As greenhouse and nursery growers, you face tough challenges every day. From management to training to scouting, you work tirelessly to maintain your operations and produce healthy plants. We are continually impressed by your commitment to maintain clean, pest-free growing environments and proud to be part of this unique industry.
For the fourth consecutive year, we are honored to partner with Greenhouse Management and Nursery Management to recognize the extraordinary individuals who have made substantial achievements in the horticulture industry. Congratulations to the Class of 2020 Horticultural Industries Leadership Award winners: Donald Blew, Steve Castorani, Frank Collier, Lyndsi Oestmann, George and Lynda Pealer, and Bill Zalakar. These recipients have shown great loyalty to this industry and have worked hard to leave lasting, beneficial impacts.
The horticultural industry is continually evolving and, as such, Syngenta continues to work to develop solutions to the ever-changing problems you face. By continually working to expand upon our current product portfolio, offering additional agronomic programs and developing new innovations to come, we remain a committed industry partner.
As an example of our dedication to the industry, shortly after Cultivate’19 we announced the launch of Acelepryn® insecticide into the ornamental market. Powered by an innovative active ingredient, Acelepryn® is a long-lasting solution for controlling Japanese beetles, sawfly larvae and caterpillars. With the ability to apply in nurseries or greenhouses, it is a great choice for growers battling leaf-feeding insects.
We also continue to introduce new agronomic programs to help protect against the most common insects and diseases that affect crops like poinsettias, spring bedding plants, mum and impatiens. These programs are thoroughly researched and incorporate some of the most trusted products in our portfolio including Mainspring® GNL insecticide and Mural® and Segovis® fungicides. We are continuing to invest in research and development for new solutions. One of these new developments is expected to become available later this year to help you better control key ornamental diseases, including Fusarium and powdery mildew.
Again, congratulations to the recipients of the 2020 Horticultural Industries Leadership Awards! Thank you for your hard work, loyalty and persistence to grow strong, healthy and beautiful plants.
©2020 Syngenta. Important: Always read and follow label instructions. Some products may not be registered for sale or use in all states or counties and/or may have state-specific use requirements. Please check with your local extension service to ensure registration status and proper use. Acelepryn®, Mainspring®, Mural®, and the Syngenta logo are trademarks of a Syngenta Group Company. Syngenta Customer Center: 1-866-SYNGENT(A) (796-4368).
Whether it’s on a dusty softball field, in a corporate boardroom or on a gravel-lined nursery plot, Lyndsi Oestmann remains consistently devoted to the task at hand. Her purposeful and sincere work ethic was forged when she was a child, watching her dad play professional baseball. It was reinforced as she played competitive softball, persisted into her college studies and eventually became etched in her career. Lyndsi owns and operates Loma Vista Nursery in Ottawa, Kansas, a business that was founded by her father, Mark Clear in 1991.
Lyndsi spent nearly the first decade of her life traveling to ballparks to watch her father play. From some of her first memories, he instilled in her not just the importance of hard work, but the necessity of it in every aspect of life.
“Dad always taught me that if I wanted something, I had to work hard for it,” says Lyndsi. “It’s something he’s always done, too.”
When Lyndsi started playing softball at age 12, Mark told her a lesson he learned from a former coach, “You can expect to play like you practice.” It’s a lesson she’s never forgotten and a standard that continues to drive her.
“We’re a very competitive family, and when dad was my coach, we always practiced like it was the ninth inning of the World Series,” she says. “It’s the same in business. You need to always do your best, not just when we’re pulling orders for the customer that will scrutinize the plants the most. We want to do that every time, every day.”
Sports has certainly influenced Lyndsi’s outlook and how she manages employees and the business. When she started softball, she was playing 150 games a year. Mark noticed her natural leadership qualities with the team.
“I was her coach and probably harder on her than most of the other kids,” he says. “Instead of moping or pouting about it, she looked on the positive side and worked until she got to be one of the better players in the area. She always dug in, no matter what it was, and she was always the team leader. It’s no different now as she’s running the nursery.”
Blazing a trail
Mark and the family moved from California to Olathe, Kansas, and started the nursery when Lyndsi was 10. Lyndsi and her brother performed several duties at the nursery and even planted the first crop of trees. As she grew up in the family business, Mark had dreams of Lyndsi and her brother attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, getting a horticulture degree, and coming back to work in the family business.
Lyndsi enjoyed working at the nursery, but she had different career aspirations. She attended Kansas State and received a marketing and international business degree with a minor in Spanish and planned to travel the world. After graduation, she landed a job at PepsiCo Inc. and got a taste of corporate America. She dove in, learning all she could about managing people and process improvement. While at PepsiCo, she learned about accountability and had the good fortune of being cross-trained within several departments.
