A man with a mission

Mark Foertmeyer of Foertmeyer & Sons Greenhouse Co. strives to lead the horticulture industry into the next generation.

Photo: Todd Yarrington

Horticulture is in Mark Foertmeyer’s blood, and several passionate plantspeople crossed his path to cement his desire to work in the industry. Many years before starting Foertmeyer & Sons Greenhouse Co. in Delaware, Ohio, in 1988, Mark’s great-grandfather immigrated to Cincinnati from Germany and started a greenhouse business. Mark’s grandfather took it over when Mark was a young boy.

He recalls starting to work with his grandfather when he was only around 5 or 6 years old. “He had me propagating geraniums at that age,” Mark says. “I would do cuttings for him. I had a knife, [which] as a little boy was pretty cool. Was I his star employee? By no means. He was probably trying to figure out what he could do with me so he could get some work done.”

Mark was further inspired by his mother, an avid gardener who kept their lives filled with flowers. He started a vegetable garden when he was 8 or 9 and a lawnmowing business by age 11, both of which he kept up through high school. “It was just my destiny” to start a career in horticulture, Mark says, although “for some crazy reason, at one point in my life I thought I was going to be a dentist.”

When Mark started his studies at the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI), his initial goal was to become a landscape architect. However, after a negative response to a forward-thinking landscape design he created, he decided to shift his focus. “I had been working then at a little arboretum [at ATI],” Mark says. “I had been doing cuttings and drawing stuff and helping them manage their greenhouse. I went over to Dr. Anderson who was, at the time, running the department. I said, ‘I want to transfer to your department. I think I’m more suited for growing plants.’”

At the time, the greenhouse management program at ATI in Wooster was run by three department heads from main campus, who would come up weekly to work with the three majors, one-on-one. Mark still thinks highly of the individualized, real-world education and experience he received during those years. “Everything was hands-on,” he says. “They would come in and it wasn’t so much a classroom setting, but we would be dealing with real issues, problems, diseases, insect problems and cultural issues with various plants. They just sort of rolled up their sleeves and worked along with us.”

Failure before success

The idea for Foertmeyer & Sons came out of a marketing class at ATI. During a discussion about the different ways to sell plants, the concept of selling plants as a school fundraiser was mentioned, with real-life examples. “I was hanging on every word because it really resonated with me,” Mark says. “At the end of the class he goes, ‘Somebody in here should really pursue this idea.’ It’s like a little hand inside of me raised up and said, ‘That will be me.’ That was back in 1977, maybe.”

People appreciating the value of plants is important. The plant is not the product that our industry provides - it’s what the plants do for people.

But it was many years before Mark would find success with his plant fundraiser idea. “I failed twice pretty soundly,” Mark remembers. “I finally decided I was going to learn how to do it by working for a fundraising company. I sold Wisconsin cheese and sausage for seven years.” Mark thrived in the role, but the idea for his future plant business was always in the back of his mind. In preparation, he purchased land for his yet-to-be-created company.

Then, a misfortunate turn of events turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Mark got a call one night from his employer saying that the fundraising company was going bankrupt due to embezzlement. Despite contributing to one of the best years in sales in the company’s history, Mark was now unemployed. “I said, ‘Well that must mean tomorrow I start this greenhouse business, because there is no better time than now to do it,’” Mark says. “I started the next day. I sold a lot of it with just concepts. Then I put the necessary marketing materials together.” Nearly 30 years later, Foertmeyer & Sons is still going strong, with about 80 to 85 percent of its plants going to its fundraising programs.

Creating a family company

One of the lessons Mark learned while hawking Wisconsin cheese and sausage was that people prefer to work with a family company. In part due to that realization and in part in the hopes of bringing his children into the company in the future, Mark named the new company “Foertmeyer & Sons Greenhouse Co.” Now, he can truly say it’s living up to its name, as three of his sons — Eric, Matt and Dan — have joined the business.

While Dan Foertmeyer has officially worked at the company for nine years, “I’ve ‘worked’ here since I was 5 years old,” he jokes. “Growing up, we had our house and the greenhouse on the same property, so you’re always around the business, acting like you work, but not really working.” Dan remembers that he was paid 50 cents an hour to help out. “I equated that to one candy bar per hour,” he says. “It was really good for [our] development to be around it.”

