Modernity, Metamorphosis and Buffalo in the Midst By Brandi D. Thomas

Matched with flexibility, firmness and a dash of faith, even seemingly negative market changes can lead to prosperity

“Change does not necessarily assure progress, butprogress implacably requires change,” American historian Henry SteeleCommager once said.

A bearded Michigan man with jovial eyes and a thankful spirit captures the essence of this quote. His name is Larry Boven.

While changing times have been ensuring the demise ratherthan progress of many others in the floriculture business, this Kalamazoo-basedgrower has taken change in stride, working with it instead of against it. Whileothers have been scaling back, Larry expanded with 112,000 sq. ft. of open-roofgreenhouses last year. While others have been declaring bankruptcy, Larrybought another business. While others have been bowing to chain stores’downward pressure on pricing, Larry has remained strong and even raised pricesin some instances.

“It’s amazing how well things work when you havea positive attitude,” Larry said, confirming that actions are usuallybegotten by a goal-oriented mind and positive outlook.

Building from background

When Larry graduated from high school in 1957, he swore henever wanted to see another greenhouse in his life. Like many others inhorticulture, he grew up in the business, but the experience of his youth wasfrom the ag side, in vegetable farming. His father transitioned from growingcelery to growing flowers in the late 50s and early 60s.

 After pursuinghis own ideas away from the business for 2-3 years, something in Larry’sblood made him return. He told his father he wanted to become his partner. Hisfather laughed at him, though, saying if he could hire his son for $3.00 per hour, why would he want to take him on as a partner? He gave Larry an alternative: If Larry bought his grandparents’ 2 1/2-acre farm, his father would help him build greenhouses and get started in the business. “My dad and I never werepartners,” Larry said, “but he was certainly very instrumental inhelping me get started.”

Larry’s first greenhouses were built in 1961-62 on hisgrandparents’ farm, which he sold in 1970 so he could move to one of hiscurrent locations six miles away. He built one of the first VanWingerden-manufactured greenhouses in Michigan that year, breaking away fromthe ranks of the small growers. “Prior to that, all of the growers hadhome-built greenhouses; they just took 2 x 4s and made their own.”

One of the first steel-manufactured greenhouses, the newconstruction measured 55,000 sq. ft. This new type of greenhouse set Larryapart and created waves in the Kalamazoo community. “Some of the older localgrowers in particular said, ‘Impossible — it’s too big of aninvestment; you’ll never make it financially with that large of agreenhouse.'” Shortly thereafter, five of his friends followedLarry’s lead and moved their businesses as well, creating a six-growerstronghold within a 1-mile community.

Expansion and efficiency

Thirty-two years after that first steel structure waserected and successive expansions, Larry has a total of 735,000 sq. ft.,including another range purchased in 1994 six miles away. Over the past fewyears, Boven’s Quality Plants has transitioned from building plasticgreenhouses to glass or acrylic, with all new construction originating in TheNetherlands. Larry believes buying glass has been a worthwhile investment:”We like them because they allow more light transmission, we never haveto change the plastic and there’s no condensation dripping on ourcrops.”

Boven’s most recent construction occurred in the summer of 2001. Larry built 112,000sq. ft. of Á dyna-glass, open-roof greenhouses with a 15-foot gutterheight; a dual-shade and blackout system; 36 hanging basket eco-systems; anall-concrete, heated floor; and ebb-and-flood watering. “It’s avery expensive facility,” he admitted, “and we are just hoping thatsome day it will pay for itself with its more-efficient production systems.With the ebb-and-flood watering and the automated systems, our crops have beenmore uniform, and the amount of growers we need is less than in a conventionalgreenhouse.” He also has a new Flier transplanter with a continuous plugtray system, which pulls plugs as they travel down the line rather than out ofeach tray, as well as a Bouldin and Lawson soil-mixing system at each location.Boven’s employs approximately 100 employees at peak season and about 60full-time employees year-round.

Steadfast and specialized

Boven’s Quality Plants and the other growers who movedalong with Larry are charter members of the Kalamazoo Valley Plant GrowersCooperative (KVPG), whose main customers are the big boxes, such as Home Depot,Wal-Mart and Lowe’s. Larry, who is on the board of directors and iscurrent vice president of the KVPG, said, “We give a lot of credit forour success to the co-op, which has helped each one of us grow and helped us inmany other areas.” He sells approximately 25 percent of his production tothe co-op and about 75 percent independently. Approximately 60-65 percent goesto Frank’s Nursery & Crafts, representing a large portion ofBoven’s business.