She wasn’t traveling the world as originally planned, but unbeknownst to her, Lyndsi was soaking up valuable lessons that she’d eventually take back to the family business.
Mark bought property in Ottawa to expand Loma Vista and he needed someone to run the Olathe operation, which had been converted into a landscape distribution center. He asked Lyndsi to return home and manage the distribution division.
“I really liked being part of corporate America, but when dad offered me this opportunity, I thought, ‘I can do this because I’ve had this great training and I’ve been managing people at Pepsi and learning how to manage processes,’” she says.
Taking a job away from the family business also taught her how to work for a boss who’s not part of the family — something she recommends for anyone working for relatives.
“That was a really important lesson. It’s a skill you need to have to be able to separate the business relationship and the personal relationship,” she says. “On Saturday afternoon we may be celebrating a birthday and he’s my dad, but on Monday morning, he’s my boss. That really helped me be a better employee and manager.”
Lyndsi brought a fresh perspective when she returned to the nursery.
“Dad and I make an awesome team because his passion for the business has always been on the production side, and I came in and immediately focused on sales, customer service and marketing,” she says.
Since returning to Loma Vista, she hasn’t had a single regret — even through the Great Recession and the current COVID-19 situation.
“Coming back to the family business was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” she says.
Executing a game plan
As she gained a foothold in the distribution operation at age 23, she looked to some of her landscape contractor customers as mentors.
“I tried to learn some of their best practices and see how we could apply those to our own operation. I looked at companies with really strong cultures and ones that had good employee retention,” she says.
She asked her customers what they needed from the Loma Vista team, had face-to-face meetings with customers, conducted focus groups and sent out surveys.
“She’s a hands-on visual learner,” Mark says. “I was always more into the growing side of the business and she was managing our two distribution sites. She came in and found areas that needed improvement and executed those changes. She did it by building a good team. She’s got the team concept down pat.”
Four years ago, Loma Vista sold the distribution division to SiteOne, one of the largest landscape distribution companies in the nation. The deal essentially reduced the size of the company by half, which gave Lyndsi the opportunity to work on the production side of the business.
“It was a great move for our company,” she says.
Now the company was solely focused on growing and there were some staff changes, which presented another chance for Lyndsi to learn new skills.
Her first lesson was in approaching change. The company’s controller was leaving, and Lyndsi took over the finance and accounting duties of that position.
“I was ready to change everything. We were doing a good job, but I felt like we could be so much more efficient,” she says. “As I started talking to one of our key team members about all of these changes, they had one of those deer-in-the-headlights looks.
“I tended to approach change like just grab the bull by the horns and just do it. But I’ve learned that I need to slow down a bit and respect how others react to change. It’s important to have lots of communication during changes, really overcommunication in this case, to have complete transparency and buy-in. Because nothing works without buy-in.”
Providing for people
Mark taught Lyndsi a lesson that she never forgot and one that resonates with every decision she makes about the company.
“Dad has always said that people are the most important asset of a company,” she says.
Investing in the Loma Vista employees has been her top priority. Applying some of her experiences from PepsiCo, nursery team members are cross trained to understand how each department affects the others. There’s accountability throughout the system.
“It used to be that one person knew how to do everything, and if that person wasn’t at work, there’d be a lot of people standing around not knowing what to do. So, we developed a playbook for our company with strong documentation of our processes and a formalized planning system,” she says.
Another vital part of training at Loma Vista is taking part in nursery conferences and visiting other nurseries.
“I want everyone on our production team to have lots of contacts in the industry,” she says. “If they’re facing a challenge, they can pick up the phone and call on a fellow grower. Or they can go on a nursery tour and bring back an idea for us to execute. A good example is our propagator, who’s been here for five years. She went to Bluebird Nursery to look at their perennial production. Making those contacts and going to those events has totally changed the dynamic of our team.”
The nursery’s interns also get the same opportunities to learn from industry events.
“We take our interns to Cultivate each year and they’re tasked with finding one thing or one idea that can be used or implemented at Loma Vista. It’s great having a different set of eyes there. They have an interesting perspective,” she says.
Lyndsi brings in three or four interns each year from all over the country. They spend time with the management team and one-on-one with Lyndsi. They go through every department and see how the operation works. They attend planning and management meetings.