Over the years, Mark has worked to balance family and career, which can be a challenge in an industry where the busiest times can be limited to a short period during the spring. “It would be nice if we could round our business out a little more; 12 months out of the year,” he says. “It’s kind of silly to have, in our business, the spring be so, so important that your livelihood almost hinges on if it rains or doesn’t rain on the weekends. We’ve got to get beyond that.”

When it comes his four sons, “I’ve been pretty intentional about that [balance],” Mark says. “When the kids were young I stayed involved in their lives. We’ve been active in church and I’ve tried to do some things with my sons from different leadership, mentoring courses.” And now that he’s a grandfather, he enjoys spending time with his grandkids when he can.

A father and a boss

Dan Foertmeyer was always “pretty sure” he’d join Foertmeyer & Sons after college, and is grateful for the opportunity to work in the family business. “That’s been a huge blessing, to have that security to be able to go to high school, go to college, graduate, get your degree, and know that you have an opportunity waiting for you,” he says. “That’s something that I don’t take for granted.” While Dan wasn’t always certain of what role he would like to take, he knew he wanted to come to work with his dad. “Growing up, I always knew I would enjoy working with him,” Dan says. “He wanted me to go to college [first], so I went and got my degree.”

Over the years, their working relationship has developed beyond a father-and-son dynamic, and the former has strengthened the latter. Dan appreciates that he has the chance to make decisions that will impact the company, and says that he considers his father to be “by far, his biggest mentor.”

“He’s always encouraged me to not be afraid to make decisions, to give my opinion, and to be able to make decisions alongside of him,” Dan says. “Not all the decisions worked out, but [it was useful] to be able to watch the good decisions that we’ve made together and watch the company grow, and also to learn from mistakes and realize that not everything’s perfect all the time. [However], if you have daily, open communication, you can grow together; you can create more jobs; you can create more opportunities for yourself and for other people.”

Foertmeyer & Sons Greenhouse Co. primarily grows for its fundraising programs.
Photo: Todd Yarrington

A friend and a mentor

Jared Hughes, owner of Groovy Plants Ranch and former retail manager at Foertmeyer & Sons, remembers well his first day of work and meeting Mark well. “I pulled up in my ridiculous muscle car as a teenager,” Jared says. “This was my first day of work and I pull up next to the owner, naturally. I felt the need to apologize for my loud jalopy, and he said, ‘I like that loud jalopy.’” Mark showed Jared around the property and started what has become 10 years of mentorship and friendship.

“Through the years, our relationship grew,” Jared says. “I expressed interest in the business and he certainly helped foster that. He started including me in more, and investing in me, which I think says a lot about his personality.” Even after Jared, 18 at the time, told Mark that he was going to start his own landscaping business, and potentially sell a few plants, Mark was supportive. “He totally encouraged me to do so, [even though] it’s easy for an employer to discourage that kind of growth and development in an employee,” Jared says. But Mark had the bigger picture in mind. “He didn’t hold back one ounce; he just poured it into me,” Jared remembers. “I think he always knew that I’d probably go do my own thing, but he saw it as more of a value to me and the industry as a whole by having more people in it, young people doing their thing. He’s been very much a mentor to me.”

“There are people you can work with and then there are people that you can’t,” Mark says. “The people that you can work with pull stuff out of you and tend to benefit from whatever inspiration or knowledge or wisdom you have.” Jared Hughes is a good example of someone he was able to mentor successfully. “We just resonate,” Mark says. “He’s pulled a lot out of me, [too].”

Trust and leadership

Mark is a hands-off leader, preferring to allow his staff the opportunity to find their own ways to accomplish the goals he gives them. “I like to give people room to do their thing,” he says. “I think almost too much sometimes, because then when I do start nosing around they get a little like, ‘What are you doing here?’ because they’ve been given so much freedom to do things,” he jokes.

