Leider Greenhouses: Keeping Up With the Times By Catherine Evans

An immigrant from Luxembourg with a job growing vegetablesand a hunger to do more is how Leider Greenhouses got its start. After morethan a century of success, the Leider family supplies a number of major chainstores with plants every year in the Chicagoland area.

Leider Greenhouses was first established in 1898 by MichaelLeider after he came to the United States from Europe. For many years, Leider’shad growing locations in Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois, along with severalretail locations. In the 1960s, brothers Jim and Jerry Leider started atropical business catering to interior landscapers. However, after building asuccessful company servicing more than 15 states, in 1988 Tropical PlantRentals was sold to a large British service company, shifting Leider’s focus tothe greenhouse growing business.

Currently, Leider Greenhouses is owned by Jim and Jerry,while a number of family members take care of daily operations. Mark Leider,Jim’s son, is the general manager, Mary Barrs, one of Jim’s daughters, is thesales manager, and Meg Kreuter, another daughter, is the office manager for theBuffalo Grove, Ill., location. “We are still a small family business, andno matter what time of the year it is, we are all around helping out. I may bedriving a truck or working on sales while everyone else may be doing differentthings as well. We all get along and are a very close family — that helps usall have the same goals to keep the business a good enterprise for thefuture,” said Mark.

In addition to the Illinois location, about two years agoJim built a nursery in Boynton Beach, Fla., that deals mostly with tropicalfoliage. This added more than 40 acres of retractable-roof houses to the 15acres of covered space and seven acres of outdoor space in Illinois.

The Customers

In Illinois, Leider Greenhouses supplies a number of majorchain stores in the Chicagoland area. The three major chains — CostcoWholesale, Jewel, a division of Albertson’s, and Dominick’s, a division ofSafeway — give Leider Greenhouses a combined total of $4 million a year fromthese customers alone — a little less than half of the year’s profits.”We’ve seen the most amount of growth in Costco. For Costco we growpoinsettias, Easter lilies, hydrangeas, blooming baskets, garden mums andpretty much all of the spring products. That makes it a 12-month business thata lot of greenhouses don’t have. Since they sell for so much less, theirproduct looks really good and moves fast, so we sell a number of plants tothem,” said Mark. Other chains they supply include Treasure Island, SunsetFoods, Whole Foods, Steins (13 garden center Á locations in SouthernWisconsin) and interior landscapers. In the spring/summer season, Leider alsohas its own garden center open from April-September.

Despite the success of the chain stores, things arechanging, causing growers to change right along with them. “The businessis changing a lot, most of our business is not from a greenhouse right down thestreet, it comes from Canada. Primarily it’s the difference between the U.S.dollar and the Canadian dollar causing all greenhouses to be in the same boat.For some reason they are able to grow it, ship it on a truck and sell it downhere cheaper than we can. Because of that we are focusing more on the upscaleitems that we can sell to Jewel or Dominick’s rather than individual plants.More and more demand is going towards the mixed flower baskets and we have hadto change and adapt for the competition,” explained Mark. Canada is ableto send down plant materials at a lower price, causing a lot of competition inthe greenhouse industry and forcing many to adapt to the changes that itbrings.

The Changing Trends

Change and competition give Leider Greenhouses a tough routeto follow, but at the same time it is learning how to adapt. Without offeringin-store service to its major chain store customers, Mark says they offer agood price and excellent quality to keep a good customer base for this simplereason: “Someone once told me that you can offer your customers threethings, and those are price, quality and service. But you can really only offertwo of those things without going broke, and we feel like we are offering goodprice and quality.”

Another trend the Leider family has seen is in what peoplewant to buy. Customers are demanding a bigger and more colorful product. Buyerswant big hanging baskets, and large and mixed containers as opposed to theeveryday geranium, pansy, pot mum and impatiens that have been the standard forso many years. Leider’s has been following the trends of the industry and isdoing a good job of keeping up. People are coming from long distances to seeits products for the spring season, including buyers and consumers, because ofthe high-quality plant material Leider’s has to offer.

Trends can only go so far when it comes to tradition,however, giving Leider a good jump in the right direction. Leider still sellsmore poinsettias than any other plant it grows or sells in the greenhouse. Oneof the biggest poinsettia buyers was Costco for the 2002 Christmas sellingseason — it came to Leider and left with a large number of poinsettias for itsChicagoland stores.

Not all trends are positive, however. For example, fuelprices are one of the main concerns in the industry right now. “The scarything now is the energy cost. Especially now in the winter months, the price ofgas is going up again, which is very tough to pass on to your customer torecoup that,” Mark said. “It is something I wrestle with every day bytrying to figure out how to get an extra penny out of each plant to keep upwith the fuel costs.”

The concern is that fuel costs will rise like they did in2001, but this time, due to the fear of war and losing access to oil fromMiddle Eastern countries. Growers all over the United States are concernedabout fuel and how this possible war may cause a number of financial problems.However, Mark had some words of wisdom on that subject.“When we get right down to it, weare farmers, and you have to be willing to go through some bad years, but thatis no reason to throw in the towel. The problems we are facing are notsomething any other growers aren’t facing. All we can do is be more efficientin the greenhouse and make fewer mistakes and see where we are at thatpoint.”

Fuel costs, changing trends, and cold weather in Illinoisand Florida this year have not been able to slow down the success of LeiderGreenhouses. With such a tight-knit family in control and a good product tosell, these growers have had continued success for over 100 years and plan todouble that. With a good customer base and an owner who is involved in theindustry in every which way, there is no doubt that Leider Greenhouses will bearound and still selling millions of dollars in poinsettias while keeping up withthe times and the trends of the future.

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Catherine Evans

Catherine Evans is an associate editor for GPN.

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