Cover Story: Empowered in Authenticity
Nobody could have predicted the year that was 2020. Businesses around the world have been put to the test. Some excelled, others struggled. At Nature’s Way Farms, based in Miami, Florida, the team is not only celebrating its 40th year in business, but one of the best years in the company’s history.
After speaking with Dawn Wilson, owner, as well as Beatriz Garces, vice president of sales and marketing, and Marta Maria Garcia, marketing director, it is easy to see the root of that success. The company has seen tremendous growth and expansion over the years, most of it within the last decade, which can be attributed to Nature’s Way Farms’ core values and brand pillars.
They have found strength through partnerships, quality, innovation and authenticity. These values are applicable not only to their relationships with their customers but also within the team itself internally, as well as vendor partners and the consumers themselves.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Let’s backtrack a bit to Dawn’s roots in agriculture, which started during childhood. “As a child, I loved being outside. Growing up, we had a huge garden, so I did a lot of gardening with my father,” she shares.
In her teenage years, Dawn’s father retired from his real estate appraiser career and purchased a 50-acre tree farm. “When I would come home from college, I’d go down and work in the tree farm digging trees and pulling weeds.”
While Dawn earned a degree in teaching and followed that path for a few years, her heart did not leave that farm. After five or so years of teaching, her father fell ill and she decided to take a leave of absence to help run the tree farm … and never went back to teaching.
As she helped with the tree farm, Dawn purchased 1 acre of her own to grow some of her own plants.
According to Dawn, one of her dad’s customers came one day and bought up the 100 liriope she had. She added more, and once again, she sold out. She realized quickly she needed to add space. And that trend only continued.
The very development that spurred Dawn’s small business’ growth 40 years ago is still pushing Nature’s Way toward growth and expansion today.
“So, 100 liriope went to 1,000 liriope when I had 10 acres, and then it went up to 10,000 liriope when I had 20 acres, and then it went to 50,000 liriope when I had 50 acres,” Dawn says. “And throughout my entire history that has facilitated my expansion, that I could sell more than I could grow.”
THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
As Dawn’s business grew, she knew she was going to have to rely on a network of growers to be able to supply the demand from her customers, which had become predominantly big box retailers.
“It’s not easy to navigate the world of big boxes,” says Beatriz. “You have to be a grower, but you have to be sophisticated enough to navigate the retail world. And not every farmer can do that.”
Over the years, Dawn has surrounded her business with local support from smaller growers that are able to produce high-quality plants but are not large enough to accommodate the big box channel.
As Nature’s Way books orders and develops the business, the local growers are always top of mind, says Beatriz. One grower may produce the best alocasia, and another may have the perfect recipe for hibiscus.
“We want to let them be growers. They don’t have to focus on retail or logistics or any of those [big box] dynamics. Let them focus on quality, knowing they have a strong solid partner in Nature’s Way that will always do right by them,” says Beatriz.
And the company’s current success is a direct result of these partnerships. “You reap what you sow,” says Beatriz. “And this was a year that we reaped the 40 years of sowing that Dawn has made.”
When the pandemic hit, “We brought in a lot of pre-finished material and held it to finish it for our customers,” says Dawn. “Everybody was crying for more plants, and we foresaw what was happening. We increased our production instead of cutting back.”
The many vendor partners that Nature’s Way Farms has worked with over the years came through when it mattered most. When the time came, and one vendor partner had 10,000 extra hibiscus, for example, Nature’s Way Farms was the first phone call he made.
“Every grower in the country was calling around looking for products, and the product came our way because of the relationship, the values and the ethics,” explains Beatriz. “Looking back at everything that Dawn has cultivated — the relationships, staying true to who she is, staying focused on her core values — the company was put to the test, and I think the resounding theme that I keep going back to this year is partnership.”
‹€As colorful foliage trends at the consumer level, Nature’s Way has created a fall program to promote crotons at Lowe’s.
INNOVATE, CREATE … ACROSS THE STATES
One of Beatriz’s goals when she joined Nature’s Way 10 years ago was to bring Dawn’s products across state lines.
“Nature’s Way was rooted and grounded in Florida, and they were a very strong shrub and tropicals supplier,” she says. “But it was easy to identify that a lot of the product, the niches, could be taken out of the state of Florida.”
To achieve this geographic expansion, Beatriz says they had to shift the paradigm and change the way consumers perceived these Florida-grown plants that could in actuality perform for a gardener in the Carolinas or even the Great Lakes states.
Beatriz’s goal was achieved and with great success, as they are now stocking shelves almost nationwide. She says they developed programs, such as “The Perfect Collection” for Lowe’s and “Ready to Go” for Home Depot, that focus specifically on plants that are perfect for the patio, porch or deck in gardens outside of Florida.
Coming up with those perfect plants was no easy feat. Beatriz credits their efforts in data mining, paired with keeping a close eye on market trends and a little bit of good ol’ fashioned gut instincts.
“We want to be one step ahead of somebody else coming up with the next good idea, or the next thing that is going to make our customers successful,” says Dawn.
One strategy that has worked for Nature’s Way was to regionalize their product offering. Beatriz says they aim to focus on what works in every area they service. While some growers tend to have a “one solution for all” strategy, Beatriz says, “We believe that every area is unique — to its weather patterns, consumers, disposable income, whatever it may be. We listen and focus on the different areas, and I think that’s a big differentiator for us.”
Many growers and other wholesale suppliers may think they only need to communicate with their direct customer — the retailer, the garden center, the landscaper, etc. But we are experiencing this shift in consumerism. People want to be inspired. They want to hear the story that comes with the products they purchase — from the food on their table to the plants in their garden. And Nature’s Way has perfected the art of directing the consumer to their products.