“I take them out into our local Kansas City metro market to visit related businesses and set up tours with our customers, other nurseries and independent garden centers because it’s important for them to see other parts of the industry,” Lyndsi says. “I encourage them to actively seek out mentors, to be curious, ask questions and to share their ideas. No matter your experience level, once you understand the ‘why’ behind things, you can be the person who effects change.”
Once the interns have completed that process, they’re able to choose one area of the nursery to concentrate on for the remainder of their internship.
“I’m inspired by her support of students and emerging leaders,” says Sarah Woody Bibens, executive director of the Western Nursery and Landscape Association (WNLA). Lyndsi serves on the WNLA Board of Directors.
Loma Vista provides a sponsorship that brings students to The Western [trade show] each year. And she takes that extra step to ensure interns and their families are comfortable before making the trip to Loma Vista.
“She genuinely cares for these students. Part of her process involves asking students who the support people are in their life. Lyndsi called one intern’s mom to reassure her about the responsibility they take with the students,” Sarah says.
Lyndsi values every person that’s related to the nursery, from each employee and their families to the customers and the community.
“My mission in business is to help the company become the best it can be,” she says. “The company is a lot bigger than just a nursery and its employees. The health of a lot of families relies on Loma Vista, and I take that really seriously.”
That blends impeccably with her mission in life.
“I want to always strive to be the best version of myself, to act with purpose and outwardly express people’s value to everyone I encounter,” she says.
Caitlin Hupp, a territory sales manager at Loma Vista, says she admires Lyndsi’s ability to see the potential in people and help guide them to their best role.
“There’s so much about Lyndsi that makes her a great leader. She’s very conscious of everyone having a work/life balance and she gets to know the families of everyone here,” Caitlin says. “I admire that she’s worked in every role in the company, so she can speak from experience no matter the job. She doesn’t hire square pegs for square peg roles. She sees the potential in people, lets them experience the company culture and helps find a good fit for them.”
Cheryl Boyer, the nursery extension specialist at Kansas State, has been colleagues with Lyndsi for about 12 years.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed watching her career grow. It’s wonderful to have a progressive nursery leader in Kansas,” Cheryl says. “Her perspective — coming from Pepsi and then landscape distribution — is one of the key reasons Loma Vista is successful. That combined with the culture she’s built. The fact that the nursery even talks about culture is amazing. She puts a lot of time and effort into training and mentoring new leaders.”
Mark also marvels at her ability to build a team.
“When she’s looking for a new team member, she’s looking for someone who’s better than she is at certain tasks,” he says. “The team that’s in place is the best it’s ever been. It’s one of the best things she’s done for our company.”
Reacting with purpose
As the nursery was navigating the Great Recession, Lyndsi made a profound observation during a budget meeting with her dad, an operations manager and the accounting manager.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’re four people and we’re trying to move the direction of 150 people. We need everyone in the company to hear these numbers. We need everyone to understand what’s going on so the four of us aren’t spinning our wheels.’”
The company became totally transparent and began sharing all financial information in company meetings, including how the nursery is performing compared to budget and how it’s doing compared to industry benchmarks.
“It has made a huge difference. Having buy-in from everyone – not just your top managers, but your middle managers, supervisors and down to the individual level — it’s difficult to get 100% buy-in, but we’re working on it,” she says. “One person, or in our case four people, can’t make the company successful. It is the effort of every single person here because every person is here for a reason.”
The employees appreciate the transparency.
“When Lyndsi implemented the open-book mentality with our budget and finances, that let us know she believed in our capabilities and our ability to problem solve,” Caitlin says. “She gives us the power to get involved and make decisions about the business and the direction we’re going, and to provide solutions to obstacles.”
During the last recession, Lyndsi also realized the nursery’s customer base needed more diversity.
“We were deeply tied to the commercial construction market, so we took a hit during that time,” she says. “We knew right away that we had to put some measures in place, which took a lot of time and planning, to diversify our customer base. We put a lot of work into our product mix, our production timing, how we tag products, how we deliver products and how our sales team operates. I feel a lot more comfortable having a diverse customer base as we face another recession.”
With the recent COVID-19 concerns, Lyndsi realized the importance of being nimble, which also means having a well-developed plan in place.
“We work off of really solid plans — plan A, B, C, all the way to Z if needed. You have to be able to make changes in a timely matter and plan for the things that you can control,” she says. “In the past I have spend a lot of sleepless nights worrying about things that are out of my control. That’s futile. Now we plan for possible scenarios and execute the plan based on variables we can control.”
Loma Vista’s customers appreciate the team’s focused planning and the calculated reactions.
