Playing the long game

Ryan “RJ” Hop has spent half a career refining processes and making market leader Walters Gardens into a refined, lean and mean greenhouse machine on Michigan’s Western Shore.

They say all great leaders have a morning routine they stick to each day, and Walters Gardens Ryan “RJ” Hop is no exception to that rule.

The chief operating officer and newly minted member of our 2021 HILA Class rises at 4:30 a.m. every morning and gets in a morning workout, getting his mind and body aligned and off to a good start before making the trek into the greenhouse for the day. 

“I’ll get a solid ride on my bike trainer in if it’s dark or too cold that morning, maybe do some weightlifting and then I’ll typically have a protein shake and get into office and I’ll already be wide awake,” Hop shares. “But really, it’s the people that make me want to wake up and come into work every day. I couldn’t ask for better people.”

How it all started

Hop’s grandfather Dennis Walters founded the Zeeland, Michigan-based wholesale greenhouse and nursery operation when then farm owner Dena Knoll hired the soon-to-be family patriarch as a farm hand. When Knoll’s daughter Harriet and Walters eventually wed and decided to go into business together, the Walters Gardens of today was officially born.

“They took what was a smaller nursery business at the time and turned it into a big, successful business, so as a kid I got started in farming at the age of 10 just mowing lawns and doing weeding around the farm, and riding around with grandpa on his tractor and listening to him tell his stories about all the plants he loved,” Hop recalls. 

High school and college (Hop double- majored in finance and marketing at nearby Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids from 2000-2004) meant coming back to the farm on breaks and over the summer to work. 

The summer of his college graduation offered a bit of serendipity, as the operation’s one-man IT department at the time was making a career move. Having a good grasp of technology and with an intimate knowledge of basically every aspect of Walters’ operation from having spent so much time around the property growing up, Hop turned out to be the perfect fit as the new IT man. 

Early returns

Fresh off a college campus and with a fresh set of eyes, Hop began implementing changes within the operation’s IT department that were meant, in his words, to “help us get to where we’re working smarter, not harder.” 

Hop realized early on the power of data aggregation and information sharing, and he did a bit of what people in professional football call self-scouting: the operation was creating and collecting and analyzing all of this great production and point-of-sale data, but it was all “siloed” as Hop recalls. 

“We decided that we had to upgrade and out of that our Enterprise Reporting Program (ERP) called Live Product was born,” he says. 

Hop says the proprietary software does everything from collecting data throughout all facets of the operation as well as managing everything from “inventory to order entry, to running supply and demand analysis and triggering alerts for our growers based on real-time conditions.”

“We have these handheld order scanners hooked up to it and our employees can walk with it and it will actually tell them the most efficient order when they’re picking and filling orders for shipping,” he adds. 

Hop believes the program has been instrumental in allowing Walters to scale up to its 500,000+ square feet of growing space under cover and over 1,500 acres of field production. 

“Walters today really has two sides of the business – the greenhouse side and the bare root side, which is right around 45% of the business today with greenhouse making up the other 55%,” he says.

Covid coaster

Hop says the last 18 months at Walters amidst the pandemic has been “a roller coaster ride.” Before COVID broke out in the states, Hop and his team were expecting a great season. Then, throughout that March and April the company saw massive customer order cancellations, so everyone’s antennas were up. 

“Then all of a sudden everything turned around, and our customers were begging to get their hands on anything we could grow for them,” he says. This season turned out really well, Hop says, as literally everything they planted this season has been sold already.

“I think what COVID has taught us so far is just how to be nimble and how to kind of be okay and cool-headed even when you’re not really sure what’s going on, and how to press forward in the middle of that,” Hop says. “That first March and April we kind of held back on what we planted, and then once everything kind of switched and we realized everyone wanted plants we just said, ‘Let’s go for it!’” 

As COO, Hop is a member of Charlie Hall’s EAGL program, which he said was a great help during the pandemic. “Everyone knows about Charlie, but I have to say that whole program was a great resource for us, it really was.” 

Past winner speaks

Centerton Nursery’s Bridgeton, New Jersey Donald “Bob” Blew – a member of the 2020 HILA class – lavishes the most dude-appropriate form of praise possible when asked about his friend and colleague, Ryan Hop. He is the type of guy anyone would love to share a brew or two with. 

“Most of our conversations about our companies and the industry are spent over a beer or two, after which we both would think that – with enough time – we could solve all of the industry’s problems,” the Centerton president says. “Even when we’re having fun and blowing off some steam, he’s still thinking about things that could better himself or his company.” 

Another facet of Hop that stands out for Blew is his generosity with his time and innate horticultural knowledge. 

“Despite being at the forefront of a large and growing greenhouse operation, Ryan is always willing to take time out of his day to help me, whenever I need it,” he explains. “I often find myself seeking out an independent ear that I know I can trust to talk through issues or challenges, and he is always there with an objective opinion and a helping hand.” 

Inefficiencies, according to Blew, are another non-starter for his horticulture industry buddy. 

“For the last few years that I’ve known him, he has always wanted to find ways to improve his company,” he says. “I’d say that he hates seeing inefficiencies. He can’t stand seeing something being done in a way that he knows could be done better.”

