Growing On At Plant Marketing By Tim Hodson

In spite of the economic downturn, Wisconsin-based Plant Marketing continues to grow in more ways than one.

As you drive through the rolling hills of west central Wisconsin, one of the last sights you might expect to see is 33 shiny new greenhouses in an area that looks like it should be nothing but cornfields.

But that is exactly what you will see in the outskirts of Eau Claire, Wis. — nine acres of greenhouses (a little more than a year old) where Plant Marketing is growing ornamental plants — and a lot of them.

Larry Reit, Plant Marketing's owner, is a Wisconsin native who got his start in business by operating a flower shop and garden center with his parents after he got out of high school in 1970.

In 1974, he struck out on his own and bought a retail garden center in Eau Claire. He got involved in the wholesale side of the business in the early 1980s when his garden center "had a little extra product." So Reit called the local K-Mart store and asked if they wanted to buy some plants wholesale. The answer was "yes," so then the K-Mart in the next town decided they wanted to start buying from him too and it took off from there.

Planting the Seed
Larry Reit grew up in the growing business. His father was a truck farmer who grew vegetables in Wisconsin and his mother loved gardening. "When I was nine years old, my mother ha

Today, Larry has a lot more greenhouses (that also are a lot larger) in Wisconsin and Florida that produce bedding plants, vegetables and potted foliage plants in just about every size container and price point that you can imagine.

Plant Marketing is the major live goods supplier to many home improvement centers in the upper Midwest as well as K-Mart stores. They also supply product to some grocery stores like Kroger and Winn-Dixie and independent garden centers including the retail store his family also owns, May's Floral Garden in Eau Claire. The company also grows potted foliage on 20 acres at its facilities in Mt. Dora, Fla.

Over the years, Plant Marketing has supplied plant material to a variety of chain stores including Target. Reit said at one point in the 1990s Plant Marketing was supplying more than 600 Target stores with plants.

Working With Big Accounts
Today, Reit's biggest customers are home improvement centers. Reit has been supplying home improvement retailers with ornamental bedding plants for nearly a decade now. He said he really enjoys working with large corporate accounts.

He likes the open line of communication he has with his customers. He sits down with buyers on a regular basis and goes over the retailer's plan for the year and what types of products they will need and when they will need them in the stores. "We have a close relationship with the buyer." This "guided speculation" gives Reit and his team the production information they need to do their planning for the year. "They really are pretty easy to work with."

But Reit says his company is also nimble enough to deal with any curveballs that are thrown their way. "I like to believe that we are big enough to serve a large corporation but flexible enough to be able to react to any changes or requirements" from his customers or the marketplace.

Taking Care of Business
In Eau Claire, Plant Marketing employs approximately 70 people during peak season (about 28 of those are year-round employees) in two different locations. Reit said he runs a very lean management staff — himself, his son Josh, a chief financial officer, a human resources person, a marketing person and a receptionist. He also has three people "that are on road merchandising the stores. Everybody else is working in the greenhouses."

Josh handles transportation, distribution and operations, while Larry is very hands-on running the production operations in the greenhouses. As you can imagine, in early May when Big Grower visited with Reit, the entire operation was buzzing with activity. Greenhouse workers were moving loaded carts throughout the wide aisles of new greenhouses, and fork trucks were zipping around the shipping area preparing to load as many as 15 semi trailers a day.

Plant Marketing's merchandisers are always on the road visiting all of their customers two to three times a week. Reit says the merchandisers have varying responsibilities depending on the customer. Reit says the customer buys his product outright so his merchandisers check in with all of the stores on a regular basis to make sure everything is in order but are not responsible for taking care of the plants in the stores.

A Family Guy
It is very apparent that Larry Reit is a family man. His entire family is involved in the business. "My wife and two daughters run the retail store. My son and I run the wholesale side of the business. I never expected any of them to be in the business and they all are in it! What more could you ask for?"

"I have been blessed with a wonderful family. They are all good kids," he says proudly. He says his family was the primary reason why he decided to build 18 new Nexus greenhouses in 2008. He says if it weren't for the next generation of Reits, he probably would have expanded but not to the extent that he did. "We did this expansion because we've got another generation or two coming along," and he wants to help lay the groundwork for their future success today.

The new greenhouses have provided Plant Marketing with the expanded capacity to comfortably meet the demands of today's customers. The location of the new greenhouses is several miles down the road from Plant Marketing's original facilities in Eau Claire. Reit says, when the time and business conditions are right, there is room for future expansion at the new location.

Another Good Investment
Last year, after new greenhouses were built, Reit bought a new transplanter to help fill the houses. Reit said the increase in quality and the savings in labor that the new machine provides has been unbelievable.

There's definitely savings in manpower but "the quality is where you really see the benefits," Reit says. Last year, 11 employees were sticking the cuttings, but with the new transplanter, now it only takes three people to do the same amount of planting.

Reit didn't buy the transplanter to eliminate jobs. He wanted to improve the consistency and overall quality of his products and he has definitely been able to do that. During peak season the transplanter will run up to 16 hours a day and can plant about 367 flats an hour. "Every plant is where it is supposed to be. When you look down a row, each one is lined up like a soldier." The eight workers that had been planting have been reassigned to other positions that were needed in the greenhouse.

When Reit started selling his product wholesale, he said he never imagined he would be operating on the scale that he is today. "It's an interesting story coming from a 12-foot greenhouse to a garden center to this," Reit says pointing to his new greenhouses. "Never once did I envision being this big. Never," he remarks.

But his years of experience as a grower have provided him with quite an education. And that education is paying off. He has been selective in who he does business with and positioned his company to take advantage of a changing marketplace.

Despite the slowdown in the economy last year, Reit said 2009 was a good year for Plant Marketing. "The demand was there. The product sold like crazy. We really benefited from the staycations as more people stayed home and fixed up their yards. Our sales were way up and our costs were down" due to lower fuel prices.

And Reit says the momentum from 2009 has carried over in to 2010. But he doesn't take anything for granted. "If there is anything you have to do in this industry, you have to be on the lookout for change and accept it when it comes. Be prepared for it when it comes, because it is going to come and you have to be able to react to it."

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Tim Hodson

Tim Hodson is editorial director of GPN's Big Grower. He can be reached at (847) 391-1019 or

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