Building for the next decade

A commitment to constant learning, evolving, and keeping a family business feel has catapulted the brothers Van Wingerden to the top of the American horticulture industry. What does the next decade look like at this gigantic greenhouse operation?

Since we last checked in with one of America’s largest commercial greenhouse operations, the brothers Van Wingerden (Abe and Art, co-owners of Metrolina Greenhouses) have stewarded a 1,400-employee operation (along with 58 partner growers around the country) through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, found themselves front and center on television and have boosted a once $80 million-dollar annual business into today’s $300-million, 162-acre market leader.

“When you’re looking at the greenhouse industry today, it is just so different than it was 20 years ago, when it was all about annuals and perennials,” Art Van Wingerden says. “Now we’re all looking at vegetables and hemp and cannabis.”

“And people have been investing so much more time and money into their homes, and they’ve really gotten back to their roots,” Abe chimes in. “Which is why we think, for us in the floriculture business, the future is pretty bright.”

Specifically, the largest single-site greenhouse operation in the Western Hemisphere has watched an industry grow up.

“There’s 100 greenhouse growers in America now that report having more than 30 acres of greenhouse in operation, and 40 or 50 years ago when we started in this business all of those operations would’ve been the biggest in the U.S.,” Art adds.

“It’s a growing up industry. Back then it was a lot more mom-and-pop type operations,” Abe says. “We’re still a family business that sells to families who enjoy plants.”

An action-packed 18 months

Even for a sophisticated, incredibly well-organized operation like Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, North Carolina, 2020 and 2021 came at the Van Wingerden brothers as hard as it came at the rest of us.

“I think every week I could’ve given you a new story or anecdote,” Art chuckles when asked what the season has been like thus far. “Coming off a strong 2020, so far this season, we had a very strong April, and May has been really strong, too.”

Noting that a once 2 or 3% annual growth business is now in the low double digits since the start of COVID, the brothers are convinced we’re only at the halfway point in what’s been a sort of golden age for horticulture.

“We think there is a good three to four-year run for all of us in this industry,” Abe says. “All of these people have put in new water features and sunrooms and gazebos and backyard gardens, and they are going to keep needing plants.

“Consumers have just put too much time and money into their homes not to continue beautifying them and adding more plants each year,” he adds.

Of course, taking the data-driven, technology-embracing approach to one of the world’s oldest professions (farming), the Van Wingerdens are always ready with numbers and data to back up an assertion.

“We always refer to a Google study. They’ve found a way to track cell phone usage and searches, and pre-pandemic about 25% of adults in the U.S. either worked from home or primarily stayed at home during the week, and at the start of the pandemic that number hit 47% at it's peak.”

Today, Google is predicting that about 35% of the domestic workforce will continue to work remotely, which Abe says is “an amazing 10-point change in consumer behavior in just a two-year period. We’ve never really witnessed a swing of that magnitude.”

“I’ve got friends who’ve never bought plants before until COVID hit, and now they’ve got all these shrubs and plants at the house to take care, and people have just kind of fallen back in love with their homes,” Art adds.

Moving forward, the operation is expecting consumer demand for indoor foliage, annuals and perennials, as well as outdoor tropicals (those are REALLY hot right now, according to Abe) will remain robust.

“And we tend to believe that some other things, like seed sales — I think a lot of consumers realized how difficult it is to grow something from seed during the pandemic — that might start to drop off just a bit,” Art says. “Products that are sort of ready to use off the shelf and easier to execute — people are already going back to the office and starting to travel again — when you have nothing but time at home, those kind-of made sense. Now they want finished goods that are a bit easier to deal with.”

Robotics and automation (bottom) are important at Metrolina, but so are the people (right) that make it a family operation even today.

Labor… woes?

Show me a greenhouse operator and (generally speaking) I will show you someone who has struggled with hiring from today’s labor pool. It’s basically a given in the industry — no matter how big or well-capitalized a grower is, with how manual and repetitive the work can be at entry level.

Back in 2019, before the pandemic shook up the domestic labor pool like an overly caffeinated bartender mixing up a fresh martini, Metrolina started getting into the H-2A foreign farm worker program, and that really helped them sort out their seasonal labor pool.

“That was a huge change for us,” Abe explains. “We’ve always liked having a very local workforce, and we still have a lot of local people filling those permanent full-time positions every year, but the enhanced unemployment benefits and COVID going on we did not have an easy time finding employees.”

H-2A workers now fill most of the operation’s seasonal roles — when the greenhouse scales up aggressively from 800 to 1,400 during the spring busy season — and they are getting by okay, but it hasn’t been the most fun aspect of 2021, that’s for sure.

“Look, people just didn’t want to work, and even with all of the restaurants that closed down here locally, and the travel industry being put on pause, we thought we’d have this boon of new employees to utilize and unfortunately that has not been the case,” Abe adds.

Going forward, the brothers remain committed to staying open-minded on who they hire, and how they are staged throughout the organization. Passion for plants and horticulture remains a must-have.

“You can’t teach passion and being passionate about plants — that piece is huge for us,” Abe says. “We’re looking for people like that with a passion for getting some unique things done, who can work with and kind of navigate this unique mix of family and corporate that we have at Metrolina.”

Big but still family

While it’s tough to find the silver lining in the last 18 months for a lot of people, the brothers did notice that the “Big Slow Down" did make them more accessible within the operation itself.

“We’ve been here more than what we would’ve been with all of the conventions and meetings and sales trips,” Abe explains. “That has allowed us to get in the greenhouse more and get closer to our team and interact with them a lot more through the whole production process.”

