Leadership transitions

Features - Cover Story

Three major players in the green industry discuss how they’re shaping new management teams to secure a bright future in the market.

While baby boomers continue to dominate ownership and executive roles in the green industry, there’s an evolution of leadership occurring. Whether it’s a new generation taking over for parents, a retiree who’s appointed a young and eager person to lead the company, or a young entrepreneur starting their own operation, the generational shift is gaining momentum.

We spoke to three industry trailblazers about their leadership transitions, talent acquisition strategies and company missions.

Expanding the boundaries

Targeted marketing begins with targeted talent acquisition. See how Bailey has groomed leadership roles from within the company and the green industry, as well as other markets.

By Matthew Grassi

If you happen to track such things, Bailey Nurseries, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has been on a hiring and promoting spree over the last couple of years.

What kicked off just after New Year’s 2021 with the promotions of Shane Brockshus (chief operations officer) and Alec Charais (chief marketing and product development officer) continued on in March 2021 with a handful of internal promotions and external hires across all levels of Bailey, including fifth-generation marketing wiz Ryan McEnaney being named marketing and communications manager.

“Over the last year, we’ve been incredibly intentional about the structure of our marketing and brand teams, making sure that we have the right people to best support our customers, both internal and external,” says Ryan McEnaney. “We’ve raised the bar on the talent on the teams, elevating team members internally and bringing in new voices from within and outside the industry.”

While McEnaney’s appointment would signal to some a deliberate intention to bring younger, fresher perspectives into the management suite at Bailey, for Charais, it’s more about being more talent-driven in hiring efforts.

“That’s really the foremost criteria for what we’re trying to do,” Charais says. “A lot of this has been in process for several years, starting with Terri (McEnaney) and our management team and looking at our strategy as a company, and looking at our infrastructure, from a leadership standpoint.”

(L-R) Ryan McEnaney, Chris Dohman, Terri McEnaney, Gretchen McNaugton, Alec Charais
Photos by Tracy Walsh

CEO Terri McEnaney represents the fourth generation at the helm at Bailey currently. Her father Rod and uncle Gordie were instrumental in advancing the family business to what it is today.

“Our company has really transformed over the last 10 years. As we’ve broadened our scope beyond a plant production company to also being more of a brand company, having that national presence with our brands, we could see that we needed to do some restructuring,” Terri McEnaney says.

The flurry of promotions, hirings and additions throughout all aspects of Bailey (operations included) has management understandably excited for what’s to come. The green industries are riding a lot of momentum, and Bailey has likely ridden along on that wave since virtually all its main customer segments have enjoyed record growth during the pandemic.

Of course, any industry that is doing well and in demand is going to attract attention. And that’s likely helped Bailey entice some outside-the-hort-industry perspectives to commit to joining its operational teams.

Gretchen McNaughton, communication and content specialist at Bailey, came from Trail Breaker Kennel, a family-run travel and tourism company in Alaska. It was her first job after college and then she decided to return to Minnesota full time. She grew up in Woodbury, knew the Bailey name, and applied. Chris Dohman, who brings a lot of experience in web development, analytics and digital marketing to the company, most recently came from a wholesale production company that made kegs, cylinders and other components.

“Having team members with non-horticultural experience is invaluable, not just for their outside fresh perspective but also to challenge convention, bring learnings from customer interactions with other products, tools and resources that may be unfamiliar, and process improvements,” says Ryan McEnaney. “It’s also helpful to work with team members that come from companies of other sizes. Those with experience with larger organizations and budgets may think differently — big concepts can be helpful to break free of the box and right sized to fit our needs. Team members that come from smaller organizations have experience maximizing outputs with limited resources, so they bring a sense of grit and tenacity that balance the big ideas.

“When hiring Gretchen and Chris, I saw the most important trait, especially for someone without horticultural experience: a hunger to learn and grow. The passion for ongoing education is crucial. We can teach plants, but we can’t teach curiosity, integrity and passion. These core qualities, combined with their outside experience, were a perfect fit with our otherwise industry-experienced team. In all things, balance.”

Terri McEnaney adds, “Some of the people that we hired came from outside industry, and they are bringing some really great ideas and perspectives that we needed to really energize our industry to be able to be relevant today and have all these creative ideas.”

Apparently, those creative ideas are reaching even beyond the target audience. Charais has witnessed increased brand awareness and affiliation not only among Bailey’s long-devoted customer base, but even from job seekers looking to join them on their career journey.