Jared says that his employment at Foertmeyer & Sons was reflective of Mark’s faith in his employees. “One of [Mark’s] notable characteristics is that he believes in people,” Jared says. “I think a lot of business owners have trouble handing off responsibility because they want to have creative control over everything and micromanage. With me, for example, he really gave me the reins and said ‘Go for it.’ I would personally find that very difficult to do, as a business owner. But he really does believe in people. Allowing people to be self-directed and having faith in the individual to achieve the goal of the company? That’s a pretty unique characteristic.”

However, Mark knows the importance of leading by example. “People like the fact that we are pretty quality oriented,” Mark says. “We try to practice our craft and our art as growers. We take a lot of pride in what we do and I think that’s contagious.”

Mark recognizes his own strengths as well as areas where it would be better to hire someone who has a different skillset. Mark considers himself to be more of a visionary and risk taker. “I’m an idea person,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m impractical, but I’m not all that cautious, so I’ll move into things [quickly] where other people are far more practical or organized. I just get done what needs to be done.”

“He’s a really creative mind and someone that a lot of people in the industry admire,” Dan Foertmeyer says. “I think people know and respect him and his ability to make creative decisions.”

“Mark’s always got an idea cooking, some grand new vision,” Jared says. “He’s very creative and innovative, always trying to think of new ways to add value to the industry, new approaches, new ways of doing things.”

However, when it comes down to operations and logistics, Mark relies on others who excel at those tasks. “Fortunately, my son Daniel is very talented in operations and helps me a lot. [My son] Matt is a really good grower, so I don’t have a lot to worry about there,” he says.

Photo: Todd Yarrington

Dan says that, while he still allows employees to do their jobs without heavy oversight, he’s seen his father’s leadership evolve in recent years. “He’s become very hands-on, very excited about our business, very eager to make changes that he feels are needed,” he says. “It’s been very refreshing to have that, and it’s something that definitely elevated our company on every single level. I would describe [him] as [being] very passionate, never satisfied with what we’re doing, always continuing to want to improve, which I think is absolutely necessary in today’s workplace, and what customers want.”

Leading the industry through change

When he’s not in the greenhouse, Mark lends his leadership skills within the industry. He served as the president of former industry organization OFA, and more recently, as the first chairman of the board of AmericanHort, a merger between OFA and the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA). Lisa Graf of Ohio-based Graf Growers served on the board with Mark through the transition. Lisa says that Mark’s contributions were crucial, especially his skill for collaboration and ability to bring people together. “You could take two different groups of people that have some difference of opinion and he has this incredible ability to pull out the best of both groups and put it into perspective verbally,” Lisa says. “A lot of times, he was the one that brought the group together.”

While Mark says that the members of the AmericanHort board were “equally sharing that burden and trying to figure out how we’re going to do this,” Lisa says that Mark’s contributions went above and beyond. “Honestly, just serving on that committee was above and beyond,” she says. “There was a lot of personal sacrifice, lots of time went into it, travel that we paid for ourselves. [Mark] spent a lot of time on that, outside of the meetings, even.” Lisa remembers that when Mark became the chairman of the board, he didn’t know some of the ANLA people that he would be serving on the board with, such as Dale Deppe, president of Spring Meadow Nursery and the board’s vice chair.

“Mark actually drove to Michigan to have dinner with Dale, to get to know him better so that they could work together better for the benefit of the industry,” Lisa says. “This was all Mark’s initiative to do it, and I think that says a lot about Mark.” Going further, Lisa says Mark’s dedication and persistence throughout the transition were vital to its success. “There were a lot of unknowns going into that first year, and I think he stayed very engaged to get a pulse, not just with the board, but also with other members, people that he knew,” she says. “He was reaching out to industry professionals all over in addition to just serving on the board, to try to make sure that it was a smooth transition.”

Jared says that Mark is a great advocate for the industry, its events, conferences and educational opportunities. “He’s always there and he strongly advocates for them to the point where he sent me to every Cultivate, and before that, OFA Short Course [when I worked for him],” Jared says. “Not only was he supporting me through that, but he was supporting those programs by giving them his dollars. I think that illustrates his level of commitment to the industry and its functions.”