“My company started in 1991, the same year as Loma Vista, and we were their first credit customer,” says Marty Seiler, principal of Epic Landscape Productions in Olathe, Kansas. “Lyndsi has worked hard to lead Loma Vista and take it a step forward. Sometimes in family businesses, the second generation rides the coattails of the first generation. That is not the case with Loma Vista. She’s very professional, well studied and very knowledgeable of the industry. There’s a high level of confidence from father to daughter.
“She demonstrates a passion and love for the industry. She’s personable and easy to talk to. As we’ve gone through the recent COVID-19 issues, we’ve been able to work through some of those issues together.”
Leaning on family
Lyndsi says motherhood has changed her the most, bringing her more empathy and patience.
“I feel so fortunate as a mom working in a family business. And now I try to extend grace to the moms working in our nursery,” she says. “When I had my youngest, we were right in the process of buying a second distribution center location and we opened it about a month after she was born. I just strapped her into the baby carrier and took her to work. We did that for six months. It was nice to get to go to work and spend time with her.”
Her girls are ages 8 and 6, and Lyndsi says they love to go to work with her. “They like to prune and check on the crops. My 8-year-old has even answered the phones,” she says.
Lyndsi and her husband recently bought an old farmhouse and they enjoy remodeling projects with a special emphasis on the landscape, of course.
“He’s in the construction management business and is a really smart businessperson, and I’m able to talk to him about the nursery business — but not every night,” she says with a chuckle. “He’s patient and he’s a good problem-solver. In his business, safety standards are so rigorous, so he’s helped me strengthen our safety program. That was a focus for us this year.”
Lyndsi can always count on her brother for advice. He’s in the produce business in Southern California.
“When I need an outside opinion, he’s one of my go-tos,” she says.
He’s the one in the family who lived out Mark’s dream and received a horticulture degree from Cal Poly. He also received a master’s in ag business from Purdue.
“I tried to hire him back into the nursery last year, but he decided not to move back to Kansas. I guess we can’t compete with Southern California and life on the beach,” she says.
Lyndsi also leans on a tight-knit group of female friends who are also businesswomen.
“I lean on them personally and professionally,” she says. “It’s critical to make connections outside the industry and see how others handle challenges.”
Whether it’s examples from her dad and industry mentors, or advice from her circle of friends or her husband, Lyndsi has learned that effective leadership characteristics involve being a good listener, listening to understand, being open minded, admitting when you’re wrong and being OK with it, as well as willing to make mistakes but learn from them.
Growing up with his two brothers in Mount Vernon, Ohio, near Columbus, gardening was a chance for George Pealer to spend time with his dad.
“It wasn’t a huge garden, but that wasn’t the point,” George says. “He spent a few hours a week out there and he let me tag along.” When he got to high school, the Pealers moved to Bexley, Ohio — a larger Columbus suburb — where George worked at Connell’s Flowers. At the time, it was one of the largest florists in Ohio.
“It was a bit of shock, but it was probably the best thing for me, moving away from a small town,” he says. “Connell’s had a greenhouse and a plant retail business, so I was able to work in the greenhouses and help out in the flower shop and receive flower shipments. It really got me interested in growing flowers.”
After high school, George attended The Ohio State University and planned to study botany. He thought he might end up as a teacher before a class put him on the path of being a grower. Today, George runs Millcreek Gardens, an annual, perennial and herb growers in Ostrander, Ohio — within driving distance of where George grew up and attended school. George founded the business in 1978 with his late wife Lynda.
“I went to a horticulture class for freshman and that really made an impression,” he says. “That was all it took. I realized from then I wanted to be in horticulture. I didn’t know exactly what part, but I loved the flower part of it and Ohio State had wonderful floriculture faculty. It was really easy to get immersed in it.”
In his career, George has served on the board of directors of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association and as the president of the Perennial Plant Association while Millcreek became one of the first nurseries in the Ohio Valley region to sell herbs on a wholesale basis. Today, he is still at the business every day, trying to help it grow and help every employee succeed.
“He’s at the forefront,” says Fred Higginbotham, Millcreek’s growing operations manager. “He will just come up and say, ‘Tell me where I can pitch in; tell me where I can help out.’ No job is too big or too small for George. People see that commitment he has.”
Different kinds of education
During his time studying horticulture at Ohio State, George met three professors who had a major influence on him.
“There was Dr. Fred Hartman and he was the professor of pomology — the study of fruit production,” George says. “He actually taught that Horticulture 101 class and he ended up being my advisor the whole time I was at Ohio State. Another teacher was Dr. George Staby. He taught the perennials identification class and he also taught perishables research. His class was one of the things that solidified my career choice.” Jokingly, George says he liked Staby despite him being a graduate of longtime OSU rival Michigan State.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was well-known floriculture and greenhouse professor Dr. D.C. Kiplinger, whom everyone called Kip.
