Art Van Wingerden is always pushing forward. Even as a head of one of the largest greenhouses in the U.S., he’s never content to rest on his success. Art has spent nearly his entire life in the greenhouse, growing Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, North Carolina, into the $240-million powerhouse it is today. But to him, it’s all just a part of doing what he loves.
Those who know him say that Art thinks of his job as his hobby. He enjoys the open nature of the industry and growers’ willingness to share knowledge, along with the family aspect of his operation. But he also has a deep love of growing.
“We’re dealing with something that people enjoy,” he says. “People like plants; they like buying them and they like being successful with them. That’s what’s fun about being in business. People enjoy buying your products. It’s not something they have to have; it’s something they choose to have.”
And he instills that same passion in his staff. Ivan Tchakarov, director of growing, says he knows Art will back him up when he needs help, but also empowers him to get the job done.
“He’s really good at approaching people and backing off and letting them do their jobs,” says Ivan, who began working at Metrolina 21 years ago. Starting off as a grower after graduation, he moved up the ladder under Art’s leadership.
“It’s been quite a journey,” he says. “He puts a lot of trust in his leadership team and I think that’s what’s driving us even more. He’s a good leader because he coaches and teaches but then he steps back and watches us advancing toward our new goal — whatever that goal for the company is.”
Growing up green
Art and his brother Abe moved with their parents from Holland to the U.S. when Art was 4 and Abe was just 2. A little while later, their parents started the operation that eventually become Metrolina Greenhouses.
Art started out working in the greenhouse right away, and by the time he was 5 or 6 years old, he knew that’s what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He says that while working in the greenhouse was just something that was expected as a kid, it grew into a deeper passion.
“I just kind of figured that’s what I was going to do — and not out of obligation. I enjoyed it,” he says. “I enjoyed working with my parents back then and I still enjoy it today.”
Art worked at the greenhouse all through school and learned things the hard way, says Abe, also co-CEO at Metrolina. “Nothing was ever handed to him. Everything was earned, you know, the old Dutch way of ‘I’m going to keep telling you you’re doing it wrong until you do it right,’” he says.
It’s that passion, and an ability to compartmentalize what you can and can’t control, that make Art a success, Abe says. Without passion, the uncertainties from the weather to unpredictable customers can beat a grower down. But Art is always looking to do the best at what he can.
“Art is super-focused on the controllables and the things he can impact rather than, ‘Hey let’s sit around and complain about the weather,’” Abe says. “And I think that purveys to the company and allows us to keep our focus on looking forward instead of saying, ‘Oh, it rained yesterday.’”
Metrolina Greenhouses’ extraordinary growth over the past 12 years has been due in part to Art’s constant innovation, hard work and a willingness to learn.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of expansion and growth and Art’s done a lot of leading of that on our supply side,” Abe says.
Abe, who worked at Proctor & Gamble for 10 years before returning to the greenhouse in 2007, handles the demand side of the business while Art handles the supply side. But while many operators are more focused on streamlining the growing process, Abe says Art has been a big driver of the company’s expansion.
“We work very well together and when you’re in a real growth mode like that you’ve really got to work hand-in-hand to make that happen,” Abe says. “A lot of times operators don’t want to be a part of that growth. They’re trying to get the operations working right and he’s done nothing but push as hard as the demand guys on helping this growth happen and accelerate over the past 12 years.”
Art is always pushing the envelope and trying to find faster and better ways to produce, while still maintaining quality standards. And by adopting new and different ways of operating, like new water sanitation methods, acquiring new facilities and establishing new protocols, Metrolina keeps growing.
When others were stagnating and holding off on expansions, Metrolina was building another 30 acres of greenhouses. And the company is going even farther, increasing that expansion to what will probably be 40 acres in the end, Ivan says.
“He’s very quick to adopt new things and he’s a very good listener, so I think that’s what makes him special,” Ivan says.
Art instills that drive to do better in all of his staff at Metrolina. He tells his managers that their job is to make the next person’s job easier. Whether it’s putting the right tags in, properly centering a seedling, picking the right cuttings or choosing the best varieties, he’s always pushing them to do their best.
“Don’t rest on your success. Always be prepared for the next success,” he says.
Always be learning
One thing Art learned from his dad was to listen to others in the industry. And with a large family (his father had 11 brothers and four sisters who were all in the green industry), there were plenty of mentors for him as he made his way.
“You glean knowledge from them and make sure you’re running a successful company,” Art says. “There’s not one right way to run it. You’ve got to find what works for you and what’s in your supposed wheelhouse and what you enjoy doing and making sure you keep your company going the right way but be nimble enough that you can move when you need to.”
Art tries to get to Europe at least once a year, especially Holland, to see the latest innovations, and travels around to other greenhouses in the U.S. As the labor shortage continues, he believes automation is the future and he does his best to keep up to date with the latest technology.
Art says he’s always believed in innovating to help ease the demand for labor, which is hard to find. But the pioneering spirit at Metrolina is about much more than robotics or automation.
“It’s just the daily mentality around innovate or stagnate that allows us to every day say, ‘How can we do a little better?’” Abe says. “There’s never a stagnation around here. There’s always a sense of, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
And he wants his staff to learn from each other. He says the best way to get to the next level is to surround yourself with smart people. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking you’re the smartest person on Earth, he says.
“Don’t think you’re the guy with all the answers,” he says. “I know I’m not the guy with all the answers.”
“We’re dealing with something that people enjoy. People like plants; they like buying them and they like being successful with them.” —Art Van Wingerden, Metrolina Greenhouses
The philosophy of looking forward instead of back has served him well over the years. As the company innovates and tries new things, mistakes are bound to happen, but he says you can’t dwell on the past.
“One of my sayings I say all the time is, ‘The past is for learning. The future is for doing,’” he says. “You can’t change the past. You can only affect the future, so what am I going to do to make the company better tomorrow?”
And that’s something Art has passed down to Ivan. He says the best thing he’s learned from Art is to never look back. “Whatever is done is done,” Ivan says. “We just need to look forward and if we have not done right, we just need to look forward and try not to repeat our mistakes. He always says that.”
As Art says, failure is the pavement to the road to success, so no matter what, he wants his people to wake up every day willing to learn and try something new.
And while Art is extremely motivated, he hasn’t forgotten that people are what make the business thrive and strives to put a personal touch. During peak season, Metrolina employs about 1,300 staff (including 700 full-time people) and the human element is key to the company’s success.
“Art brings a reverence to our history and a sense of this is still a family business,” Abe says. “So yes, we’re a $240-million enterprise but we know people’s families and what situations they’re going through. This is still a family business and we still treat people like family. And if you treat people like family, they’ll act like your family — the good parts of course.”
Art says building the team they have in place is one of the company’s biggest accomplishments in his time there. He knows about his employees’ personal lives and encourages them to take charge of their work.
“It’s very rewarding because you know you have a lot to do but you also know that if you don’t make the perfect call, he’s there to guide and there’s the understanding if something’s not quite right, you can fix it and move forward and not look back,” Ivan says.