All Roads Lead to… By Tim Hodson

“Location. Location. Location.” That is the mantra of the real estate world.

It’s also a pretty good motto for Norwin Heimos, the patriarch of N.G. Heimos Greenhouses in Millstadt, Ill. The large multifaceted grower has been growing and delivering quality plants throughout the Midwest for nearly 60 years.

Millstadt is located near St. Louis. Norwin says, “From our location, we are centered in the nation, we can serve nearly 20 major cities in the Midwest within about a 350-mile drive.” N.G. Heimos is situated just a few miles from several different major interstates (I-55, I-64 and I-70), so trucks “can head in any direction that they need to,” to make deliveries.

The company also has facilities in Sunset Hills and Sappington, Mo., as well as in New Athens, Ill.
Indoor blooming crops and Heimos’ line of miniature plants, Micky’s Minis, are grown at the Sunset Hills facility. The Millstadt operation is made up of Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants. Heimos Greenhouses produces seasonal crops (annuals, perennials and vegetables) and Millstadt Young Plants is a rooting station for Syngenta Flowers, which encompasses Goldsmith Seeds, Fisher, Syngenta vegetative cuttings and Yoder Brothers. The company also has three small retail locations that are used as “proving grounds” for the greenhouse in Millstadt, New Athens and St. Louis.

Norwin Heimos started the company in the St. Louis area back in 1951 growing and selling fruit and produce. He built his first greenhouse in 1955 and over the years has evolved into a major player with nearly 60 acres of production (more than 40 acres under cover). The Millstadt location was purchased in the mid-1980s and the company continues to expand at this location.

Family Affair
There are nine Heimos siblings, six of them are in the horticulture business and three of them, along with Norwin, make up the management team at N.G. Heimos Greenhouses.

Today, Norwin, who recently turned 80, oversees the construction and maintenance side of the company while Bernie serves as president overseeing the business side. Micky Byland is the company’s sales manager and Amy Morris is the head grower. Their brother John runs the retail operation, which is not a part of the wholesale greenhouse business.

“That is part of our strength,” Norwin says. “We have family working in every part of the business.

“Good management is the key to this business. You can’t ever get enough of it, but we have a great team!”
Micky and Amy’s spouses also work for the company — Micky’s husband, Bill Byland, oversees the Micky’s Minis program and Amy’s husband, Craig Morris, takes care of Heimos’ St. Louis facility. And Bernie says in the past two years, a third generation of Heimoses has joined the company.

While studying for a horticulture degree at the Ohio State University in the 1980s, Bernie went to the West Coast to complete an internship. “Twenty-three years after my internship, I came back home,” Bernie says. During his “23-year internship” in California, Bernie started his own company and worked for several other companies in the industry. He returned to the family business in Illinois several years ago and has helped guide the company through the latest economic downturn and emerge well positioned for the future.

Taking Care of Business
“We use a broad-spectrum approach to our customer base — from independent garden centers to box stores to supermarkets to landscapers,” Bernie says. The customer base “is multifaceted. We keep it wide and stable.”

So how do you meet the demands of such a broad-based customer base? Bernie says, no matter who the customer is, large or small, “A big part of our core philosophy is, if you grow quality, you can sell quality.”

Adds Norwin, “If you needed two words, quality and communication are what build relationships with our customers.”

By consistently delivering quality products “you build a trust with those customers,” Micky says.
“You can be good one or two times, but [customers] only remember what they got from you the last time, so you have to be good all the time,” Norwin says.

“We want customers to think of us first when they have a need,” Bernie says. “We want them to think that our quality is what their expectations are.”

Picking the Winners
Bernie says the company also takes a multifaceted approach when it comes to selecting new crops and products. The company always sends a group out to California Spring Trials to visit with the breeders to see what they plan on introducing.

“You turn over every rock at every breeder to find out what is exciting,” Bernie says. “And it goes without saying, that color sells every year. And exciting colors sell even better!

“You need to define those [colors]. You are always out there researching. You are constantly looking for that right color, that right combination.”

He said they trial quite a few different varieties each year. “We always ask for samples so we can try them and see if we can grow them. Not everything grows well in the Midwest” and Heimos wants to be sure they will be successful when they make their actual production selections.

Bernie said they successfully grow a wide variety of crops (annuals, perennials and vegetables) to meet the demands of their broad-based customers.

The company also has a small retail country store and two other small retail stores that it uses for consumer research. Bernie says this small country store is used to try out new items and see how consumers respond to them.

“You can get a good read on a product by doing it yourself at retail,” Norwin states.
Bernie says the country store provides valuable feedback from consumers, ensuring what is grown is of value to customers.

“You are never going to be everything to everyone,” Bernie remarks. “But you are going to find out what the trends are and what people are thinking so you can fill their needs.”

Micky says you always want to stay current with today’s consumer. “Everyone is looking for an easy button” when it comes to finding what today’s consumers will buy and the country store helps with that challenge.

The company also runs a sales house for its wholesale customers that is similar to a retail operation. Bernie says the facility gives wholesale customers “an opportunity to see what we have and experience everything we grow.” Customers can also place special orders and pick them up at this facility.

Growing Forward
After nearly 60 years, N.G. Heimos Greenhouses continues to find innovative ways to grow. Bernie says the company adds about an acre-and-a-half to two acres of new greenhouses every year. But the expansion is very controlled so that it makes sense for the business.

“We grow by the square foot, not the acre,” Bernie jokes. “The biggest challenge for our business today is the ability to expand physically, building new greenhouses, with the margins that we are working with. You have got to get very creative to expand the business and make it work for your business, but we have to do it at a steady pace that we can keep up with.”

Because of the tight margins, Bernie says they are always looking for different ways to improve their operations using automation and other production improvements as well as other areas where they can cut costs, so those savings can be invested in expansion.

The company is always looking to the future to make sure it is doing the right things to compete.
“Right now, one of the points that I live by is we have to change as the market changes and stay fleet of foot,” Bernie says. “If you are not willing to change, you are going to be left behind. We have been willing to make changes. It hasn’t always been easy because [some of the changes] come too fast. But you learn to adapt.

“Our industry is ever changing. You have to embrace change, add your own twist to it and then you will successfully compete in the future.”

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GPN recognizes 40 industry professionals under the age of 40 who are helping to determine the future of the horticulture industry. These individuals are today’s movers and shakers who are already setting the pace for tomorrow.
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