Marta Maria handles the company’s social media accounts, and has put a large emphasis on Instagram. She interacts with consumers and is able to direct them to their nearest Home Depot, Lowe’s or Walmart where they can find the plants tiled on their Instagram feed.
“When I joined Nature’s Way, one of the things I was most excited about was to build all the digital properties. There is such an amazing history and story here to tell,” says Marta Maria. “People want to hear a good story about your product. They want to learn how to garden with your product.”
She says while she has not been able to quantify digital engagement, she is certain it has helped drive purchases at retail. “Whenever we launch a new program, we push, we say, ‘Go right now to your nearest Home Depot or Lowe’s to get your Perfect Collection or your Ready to Go’ and I get direct messages, which is the beauty of social media,” she shares. “The consumer now has a direct line to the supplier.”
QUALITY (OF LIFE) MATTERS
Every successful grower will tell you that quality matters. It’s a no brainer. If the plant is not healthy and does not perform at retail and into the garden, it will fail. At Nature’s Way Farms, quality transcends past the greenhouse and into the business and the team itself.
“There is a lot of pride involved in what we built on,” shares Dawn. “We strive for quality and perfection, and we want to be known for what we put in the stores. We want it to be a huge success for our customer. We take the extra step, we put the extra cut, we put the extra spray, or whatever needs to be done.”
And the entire team at Nature’s Way agrees with this emphasis on plant quality. “We built a tremendous team of people here, and we all work with the same goal in mind.”
And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, changes had to be made — but the quality of the plants, and even more importantly, the quality of the team members, were top of mind.
“We had to refocus how to keep our team safe,” says Beatriz. “With COVID, one of the challenges of the farm really was social distancing. It’s one thing that the sales and marketing team can work from home, but we can’t pull the plants from home, or fertilize it, water it, cut it and treat it.”
Nature’s Way Farms was fortunate and experienced an incredible increase in sales this year, which can be attributed to the quality of the plants and reliability through vendor partners.
They were able to supply the extreme increase in demand. With that, however, Dawn says she had to practically double their packing house.
“We had to add space, we had to build more houses, we had to expand our loading docks — so that no one is working out in the sun and in the rain with the new social distance policies,” says Beatriz. “It was a massive undertaking to reconfigure, and now that we have, we’re not going back. We need to stay this way and make it sustainable. Now, we’re prepared for next time.”
Dawn adds, “I know what our future looks like and our future is strong. We have the customers that are willing and able and say, ‘Sign us up, we’re ready.’ So now we have to do our part to make sure it’s there. We can’t be in the middle of spring and now have enough dock space to load 30 more trucks.”
It may be cliché, but in our industry, the saying couldn’t ring more true: If you’re going to do something, do it right. There is no better example of this than Nature’s Way’s plan to expand to e-commerce. The conundrum at this very moment in time is that online sales have skyrocketed. This is the perfect time to sell almost anything online. But the very thing that caused the boom in online sales, COVID-19, is the same thing that has set their project back.
“We couldn’t handle it this year. We didn’t want to lose focus on the needs of our current customers by evolving this other area of business during a global crisis,” says Beatriz. “Our crops are committed to our current customers, and we need to keep up with their increased demands. We don’t want to launch our e-commerce and let consumers down when we can’t deliver. E-commerce is a top priority in 2021.”
NATURE’S WAY FARMS AT A GLANCE
Year Founded: 1980
Headquarters: Miami, Florida
Total growing space: 319 acres
Total employees: 376
Focus crops: Blooming tropicals and vines, woody ornamentals, landscape tropicals, ground covers, houseplants, topiaries
Customer base: Big box retailers, including Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart
Sidebar — Women Empowering Women
Just like most other industries, it can be difficult for women to excel and navigate a role in leadership. Although Dawn Wilson says she never treated it as an uphill battle, she says, “I just was out there doing the best job every day and building my company to make it better.”
In 2020, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council officially certified Nature’s Way Farms as a woman-owned business. And the feedback from customers and even consumers has been nothing but positive.
“Since we launched our website and updated our logo, pots and tags to now say ‘woman-owned business,’ people are enamored and proud and excited,” says Dawn. “And, yes, I think doors will open because of our certification.”
Marta Maria Garcia has enjoyed marketing the woman-owned message and believes it is extremely timely. “I have been excited to see the acceptance every time we do a post on social media or every time I get a consumer email.”
Sidebar — On a Heartfelt Mission
While Dawn Wilson’s heart is with her plants, she has also found purpose in sheltering rescued animals. Her love for animals goes way back to her father’s tree farm, where stray dogs would find their way, and she would care for them.
This act of nurturing animals that needed a home has followed Dawn over the years, and today at Nature’s Way, she continues fostering dogs and cats.
“In the last five or so years, I’ve gotten very involved with one rescue called This Is the Dog, and we do everything we can to help them,” says Dawn. “I have different areas that I can accommodate [the animals], and we’re just kind of in a holding pattern with them. We bring them in and maybe keep them for a couple weeks or months until they get adopted.”
Dawn also helps the rescue with neutering and transportation costs. “That really makes it easier on the rescue groups,” she says. “I’m happy to pay for it.”
And Nature’s Way customers appreciate this dedication to the health and well-being of animals.
Dawn even invites her customers to visit with the animals, as it helps the rescues interact with humans, says Beatriz. “You’d be surprised, most people now ask if they can play with the puppies. They know about it and want to spend five minutes of their tour to go see the rescue.”
Looking to the future, Dawn says she still wants to take the rescue further. “It’s time and effort, but I would like to see it expand.”
Jasmina Dolce is managing editor of GPN magazine. She can be reached at [email protected]