffodils, the 501(c)3 non-profit, as Olson’s Greenhouses supplied the flower bulbs to support Diane’s vision.

When Matt walked past the daffodil-lined marathon route on his way into Boston’s Capital Grille in 2015, he realized just how much time and care had gone into those flowers. “I said, ‘If anybody knew what it took to get one of these daffodils here, they’d be impressed.” That’s when the idea struck him: to produce a documentary that followed a single flower’s journey to become a symbol of hope at the Boston Marathon.

Matt excused himself from the restaurant and stepped outside to call his brother, Michael Piscitelli, who has produced shows like “Wicked Tuna” for National Geographic and “American Chopper” on Discovery. After Matt explained his idea for “Path of the Daff,” Michael jumped on board as director, cinematographer, editor, and executive producer. Clive Jr. joined up, as well, sharing an executive producer title with Matt as they self-funded the project together. 

The three of them spent the next two years filming every moment of the flower’s lifecycle, from bulb to the Boston Marathon, telling the story through multiple perspectives along the way. Matt traveled to Holland twice to document the daffodils’ origins with the help of his suppliers, Pete Rotteveel and Ben Van Egmond of Rotteveel Bulb Co.

After a year of post-production work, the “Path of the Daff” entered the film festival circuit in 2019. Eleven festivals screened the film, which racked up a handful of awards including best documentary, best cinematography, and best director. To top it off, the movie recently nabbed three Emmy nominations for best lead editor, best audio mix, and best score.

In Clive’s opinion, the award-winning film officially marks Matt’s evolution from “a business guy” to a horticultural leader who’s bringing a fresh perspective to flowers. Considering that Matt didn’t understand that a “six-inch” geranium referred to the pot size—not the plant height—when he first joined Olson’s, Clive is impressed with the impact Matt’s making, not just in Boston, but across the profession. “To have this movie is pretty cool for the whole industry,” Clive says. 

L-R: Clive Olson, Jr., Clive Olson, Sr., Matt Piscitelli. Matt is the first non-Olson owner in the company’s 100-year-plus history.

Building a business legacy 

Piscitelli stays actively involved in all his business ventures—spending time at Klein and Olson’s Greenhouses every day, and frequently visiting the coffee shop in Wareham. 

“Being at the morning and afternoon meeting daily shows that I’m an involved owner, and that’s exceptionally important,” says Matt, who lives just 10 minutes down the road from the greenhouse. 

Although Matt strives to remain visible as a leader, he also believes in building strong layers of management that run smoothly without constant oversight. “I have great managers, so that creates an opportunity for me to have time off,” says Matt, noting that several of his managers have decades of experience at the company. “When I have time off, it’s straight to the family. That’s the only place I’d rather be besides work.” 

Matt and Stephanie have been married 15 years. Their sons—Grayson, 14, a freshman; and Madden, 11, a fifth-grader—both play sports, which means, “a lot of games, a lot of practices, a lot of fun,” Matt says. The family also spends a lot of time together at their vacation home. 

The horticulture industry gives Matt a chance to stay involved in his kids’ schools—whether he’s showing off bugs to teach students about Olson’s pest management program or handing out seed starter kits through the Massachusetts Flower Growers’ Association, where he serves as vice president. Matt also works with local agricultural schools to recruit greenhouse employees, and continues to mentor business students at Bryant. 

“I wouldn’t be as good at business without being in horticulture,” Matt says. “I’ve learned a lot here, and I have no intention of leaving the green industry.”

Matt has plenty of leadership advice to share with the next generation, based on the tremendous growth and turnaround he has orchestrated at Olson’s in just 15 years. In that time, the operation has expanded from 17 acres of outdoor production to now 65, with six acres under cover. 

As gratifying as the business growth has been, Matt says the greatest honor is earning the respect of Olson’s team—especially his predecessor, Clive Sr., who has become a father figure to him since losing his own dad many years ago. 

“The thing I’m most proud about is that Olson’s is still up and running. The greenhouse needed a lot to just survive, to be where it is today,” Matt says. “Mr. Olson has watched the business that he stepped back from flourish, and if I can have even a one-person legacy like that, that would make me happy.” 

July 2021
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