Frank’s filed Chapter 11 early last year, creatingunease in many of its suppliers, including Boven’s. “We were veryconcerned back when they filed,” he said, “but very pleased whenthey were successful last spring.” And with Frank’s recentannouncement that their new reorganization plan has been approved, it lookslike they may be poised for a series of successful spring seasons.

Larry’s close working relationship with Frank’sbuyer Lisa Oliver has helped the retailer to develop and support lucrativeplant programs and Boven’s to become a specialized grower. “Ourspring production over the past 10 years has transitioned from 100 percentbedding plants to probably less than 25 percent flats and 75 percent potteditems, like patio containers,” Larry said.

Lisa believes what makes their relationship so synergisticis good communication. “We share a lot of information about our businesses,”she explained. “I try to explain to him how customers are shopping, andhe shares what’s going on at his end.” She also cited traveling tothe California Pack Trials together as a factor in their success.”We’ve refined our program more and more every year by going to theTrials. I could go alone and pick out something that’s pretty,” shesaid modestly, “but if it doesn’t produce, then it isn’tworth anything.”

In fall 2001, Boven’s started two new programs withFrank’s called “Jack Frost” and “Autumn Annuals,”which are unconventional fall annual color programs. Pansies guaranteed towinter-over are included, but the program also extends to zinnias, gazanias,marigolds and Proven Winners fall planters in different-sized containers.Successful thus far, Boven’s and Frank’s intend to continue theprogram this year.

One look at Larry’s wholesale cost/retail price sheetfor last year’s fall program with Frank’s shows one facet of whythis relationship is working so well: Frank’s unit retail price for eachBoven product is approximately double the wholesale cost. Frank’s isasking for more, and customers are buying. One of the Á 10-inch AutumnFall Magic Combination Planters, for example, sold for $16.99 retail at Frank’s last year.”I’m glad they’re able to do that,” Larry said,”I think it’s a very positive thing for our industry.” Unlikeother large retailers, Frank’s is not undercutting prices andcontributing to the low margins that amount to nothing less than growers’collective castigation.

Boven’s also grows hanging baskets of all varietiesand spring bedding plants in a multitude of sizes, from 12-0-4s and 6-0-6s to4-, 5-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 16-inch containers. Potted plants include NewGuineas, gerbera daisies and caladium, as well as 4-inch herbs. Larry alsostarted growing plugs this past January for his own production and that oflocal growers.

Larry is also one of the few growers left in the co-op whostill produces poinsettias. “There were once approximately 12 growersgrowing them, but one by one, they fell away from it because the profit marginswere so low. Eventually, there were only three poinsettia growers left in theKalamazoo area that are members of the KVPG,” he explained. In order notto have to follow the path of those other 12 growers, he decided to raise hisprices. “My decision [to increase prices] had to do with either gettingout or being profitable, and my customers accepted the increase,” hesaid. He raised poinsettia prices 15 percent for the 2001 Christmas season andsold out. For those growers out there who don’t believe price increasescan work: they can.

Part of the reason Larry was able to sell out also has to dowith the quality of his product. The head buyer from a major chain came to seeLarry’s poinsettias in the greenhouse last year and validated thisquality. “In 17 years,” he said, “this is the nicestpoinsettia crop I’ve seen.”

Meeting change with challenge

So while many growers have been giving up poinsettias,laying off workers and even closing down for good, what has Larry been up to inrecent days? Capitalizing on change. In Buffalo, N.Y., a grower was recentlystruggling to keep his head above water and encouraged Larry to make an offerto the bank for his 200,000-sq.-ft. operation. After two weeks of haggling withthe bank, 150,000 sq. ft. of modern Dutch glass greenhouses and approximately50,000 sq. ft. of plastic-covered structures were his. The KVPG has agreed tomarket the crops grown out of Buffalo. The product mix there will be similar towhat Larry is now growing in Kalamazoo, including poinsettias. The previousowner’s specialties at the Buffalo facility were growing cuttings forother growers, a category that Larry also intends to continue producing. DieterErnst, previously of Holtkamp Greenhouses, has recently taken on the managementresponsibilities in Buffalo, and Larry is very confident that he and Dieterwill be able to turn the business into a successful venture.

Boven’s is focusing on increased efficiency at all ofits facilities to stay competitive. “We’re hoping that being moreefficient is what’s going to help us survive: More automation, betterheating systems and labor-saving methods are some of the ways we are trying toimplement better efficiency,” said Larry. “We’re going to tryto get better pricing for the product that we grow. We pride ourselves on beingone of the best growers, and we feel that a quality product deserves fairpricing.” And these visions of change, with belief and determination, canbe willed into both reality and progress.

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Brandi D. Thomas

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor for GPN.

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