“He was also very instrumental in founding the Ohio Florists Association, which is now AmericanHort,” George says. “When I could have graduated with a degree in pomology, I decided to stay on a couple of extra quarters to take the greenhouse management class with Dr. Kiplinger, which turned out to be a life-changing thing because I knew I could be a grower and it’s where I met my wife, in one of his classes.”
Throughout his college career, George continued to work at Connell’s to pay his way through school. It is a decision he says only bolstered his education.
“I would take horticulture classes all day and then almost have a lab afterwards,” he says, “because I was using my hands and doing the stuff I was learning about.”
At Connell’s, George started out by cutting flowers. At the time, the business would receive large shipments of roses, carnations and other flowers from growers in California and Oregon. The in-house flower designers had different ways of using each kind of flower, so they each had to be cut in a certain way before being placed in buckets and coolers. Around the holidays, George also started helping out with deliveries and packaging shipments.
“The diversity of the plants we worked with was amazing,” he says. “Being the biggest florist in Ohio, we’d get in flowers that other people didn’t have, and we’d get them directly from another grower. We’d get them shipped in these massive boxes and you’d never know what exactly would be in there.”
The defining relationship
In George’s last quarter at Ohio State, he met his future wife, Lynda, in a greenhouse management course taught by Kiplinger. They started dating soon after.
“She was a very strong woman,” George says. “She went to Purdue University and had a degree in microbiology, and when she graduated, she worked at a medical center in Indianapolis doing cancer research. She realized after a year or two of doing that she didn’t want to spend her life in a lab. She had been married, had children and got divorced.” George says Lynda came to Columbus with an interest in horticulture and knew Ohio State was a good opportunity for her to begin doing the kind of work she wanted. Ultimately, she got a horticulture degree from Ohio State.
Soon after he met her, though, George moved three hours away to Salem, Ohio, to work at a friend’s orchard. He had spent some college breaks working at orchards and thought that was the kind of work he wanted to spend this life doing.
“But I realized I really wanted to grow flowers and not apples and peaches,” he says. “When I left college, I really first thought I’d grow fruit and own a farm market. Plus, I missed my future wife and when I moved back to Columbus, we were able to spend time together, which was a good thing.”
The two married in 1977 and founded Millcreek Gardens a year later in February 1978. Before starting the business, the two traveled together, visiting operations such as White Flower Farm, a nursery in Connecticut, and Gilbertie’s Organics, an herb farm in Connecticut, and thought the operations set a blueprint for them to found a business together.
At the beginning, George returned to work at Connell’s for three more years as the business got going. At Millcreek, they combined two passions — George’s for perennials and Lynda’s for herbs — into one combined vision. They settled down in Ostrander, located just outside of Columbus, and for a long time, Lynda grew the herbs day in and day out. When she took a step back from growing, she still helped behind the scenes.
“The thing that always impressed me about Lynda was that she loved herbs, and loved to cook with them, but couldn’t find them anywhere,” George says. “But we saw them [on our trip] and she thought it would be great to do them here. She was really a pioneer in our area for growing herbs in pots like you see now. It’s such an integral part of our company now. People know us for our perennials and our herbs.”
Lynda died on Christmas Eve in 2018, leaving behind George, six children and 12 grandchildren. She made an impact on everyone she met.
“She had extremely high standards,” says Nathan Pealer, George and Lynda’s son, who works in real estate. “She pushed everybody to be better. And since she had such high standards, everybody tried their best around her, be it her family or someone at work. She held herself to those same high standards, too.”
“She was only here for a couple of years when I started here,” says Higginbotham, “but I’d never seen a man have as much love for his wife as George had for her,” Higginbotham says.
Helping others grow
Higginbotham first visited the company in the early 2000s during an open house and says he was “blown away” by the facility even back then. After interning at Millcreek one summer and graduating from Ohio State the next spring, he joined the company “basically after graduating” in 2005. He started out as an assistant grower, became a head grower, and then was finally promoted to his current role as growing operations manager about five years ago.
From the time he first visited Millcreek, Higginbotham saw that George went out of his way to help him however he could.
“Throughout the years, the thing I can stay about George is that he’s the nicest guy ever,” Higginbotham says. “He treats everybody from seasonal employees to somebody who’s been here for 25 years exactly the same, always with a smile on his face. It’s one thing that sets George apart.” Higginbotham says that it is not uncommon for George to hop in and help with shipping, putting stickers on pots or bringing out cold Gatorades for the workers in the greenhouse.
