When John Davies started his college internship at Henry Mast Greenhouses in 1991, he was working toward a landscape management degree from Michigan State University. But Henry Mast, Sr. had other plans for Davies’ career.
“When I finished the internship, I told Henry I was going to start landscaping, and he just looked at me and said, ‘You really want to dig holes the rest of your life?’” Davies remembers. “Then, he offered me an assistant grower position—and I’m still here, 30 years later, so it worked out wonderfully.”
Davies has grown right along with the company while working with four generations of the Mast family. Now, as director of growing for the wholesale flower grower, he’s shaping the next era of greenhouse leadership.
Evolving with expansion
Over the last 30 years of Davies’ career, Henry Mast Greenhouses has expanded from about 7 acres to 35 acres of greenhouse production with 7 acres of outdoor growing space, spread across three farms. The business diversified with the launch of Masterpiece Flower Company—its sales, marketing, and distribution arm—and Peak Transportation, its truck brokerage division. Today, the greenhouse supplies potted plants and cut flowers to hundreds of big=box retail stores across seven states.
“It’s grown into something much larger than a family farm,” Davies says. “That has its own growing pains, but also, obviously, opportunities.”
Through the decades, Davies worked his way up from assistant grower to section grower to plant manager at one of the facilities, where he managed growing and production on a few acres for about 10 years. Then, when the company restructured three years ago, he moved into a new role as director of growing for the entire operation.
“The biggest change is learning how to manage people more than just plants,” Davies says. “Now, most of my job is coaching and developing growers.”
Davies oversees 10 section growers, who each have one or two irrigation technicians to help apply water and pesticides. In addition to walking crops individually with each grower, Davies also gathers the team so they can learn from each other.
“We have regular grower meetings where we bring all the guys together every other week,” he says. “We talk about current conditions, common pests, what’s coming up next, and how we can prepare. As I’m developing the cultural plans for each crop, I let them speak into that [by sharing their experience and ideas].”
To maintain the strict standards of quality that Henry Mast, Sr. set in place, the operation is constantly evolving its approach to growing.
“It’s been the culture of the company to stay current with genetics and growing practices,” Davies says.
For example, as one of six master trial sites for a big-box retailer, Henry Mast Greenhouses works with flower breeders to trial new genetics before they’re released.
“We’re always trying to improve,” Davies says. “It’s just another red mum, but if it’s a little brighter or doesn’t fade as fast post-harvest, that’s a big deal. We live in a scan-based situation with our customers, so shelf life is important.”
While some color innovations are exciting—like white poinsettias that aren’t tinged with yellow—Davies says he’s seen a shift in new genetics from purely aesthetic to more performance-based improvements.
“The biggest emphasis used to be on the color or the size of the flower,” he says. “But now, it’s really more about habit and performance [in the garden], which is good for the consumer.”
Henry Mast Greenhouses also participates in the Floriculture Research Alliance, which allows Davies to partner with research universities—like his alma mater, Michigan State—to explore new solutions for sustainable greenhouse production.
Growing a team
As Henry Mast Greenhouses continues to expand, Davies is working to recruit and develop the next generation of greenhouse leaders.
“I get excited talking to high school and college kids about our industry,” Davies says. “We’re doing internships and student tours, and working with Michigan State to promote and expose [opportunities in] the industry.”
For example, Davies leads greenhouse tours for horticulture students from Michigan State, and participates in college job fairs to recruit interns for his growing team. “My story is a good story for that,” says Davies, who loves telling students that he started working at Henry Mast Greenhouses as an intern 30 years ago and never left. In fact, the greenhouse turned another intern into a full-time employee a few years ago.
By sharing decades of growing experience, while reinforcing the reputation that Henry Mast Greenhouses has established through the generations, Davies hopes to inspire new hires to find fulfilling careers in the green industry.
“We’re in the business of putting smiles on people’s faces,” Davies says. “People buy our products, not out of necessity, but because they enjoy it. So, you can’t just look at it as just a job, because we’re creating a positive experience for customers, and that’s exciting to be a part of.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.