“For me, it’s interesting that the people that we have expressing interest in working at Bailey, many of them have said, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that [brand] at my local garden center. It looks really good, and I’d never seen that before,’” he shares. “And so from a marketing standpoint it’s great to see that our targeting is working not only from the consumer perspective, but also for those that may want to work at Bailey someday.”

Taking it a step further, McEnaney believes it’s important that the industry continue to invest in recruiting and attracting both the younger generation, as well as those mid-career pros from outside of horticulture who would like to join the green industries and contribute their expertise.

“I think if we can find some models that are easy to connect us with a broader group of folks, it may be through social media or on the internet some way, to get that interest drummed up, we will find success. But it’s got to be the right messaging,” she adds.

The prospective mindset on the employee side also has to be correct. According to Charais, skill set remains an important factor to joining the team at Bailey, but it’s certainly not the only metric the company looks for.

“They just have to want to learn. I think that’s number one,” he says. “And then, they’re also willing to speak up and offer their ideas and contribute. I think to me, those are the most important traits that the incoming person going into any profession has to show. And then, when they’re having a conversation with you, because you already see the talent, now think about how they are communicating. Can they take their skills and turn it into to something actionable?”

Something the Bailey executive team plans on working toward in the coming years is more of a structured and formalized internal mentoring plan, matching some of the longtime employees that have put their indelible mark on Bailey Nurseries with promising, up-and-coming new hires.

“How do you take somebody that’s got 25, 30 or 45 years of experience with your company and have that person be part of the succession plan? They can help develop someone, share their knowledge, and leave the company feeling like they’ve helped set the stage for that next leader that’s stepping in to run a department or manage a territory,” McEnaney says.

“It’s exciting,” she adds. “It can be scary (for some) because it’s change, but, you know, we look at it as an opportunity to grow for the future.”

Working in tandem

Walters Gardens’ new third-generation leadership trio is patterned after a team role instead of a single player.

By Chris Manning
Photos courtesy of Walters Gardens

2022 is a year of transition for Walters Gardens.

Originally announced in April, CEO John Walters will step down in October. In his place, current vice president of product strategy Karin Walters (his daughter) is taking over as CEO, with chief operations officer Ryan Hop (his nephew) and vice president of marketing and industry relationships Christa Steenwyk (John’s daughter and Karin’s sister) working in tandem with her.

“It’s been a long process of planning, especially since I love this company and industry so much,” John Walters said in a released statement announcing the transition. “I’m proud to say that I have a great deal of confidence that not only Karin will do a great job as CEO, but with Ryan Hop and Christa Steenwyk (and myself) rounding out the executive leadership team, Walters Gardens is in a strong position for the future with such a team.”

Walters’ succession plan is based on the idea that being CEO is too much for one single person. When John started his tenure as CEO in 1992 from his late father Dennis, the company was smaller and primarily focused on bare root sales and packaged perennials. It’s grown to something much bigger and more diverse. Sales in 2022 are five times what they were 30 years ago when John became CEO. Succession planning for the third generation of company leadership started in 2019 with Karin Walters, Hop and Steenwyk all working with a leadership consulting firm to prepare for this moment. It helps, too, that all three have been around the business for most of their lives. “We’ve been around in our roles for about three years now, but we were working towards those roles previously too,” Karin Walters says. “We’ve known each other all of our lives, so we know what each other’s strengths are. But we’ve taken strength assessments too that confirmed what we know. Looking at it, I think where we ended up was both intentional and serendipitous.”
Preparations for the inevitable

Part of the succession plan process for Walters was actively training Karin Walters, Steenwyk and Hop for this moment.

Karin Walters and Hop participated in Dr. Charlie Hall’s EAGL program, while Steenwyk absorbed what they learned as it was applied to the business. They cite that experience as essential for expanding their knowledge of the floriculture industry beyond Walters and better connecting them to other people in the industry that they might not otherwise have met.

They also went through leadership training with a local consultant. According to Steenwyk, the consultant was useful for them because it allowed them to slow down and make purposeful, clear-headed choices.

“Day-to-day on the job, it goes by in a blur,” she says. “We want to continue to invest in ourselves and not just for us, but for the rest of Walters Gardens. It’s important for all of us.”

Walters' leadership change will officially begin in October, but it has been in the works for the last few years.