Higginbotham adds that the culture George has created is the major reason he has stayed at the business and cannot imagine himself leaving any time soon.
“It’s about the people,” he says. “We have people that have been here 20, 25-years plus. Like any good organization, the good starts at the top and works its way down. And while George is very involved, he lets a lot of us on the management team have the freedom to do what we do and do our jobs. I’ve always appreciated that there’s a lot of trust involved here.”
One other way George has empowered employees over the years is by consulting with HR firms to help develop best practices and help employees develop skills. A coach George brought in helped Higginbotham develop confidence in himself and challenged him to set goals for what he wanted to accomplish in his career. At the time, Higginbotham says he was one of the newest employees at Millcreek and was having trouble finding his niche.
“At times, it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But it’s truly one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
Another employee George helped empower is Megan Armstrong, the company’s assistant general manager and business office manager. Armstrong came to Millcreek in 1998 after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in environmental and plant biology. Her father knew George from business they had done together and encouraged Megan to visit him at the university job fair. She started working at Millcreek full-time the following summer.
“I’ve been here ever since,” she says. “This is an overall great atmosphere. It came from him and Lynda.”
For the first part of her career, Armstrong was a grower working with gallon-size perennials and, in 2004, was named the Perennial Plant Association’s Young Professional of the Year. In 2012, she was promoted to assistant general manager, taking on responsibilities outside of growing like budgeting, staffing and overall company management.
According to Armstrong, it was a change she wanted, and one that George encouraged her to seek out. And like Higginbotham’s improvement, it came after an HR firm George hired helped do some necessary restructuring.
“The company was at a point where we needed to have more structure than we had, so [George] hired an HR firm to assess our company and help formalize people’s responsibilities,” she says. “Out of that, we got the growing side and the office side. I applied for that office position, as I’d already naturally been taking on a lot of office responsibilities like availability lists and customer communication and our website. I was naturally inclined to do those kinds of things and was bolstered by the plant knowledge.”
“One of the biggest things is the trust George places in people,” she continues. “He may challenge you for an idea, like developing a new product line for the slow season, but he’s not going to pigeonhole you. He wants your input, wants your ideas and is willing to go for it.” Both Armstrong and Higginbotham both say that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, George has been essential in keeping the company connected while also prioritizing employee safety while working and trying to keep business as normal as possible.
George’s knack for empowerment extends to Nathan and his other children, too.
“For my entire life, I’ve talked to him almost every day and he’s been a constant source of positivity and support and a steady force as far as someone I can always talk to,” Nathan says. “Each and every day, even now when I’m almost 40 years old, I love talking to him about anything I have going in. It could be business, home renovations, gardening or Buckeye football. He’s a big part of my life.”
For George, at the end of the day, empowering employees is part of the ethos he and Lynda set out to create when they founded Millcreek back in 1978. To him, along with quality and profitability, values like integrity, leadership and teamwork are part of Millcreek’s DNA. Ultimately, a significant part of his legacy is helping people find their passion just like his dad, his Ohio State professors and first employer did for him when he was just starting out.
“Our mission statement is ‘growing high quality plants, people and relationships,’” George says. “For us, that says it all.”
Pleasant Cove Nursery started in 1957 when John R. Collier, Frank’s father, started growing plants in the basement of his Tennessee home. The nursery moved out of the house and into the backyard, and eventually grew into the 500-acre, 20-farm facility it is today. Once staffed solely with Collier family members, Pleasant Cove now employs more than 60 workers during peak seasons.
John and his wife Elma ran the nursery in the early days with their four sons, John Jr., Robert, Frank and David. Frank remembers it was tough in those early days, working as a kid in the fields.
Frank joined up for good after he finished college in the mid-70s. The nursery has changed a lot since then, but so has the industry. And the Colliers have always been able to adapt, whether it meant applying new research and technology or engineering a new solution.
“We’ve still got the first 'vineyard' tractor probably in the state of Tennessee,” Frank laughs, “A Bungartz. It was a vineyard narrow tractor, with a Volkswagen engine. You see all kinds of them now, but a bit innovative for nursery use when we got it. I had a guy auditing us once and he wanted to know why this or that and I said, ‘Look, they don’t make things for nurserymen.’”