Unparalleled passion for plants. The passion Mark has for the industry stems in part from his deep love for plants. “I’m amazed by plants,” he says. “I study the plants we grow pretty closely and I appreciate color. I appreciate their structure, function, and fragrances. I really do like plants as a medium, and I like to share that with people.”

Jared has witnessed this firsthand. “The guy really loves plants,” he says. “I think it’s easy to get this tunnel vision where all the plants are the same. Mark genuinely gets excited about every new verbena that comes out. He’s a true plantsman, a great advocate, and he really loves the entire industry.”

One of the reasons Foertmeyer & Sons has a retail store is to retain that direct contact with customers, Mark says. “I love to see something in somebody’s car and say, ‘Boy, you made some good choices here and I think you’re going to see this happen with your plant, and you’re going to watch these butterflies come in,’ etc.” Mark explains. “I think people want to be inspired and informed, [they] want to know what we know and what we think. That’s a big part of our job.”

The idea for Foertmeyer & Sons came out of a marketing class Mark took at ATI.
Photo: Todd Yarrington

Sharing that passion for plants with community is a focus at Foertmeyer & Sons, even if it’s not through sales at their retail store. “Any time we get an opportunity to try to give back or make a donation of plants or services, we do that,” Dan Foertmeyer says. “Our business is very community-related. We’re a company that realizes that we thrive off the community.”

‘Providing meaningful living through horticulture.’ One of the messages the company wants to communicate with the local community and beyond is that plants provide real value to people’s lives, Mark says. It’s why the company’s slogan is “Providing meaningful living through horticulture.”

“People appreciating the value of plants is important,” Mark says. “The plant is not the product that our industry provides — it’s what the plants do for people. They enhance the environments; whether it’s some spectacular color in one living area or some relaxing foliage in another, they make the environment more meaningful.”

However, Mark says it’s easy to become a simple grower of plants in pots and lose sight of that meaning. “It’s one of the reasons younger people coming into the industry don’t consider us as a viable option — we have commoditized ourselves,” he says. “They are more interested in having a career like an attorney or a doctor, something in technology. Those guys do a much better job defining what they really provide.” Mark believes that once the industry improves its ability to communicate the value of plants, it will help elevate the industry and attract the next generation of growers that it resonates with. It’s about more than squeezing more plants into a greenhouse or producing plants more efficiently. “What value are we really bringing?” Mark asks. “We’re the last to come to that realization often. The public almost gets it more than we do; we’re just doggone good producers.”

Mark’s advice to young professionals considering the horticulture industry is related to this concept. “I would encourage them to understand the value of what we do,” he says. “That would help them develop in the right way and not get pulled into just producing units. We’re not just production people here, we are growing something that’s really nice, valuable and well-crafted. It’s a great platform for us to continue to talk about value to the customers.”

“A lot of people are passionate about the industry, but their passion is about the industry as they know it, where Mark is so passionate for the future of the industry and future leaders in the industry,” Lisa says. “He really gets to know a lot of the younger people in the industry and encourages them. There aren’t a lot of people that do that as well as Mark does.”

The future of Foertmeyer & Sons

In the coming years, Mark sees the potential to scale his fundraising business up and bring partner growers in to fill the additional production needs. However, the future of the business — and the industry as a whole — depends on whether or not a new generation of gardeners is created. And Mark says that we need to reach future gardeners at a very young age. “Just look at my own life,” he says. “There I was, probably 4 years old, making cuttings, and two weeks later I would go back and spend the weekend at my grandparents’ house, and my grandpa would say, ‘I want to show you what’s going on with those cuttings you stuck.’ He would pull them out and they’d have roots. I can remember the first time I saw it. It literally blew my mind, but it left an incredible impression on me that that could happen.”

Mark would like to develop some curriculum for schools to better understand the value of plants and actually bring plants into the classroom. “I think it’s really important to start [exposing children to plants] as early as possible,” he says, such as during preschool or elementary school. “I do know from talking to the teachers and principals and parents, that there is opportunity there.”

As for his own career, Mark is also looking to the future. “I’m thinking that I’ve got maybe 10 more years and then I’m going to probably start growing plants again in my own little greenhouse,” he says.

July 2017
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