“Now, it almost feels like when we do go back to normal — whenever that is, or if it ever even happens — we’ve got some leaders that are more ready to step up and lead and someday take the baton,” Art adds.

The brothers have some advice to offer the industry at large when it comes to travel schedules and the convention circuit.

“Don’t just go back to what you were doing in 2019, take a closer look at everything — travel plans, how your work — and figure out what you’ve learned and what you can apply to the business going forward,” Abe says.

Big-box grower in the spotlight?

Something else you might want to take a closer look at is the widely acclaimed Walmart TV commercial that literally put Metrolina smack dab on the map in 2021.

“The message in that commercial, it wasn’t about us. It wasn’t about Metrolina,” Art explains. “It was about Walmart buying from local businesses, and buying USA-made, and we were just right place, right time I think.”

Abe recalls how quickly (and smoothly) the situation escalated, from idea to finished 30-second spot.

“It was amazing, they came in here and asked us about doing it on a Wednesday, we filmed it the next Tuesday, and it ran for the first time that next Monday,” he says. “Part of that was they had to find businesses at the time that were fully masked, and we’ve been using PPE for years here.”

“And I think it was really good for the industry and everyone who’s involved in plants, because it kind of showcased our industry to the rest of the country,” Art adds. “It’s about our industry — and honestly, we didn’t have to pay a single cent for it. That was pretty massive.”

About that Walmart ad: Were those real Metrolina employees? Were Vilma, and Wendy, and the forklift driver who narrates the spot, actual workers? You betcha.

“Everyone that is in that commercial really does work with us,” Abe answers. “That was really cool to see them all come together and get that done. Nobody believes us, but it’s true, those are all real Metrolina employees.”

What can we learn from them?

One of the tenets that keeps Metrolina at a best-in-class level is a commitment to open mindedness and networking.

“Angelo Petitti [owner of Petitti Garden Centers in Avon, Ohio] comes and visits us once or twice a year, and we go see his place, too,” Art says. “If you’re not learning from everyone across this great industry, you’re really doing yourself a disservice.”

Adds Abe: “We actually get some of our best ideas from the smaller — we prefer to call them different — growers. You can learn anybody. If you’re a non-big box grower there’s probably a few things we do differently that you could learn from us, and the same goes for us with the growers selling to local garden centers.”

Metrolina’s sheer, massive size is almost a kind of baked-in advantage. When you have that much room under glass to work with, you can afford to make a few mistakes and still come out okay on the other side, Art explains.

“Those smaller growers have almost a bigger challenge than we do, because they have to run less (plants) so their line changes are going to be a lot more often,” he says.

And Metrolina doesn’t just learn from green industry contacts or friends. During the pandemic, Art actually toured a telephone manufacturer’s facility to learn about their processes.

“We picked up a few things there that have helped us in the greenhouse, there’s no doubt,” he adds.

“This isn’t about that one big idea — someone at Metrolina inventing the next Uber or something like that,” adds Abe. “It’s been a commitment to constant innovation over the years. That’s got to be a part of your strategy to succeed in this business.

“You’ve got to take it beyond sales goals, and budgets and really commit to building a world-class employee organization from the bottom up.”

The decade ahead

As the brothers continue to grow Metrolina into a world-class, family-first organization into the next decade, it does beg the question of when the next generation of Van Wingerdens will take the reins in Huntersville.

“Abe and I between us have seven sons between the ages of 20 and 28 right now, and I don’t think any of them are ready or even thinking about coming back to run the business,” Art explains. “And we’re not the only ones. We’ve got 13 other nieces and nephews besides the ones in our two families.”

Although the brothers have started doing some succession planning in recent years, they’re not looking to head off to Bermuda anytime soon.

“I’d say we’re at least 10 years from that date when we even start to hand the reins over,” Abe says. “We’ll have to have some type of plan in place soon, but will the successor be handpicked already? I don’t know about that.”

In the last three years, the brothers have tasked Metrolina’s executive team to put together a long-term strategy that “develops what the next 10 years will look like,” Abe says.

“It’s just as important that we have a good business plan in place as being good business leaders,” he adds. “One day, we won't be here, but the business plan will be. We now have two chief operating officers and then we have about six other chief executives like our chief horticultural officer and chief information officer.”

Recently, the brothers signed up and completed an online college course for family businesses to help with succession planning. They learned a lot about where they were in the process, and where they are looking to take it.

“We’re making sure we’re on the forefront of [succession planning] and setting up a plan that makes sense,” Art says. “Sure, the plan does change every five years, but that doesn’t mean we’re not prepared for it.”

“It’s not a project with a deadline; it’s an ongoing process,” Abe adds.

What’s next?

So, coming out of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, still looked upon as America’s largest commercial greenhouse operation and having grown exponentially amidst the worst economic correction in most of our lifetimes, what’s Metrolina’s next move to hang onto all this momentum as society reopens?

“All industries go through different life cycles. Right now we’re in a growth [cycle] in horticulture, but as we all know things can change very quickly,” Art says.

He draws a parallel to the American beer industry, where “10 years ago the nobody would’ve thought the big brands wouldn’t be running the industry, and we’ve all watched this craft beer and local movement kind of disrupt that market.”

“We’ve got to stay on the forefront of where the consumers are going, that’s going to be a big part of being successful moving forward in this industry,” Abe says.

The brothers also hope to refine and develop new capabilities in selling plants direct to consumers.

“We’re not built 100% for that currently, and some of the guys that have that down pat are really growing up fast because of it,” Art adds. “We’ll need to keep understanding our consumer and evolving this thing yearly.”

July 2021
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