That’s changed a bit, with Bouldin & Lawson just down the road making equipment to help the nursery industry automate. The Collier family still runs Pleasant Cove. Although John Jr. died in 2019, Robert, Frank and David carry on the Collier legacy of excellent nursery stock. The family always made it a point to have ties with regional, state and national trade associations like The Middle Tennessee Nursery Association, Tennessee Nursery and Landscape Association, Southern Nursery Association and AmericanHort. Frank has served in various capacities and has become known as a champion of research, including a stint as president of the Horticultural Research Institute. In 2011, Frank was inducted into the TNLA Hall of Fame.
“Frank has worked tirelessly on funding for HRI with much success,” says Michael Lorance, owner of Cherry Springs Nursery, another Tennessee-based wholesale nursery. “Additionally, he was instrumental in securing funding for the Nursery Research Station in McMinnville, Tennessee and the staffing required to make it the reality it is today.”
From a national perspective, the nursery industry is perpetually overlooked. It’s typically tucked under the agriculture umbrella as “specialty crops,” where it has to fight for every scrap of funding that makes it down through the Farm Bill.
“One of our old researchers, retired now, says ‘If you’re not sows, plows and cows, you don’t count in the state of Tennessee’ — and most likely any other state,” Frank says.
Frank is well-equipped for that fight for funding. He’s been doing it a while. Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president for government relations at AmericanHort, has known Frank for 30 years and sees him as a kindred spirit — someone able to speak the language of politics, understand the systems in place, and willing to use them to carve out a piece for the nursery industry.
“Frank is one of the most politically astute individuals in the industry,” Craig says. “In an old-school way, but I mean that positively. He’s all about relationships and quiet but effective influence.”
Craig sees the research center as a large part of Frank’s legacy as a nurseryman who understands the value of research and development and wants the industry to keep striving to improve itself.
“He was instrumental in the successful effort to establish the Nursery Crops Research Station at McMinnville, and for that matter, the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative, a legacy that has grown in impact and continues on.”
A resource for Tennessee
McMinnville is known as the heart of Tennessee’s nursery country. That makes it an ideal spot for a nursery research station. Built on the 87-acre site of a former commercial nursery, The Otis L. Floyd Nursery Research Center is a facility dedicated to the improvement of the Tennessee nursery crop industry. It is located approximately 80 miles southeast of Nashville on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
Through partnerships with the Tennessee nursery industry, Tennessee State University, the USDA, and state and local governments, the necessary political, social and economic support was assembled to construct the research station. In addition to considerable support from the Tennessee nursery industry, the Center has received donations from nursery growers across the U.S.
“We hooked up politically with Dr. Otis Floyd who was chancellor and president at TSU and made it happen,” Frank says. “It’s a good deal for the industry. Plus, it connects all over the country. Oregon, California, Ohio, to Beltsville, Maryland. I’m very proud of that. Hopefully we get these young people to keep it going, keep it funded.”
Construction of the laboratory/administration building began in 1994. The 20,000 square foot building has 10 laboratories, offices for 12 scientists, a 200-seat auditorium, and 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Other facilities include a state-of-the-art pesticide mixing and storage facility, a fire ant quarantine facility, soil mixing/composting facility, shade houses, propagation houses, irrigated container yards, a pot-in-pot yard, and an equipment/maintenance shed. The entire site is plumbed for irrigation using either well water or municipal water.
Frank says a nursery advisory group meets with the station’s director to provide input on potential research projects for its scientists.
“Our station is unique in a lot of ways,” Frank says. “It’s got a great staff and a great director. We’ve got Tennessee Department of Ag plant industry inspectors there on the site. We’ve got extension there on the site, which is really good for the scientists to be able to talk to the inspectors and vice versa. It’s a one-stop shop.”
As the Nursery Research Center expands, specialists in other disciplines will be added. The areas that are currently prioritized are agricultural mechanization, pesticide/environmental sciences, applied plant physiology, and additional pathology and entomology programs.
Facilities planned for the future include student housing, storage areas for scientist’s field supplies, increased shade house and greenhouse capacity, and over-wintering structures for containerized field research material.
The Nursery Research Center is only about 20 minutes from Pleasant Cove Nursery. And Frank has made sure his nursery has implemented some of the station’s R&D findings. From the use of cover crops between rows in the field to protection from soilborne diseases and insect pests, to crop improvements in boxwood and viburnum and a hydrangea breeding program, the scientists have completed very useful projects.
Another collaborative effort
Frank was also one of the key industry forces behind the creation and early growth of the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI).
In 1996, the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA), the Society of American Florists (SAF) and the Ohio Florists Association (OFA) launched the proposal when they asked U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS) for research help. The resulting partnership has lasted more than 20 years. In March 2018, FNRI received $1 million in funding as part of the spending bill passed by Congress.