Specifically, their leadership training focused mostly on business development. In sessions, they explored the strengths and weaknesses of the company, how to identify them and how to plan as a group. In the end, all three felt like they are more prepared to make the deliberate decisions that being a leader requires.

“As we continued to grow, the knowledge needed to continue to grow the business really requires a broader approach and a team of people to be successful,” Hop says. “And the three of us have a diverse set of talents that lends us to be able to be successful in different parts of the business.”

“You go from having one leader to three,” Steenwyk says. “There are pros and cons. With my dad, you go to him and he makes a decision. With us, it can take more time and having to explain our vision. Ultimately, I think, you come up with a better solution with those checks and balances.”

In terms of responsibilities, Karin Walters is responsible for future planning, including what SKUs will be put into the Walters catalog and other long-term growing questions. Steenwyk’s focus is sales and customer relations. Hop handles production, including the bare root operation, the greenhouse growing section and more.

“I’m the day-to-day, Karin is future and direction planner, and Christa is the face of the company on the sales side and [setting] expectations that we can meet, but also exceed. We have talent sets that allow us to work together towards a common goal,” Hop says.

All three say this is necessary to make the workload manageable right now and sustainable in the long run.

“There’s no chance,” Hop says when asked if he feels like he could add more responsibility. “I feel like my job is fulfilling and I don’t ever feel like my job isn’t enough for me.”

From left to right: Ryan Hop, Christa Steenwyk, John Walters and Karin Walters
“Day-to-day on the job, it goes by in a blur,” Steenwyk says. “We want to continue to invest in ourselves, and not just for us, but for the rest of Walters Gardens. It’s important for all of us.”
At Walters, divvying up leadership became necessary as the business grew.
COVID considerations

According to all three, one of the main challenges of operating during the peak pandemic months was trying to make any plans when they needed to react and adjust on a day-to-day basis.

“We had to react to everything that was happening,” Steenwyk says. “All we were doing was putting out fires. But looking back, those were the times we learned how to deal with harder problems as my dad started to step back. He wanted to be updated and know what was going on but didn’t need to have a seat at the table.”

“COVID derailed a lot of planning because you can’t really plan when you’re meeting daily on how to react to everything,” Karin Walters says. “I’m remembering back to early March [2020] and nothing was shut down yet and then suddenly, two weeks later, everything was shut down.”

To pivot and work to stay ahead, the new incoming leadership trio has started having twice weekly meetings. These Tuesday and Friday meetings are where they offer updates about what’s happening in each department and compare notes. In those meetings, if someone has an idea they want to put forth, they present the idea and pitch it to the other two.

In their mind, this makes the ideas — and the work that goes into them — that much stronger because of the presentation process. There’s also the benefit of, say, Steenwyk providing a marketing lens to a proposal Karin has about SKUs or Karin Walters offering big-picture considerations to a day-to-day growing concern Hop has.

“You have to divide and conquer,” Karin Walters says. “We don’t make team decisions on everything, but it was a learning process and learning what the things are we should be discussing at the team. At the beginning, we talked through everything. And that was a lot. But we needed to do that to learn what was worth talking about.”

All three also note that it’s helpful that they’ve known each other for basically their whole lives outside of work, but also have worked together for 15-plus years. They’ve developed a trust that has come from working together for so long and knowing they can offer honest, unvarnished opinions.

“You have to back up what you want to do with concrete reasons why you want to do something,” Karin Walters says. “That makes it so much more substantive and significant of a decision than if I or Ryan or Christa just made it ourselves.”

A vision of sustainability

David Hoffman, second-generation COO at Hoffman Nursery, targets conservation efforts — making them a priority for certain production practices.

By Chris Markham
Photo courtesy of hoffman nursery

As time marches on and the current industry leaders get older, eyes are turning to the younger generations rising through the ranks at growing operations across the country. As the new chief operating officer at Hoffman Nursery since January, 32-year-old David Hoffman brings specific goals to the company’s leadership team, which includes his parents John and Jill, who founded the nursery in 1986. Like other young people, both in the industry and outside of it, Hoffman is concerned with sustainability. While Hoffman says that a commitment to sustainability has always been part of the nursery, it’s taken a new form since he’s become a leader at the business, saying that sustainability is “definitely becoming more and more of an opportunity.”

Sustainability efforts

Hoffman is focusing on their inputs, including plastic, perlite and water. Not only are they trying to reduce them, but they’re also trying to switch to more sustainable options where they can.