But perhaps the grandest compliment Blew can dole out is to recognize Hop’s near-wizardly mastery of his domain and his role at Walters, and within the greenhouse industry itself. 

“Ryan has the ability to see things from both the 90,000-foot view (as Charlie Hall would put it) down to the smallest detail – meaning, he can still see the big picture, but he also realizes how big picture decisions effect individual employees, departments, or even SKUs,” he says. “This industry has a lot of broad-stroke, big-picture types of managers. And we have a lot of micro-managers that focus too closely on one thing or one sector of their business. Ryan has the entire process in mind, and he can make decisions that move his company forward in a prudent and profitable direction.”

Charlie Hall’s EAGL program helped Hop and Co. decide to go all-in on production during the pandemic slowdown — a move that paid big dividends at Walters Gardens.

Tech focused

Having spent the bulk of his career working in both technology (Hop was Walters IT director prior to being named COO) and horticulture, Hop wishes there was a bit more give and take between the two worlds. It is improving of late, but still, horticulture in general has a way to go in that regard. 

“For me, the hardest thing for this industry to change is just watching all of these great pieces of technology that are being developed for, and how instrumental they are in, this industry, and that general reluctance for a lot of growers to adopt,” he says. “Plant people don’t really seem to be technology people – and I’m okay with that – but there needs to be a little more crossover in my opinion.” 

Hop has been influential in how Walters Gardens approaches the horticulture technology sector. The current ethos is to “start small, you’ve got to walk before you can run,” according to Hop. This fall Walters will be running with a new TTA Flex Sorter, and the young COO is eager to get the machine into the greenhouse and put it to work making his employees’ lives easier. 

“Our big thing there is, technology doesn’t solve all of our problems by itself,” he says. “It’s the people working with these machines and technologies that are really helping us solve problems. Technology is just an aid.”

The Flex Sorter will enable a slightly smaller staffed second shift once they iron out all the kinks and get it up and running. Hop says the plan is to “elongate the working day but at the same time not overwhelm anyone with more hours or work.” 

“I see technology as the helper but again, it’s not necessarily the one thing that solves the problem, in fact we find that very rarely is it just a single technology solving a problem by itself,” he adds. “It still takes the right person in that operator’s chair, solving the real issues.”

Community oriented

As if the pandemic didn’t cause enough misfortune of its own accord, it also has put a pause on one of Hops’ favorite annual traditions at Walters: the spring charity sale. 

“In a typical year we would open up to the public with our excess inventory right around Memorial Day weekend or shortly after, and then donate all of the proceeds from the sale that year to a local charity,” Hop says. “The community has really embraced it for years, and we got it to the point where we were giving really large amounts to charity.” 

If you’re vacationing around Western Michigan this summer, keep an eye out for Ryan and his young family on summer holiday.

Unfortunately, a multitude of reasons and circumstances related to COVID (it honestly was just unsafe for people to come to it, Hop allows) have halted the sale for the last two years. Hop and his management team remain committed to the local community, however. 

“Just this morning we were sitting around the conference room table and talking about it, we like to give back at least 10% each year, and give it in support of some of these really great organizations locally that are doing a lot of good in the community,” Hop says. 

Ryan the guy

Away from the greenhouse, Hop enjoys spending time with his growing family – he and his wife have two young children – as well as spending some time kicking around Western Michigan’s many world-class golf courses. 

“I’d say my favorite thing to do outside of work and outside of being at home with my family is to play golf,” Hop says. “I’ve been in the same Thursday night golf league for the past 20 years now, with the same group of guys, a lot of them I’ve been playing with since I was in high school.” 

With restrictions eased and travel mostly given the OK for this summer, and Walters’ busy spring and early summer season having come to an end in late June, Hop and his family will be heading out for new adventures this summer up in the Mitten State. 

“We are just starting out life as campers,” Hop chuckles. “We just bought a nice camper and all the gear, so the plan is to hit the road and experience a bunch of Michigan’s state parks and stay at some nice campgrounds.” 

Future thoughts

For all his redeeming qualities – and there seem to be quite a few, probably too many, to list here –Hop remains grounded in his work and his daily mission to produce quality plants in the most efficient manner possible.

“While so many nurseries and greenhouses are focused on growth, especially in the current market, Ryan sits back and asks the really important questions, like does it even make sense to grow now, or in this certain way?” Blew shares. “If we do this, can we maintain profitability? Can we staff it in the way we need to? Those sorts of questions. Without a grounded connection to reality, it can be easy for companies to lack this focus.”

Moving forward, it’s sunny skies and bright days ahead for this mid-career horticulture professional and his growing family – both at home and at Walters. 

“I really do think the future is bright,” Hop practically beams. “The pandemic oddly brought in this new gardener set, and these new gardeners are excited about their homes and plants, and I don’t see that excitement waning as we open back up. 

“In a way, we were struggling with this Millennial generation [pre-COVID], and then somehow, someway, COVID kept everyone home and it opened up horticulture to a whole new type of client and group of people. It’s exciting, that’s for sure.” 

July 2021
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