Peter K. Bretting, USDA-ARS National program leader for plant genetic resources, is one of nine national program leaders that constitute crop production and protection. He was the lead USDA-ARS researcher for the FNRI from its inception in 1998 until the mid-2000s.
“It was meant from the inception to be sharply focused on the needs of industry,” Peter says. “ARS would handle research, whether it was feasible, how to go about it in terms of scientific approach, and the industry provided input about relevance.”
As the FNRI was being established and thereafter, Peter and the other researchers received guidance from Frank and other industry leaders about the types of projects upon which they should focus their efforts. Those communications were important because they helped ARS know what the most important priorities were for the green industry. It was a collective effort and it grew into a well-functioning partnership.
Frank’s sterling reputation as a nurseryman and collaborator made him the perfect person to coordinate between all the stakeholders in the initiative and ensure everyone was rowing in the same direction.
“He rapidly established himself as a trusted and discreet partner,” Peter says. “Some of the early discussions were quite complicated and had to be dealt with carefully and adeptly. Frank had such a reputation among industry and universities, UT and Tennessee State and with us, that he played a key role in fostering communication so that all the many players in the initiative were aligned along the same effort.”
Some of Frank’s reputation was due to being part of a community of straight shooters: nurserymen who forged substantial deals with a handshake because generations of trust. But he also earned that reputation through his actions and his ability to communicate.
“It’s watching him in action,” Peter says. “If he said he would do something, he would do it in a very capable way. If there wasn’t a clear path to a particular goal, he’d let you know that right away. And collectively we would work on a different approach.”
If the research team ever had a question or hit a snag that involved the green industry crops, their first step was to pick up the phone and talk with Frank to seek his advice on how to proceed. On the other hand, if something potentially controversial or contentious was emerging, they would hear about it early from him.
“He was very good at establishing people as colleagues rather than adversaries,” Peter says. “That was really critical, especially at the beginning of this when there was some misunderstanding or lack of information on what the initiative meant and what its focus was. He was very effective in communicating that to a broad spectrum of industry colleagues and university colleagues too. Of course, he surely promoted the effort in Tennessee, but he was also always looking at the broader picture. He would work on behalf of the more local interests, but the regional and national interests, too. He was really quite selfless in that regard. That contributed to widespread trust of him, his advice and his ideas about how to proceed.”
For many years, Dr. Judy St. John was a high-level official at the USDA-ARS, and the industry’s primary champion for FNRI.
“Frank established a superb relationship with Judy,” Craig Regelbrugge says. “In fact, I can’t swear to this, but he may have been the one to give her the nickname ‘Mother Nature,’ which stuck with her for the rest of her career and to this day.”
For his part, Frank is thankful to Dr. St. John and the other ARS scientists for all the work they did for the industry.
“She was a keeper,” Frank says. “She’s always helped the small crop growers like us. Judy St. John and ARS have been really good to us on specialty crops funding and research.”
Looking to the future
Frank hopes the next generation of nurserymen will continue the commitment to research that has served the industry well. He also has advice for the next generation.
“Ask a lot of questions,” he says. “Don’t be bashful.”
He also suggests visiting other nurseries in other parts of the country to see how they operate. You can pick up a lot of information that way, and many of the little things are done differently from place to place.
“A friend of mine’s son, he’s a good kid. I told him, ‘Buddy, you need to go to another nursery for a couple years, at least two or three,’” Frank says. “And he went for a year, came back afterwards and said ‘Thank you.’”
The nursery industry’s efforts to honor its past and commit to its own future is easily seen at HRI’s annual meeting each year. Nursery owners in attendance make pledges of substantial funds for research, often in memory of parents or in honor of their children.
“Instead of saying ‘I’m going to buy myself a new boat or motorcycle,’ they’ll say ‘I pledge $50,000 in the name of father, mother or child on behalf of research,’” Peter says. “As a researcher I can’t think of a more committed group of industry folks.”
The Collier family has its own named endowment fund, the Elma E. and John R. Collier Memorial Trust Fund. And Frank has plenty of hope for the future.
“I think this shows, this virus deal, that we’re essential,” he says. “If you’re stuck at home, you can plant some plants, trees, vegetable crops. The whole nation will figure that out sooner or later.”
Still, even in an age of virtual trade shows and video conferences, the skills that make Frank such a successful leader are good as gold.
“The influence Frank had been able to wield, that was interpersonal,” Peter says. “How can you do it in days like these when you can’t look a person clearly in their eye, share a meal or have a drink or two and forge those relationships of strong trust? We haven’t come up with a technological fix for that.”