Hoffman credits the innovations made across the industry over the past five years, which have provided the industry with more sustainability options.

Plastic accounts for a large chunk of horticulture’s current sustainability issues, so being able to implement alternative materials would be a great step forward in sustainability, he explains. “There are alternatives to plastics that I think in another five years would probably be more reasonable,” Hoffman says, mentioning the possibility of making trays out of mushrooms instead of plastic in the future, or making pots out of fiber or cardboard. But until then, the nursery is still doing what they can. “As far as plastic alternatives,” Hoffman explains, “we are leaning towards an inhouse tray for the future and refining our shipping process with potentially different materials or packing methods.” They’ve also recently started collecting their plastic trays to be recycled. “One of our customers had been compiling our plastic waste with theirs to send to East Jordan’s plastic recycling program,” Hoffman says. “I think as we collect more and find the space to do so, we will be able to fill a full truck ourselves.”

Hoffman says they’re slowly trying to phase out using perlite. “Perlite is something that is quite energy intensive to make, from the mining process to the popping of it for the final product,” he explains. They have switched about half of their growing media blends to include HydraFiber instead of perlite. Being made from wood and bark, Hoffman considers HydraFiber to be a more sustainable alternative to perlite.

For water, Hoffman says, “that’s probably one of the most important inputs that we need to take care of and be considerate of when we’re making decisions here.” After all, it takes a great deal of water to irrigate plants and make plastics, and it takes a lot of energy to preserve that water and keep it clean. “I think that’s probably one of the most important parts of this.”

Hoffman explains how they’re trying to conserve water, which can be tricky when running such a large operation that’s continuing to grow. Already encompassing a total of 129 acres, Hoffman says the nursery just bought another farm, where they’ll be using 10 more acres to grow mother plants, so they need to conserve water to offset the extra production space. “We try to collect as much of the water as possible that lands on or flows through our property,” Hoffman says. “We have wells that we try not to use unless in drought situations. We recirculate runoff water that has collected in our bioretention ponds back into to our irrigation ponds to reuse.”

“The water that we use is a resource for our livelihoods and it is in our best interest to protect and maintain that,” he says. Especially with global climate change and droughts in the western U.S., using water in a smart and sustainable fashion is becoming more important for everyone, including the North Carolina-based Hoffman Nursery.

But at what cost?
Current technological capabilities aren’t the only limiting factor when it comes to sustainability initiatives. As a business, Hoffman Nursery also has to be concerned with the expense of certain efforts. “It comes back to trying to figure out what makes the most sense for us,” Hoffman explains. “And at this point, what’s most cost effective to make may win, to some extent, because we’re still a company that needs to make a profit … so we just have to find ways to make it better or figure out easier solutions to some of it, because in some cases, it [the most sustainable solution] is cost prohibitive.” Path blocked by pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and all its related problems have somewhat hindered Hoffman’s sustainability efforts. “I think it’s hard enough to try to implement different sustainability things, not to mention adding on supply chain problems in a pandemic on top of that, and labor shortages. You know, it comes at you fast,” he says. “It’s presented challenges and we’ve worked as a team to be able to overcome them. Our goals are still in place, but I think they’ve probably been delayed some, too, whether that’s for some of those reasons or that it’s just cost prohibitive at this point, or that it’s not mainstream enough to be at the level that we need it to.”

Young leadership

The leadership scene in the green industry continues to change.

“[Baby boomers] are largely the ones that are running the operations now, so either they’re going to transition their businesses, or those businesses are going to be bought up and consolidated,” he says. “But I think whether it’s consolidating or transitioning, I think there’s a lot of opportunity. Whether it’s for a young entrepreneur to take over a business or even people like myself to be able to take and lead some of these businesses up into the future, I’m excited about it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there for people that are just getting into the industry.”

And each generation has something to teach each other.

“I think that there’s an opportunity there for current leaders to be able to learn from younger leaders,” he adds. “And taking a risk on some of these young people isn’t always a bad thing. I think that they all have good ideas. So, I think that’s all important and all part of how we’re going to grow not just as a business, but as an industry, too.”

Beyond more young people taking leadership of individual businesses, the younger generations will soon be getting onto boards and becoming industry leaders. And having those different viewpoints at the highest levels of the industry will help the horticulture world move forward, especially when it comes to sustainability initiatives like the ones Hoffman is implementing.