Cover Story — Ever Evolving
Last December, a brand new 100+ year company was born. This “new” company, Everde Growers, actually was the rebranding of TreeTown USA — which has a legacy of companies with more than 150 years of combined experience.
The name of the company is derived from ever and verde. Ever represents the company’s commitment to staying evergreen and verde is Spanish for green, an homage to the company’s legacy in the American southwest.
TreeTown USA is actually 20 years old (see sidebar: The TreeTown Family Tree). The company’s CEO, Jonathan Saperstein, said the 2020 rebrand followed nearly six years of strategic acquisitions to expand the company’s footprint nationwide. The two largest acquisitions were Village Nurseries and Hines Growers in California. Saperstein became CEO in 2015 when he led a management buyout of the company from his father.
“We have spent several years refining our processes, combining our policies, and setting a strong foundation for the future. Now is the time to truly bring the company together as one,” Saperstein said at the time of the rebrand announcement.
In late January, Big Grower sat down via Zoom with the company’s executive vice president, David Kirby, along with marketing manager Leigh Schaffer, and Nicholas Staddon, plantsman and the company’s spokesperson, to learn more about how Everde Growers has evolved, how it is operating today, where it is headed and how it is going to get there.
Saperstein and his sisters acquired TreeTown USA in 2015. Since then, the company has been growing through strategic acquisitions and today is one of the largest growers of outdoor nursery plants in the country.
Saperstein says each of the acquisitions shared several qualities including “a positive reputation in the industry, a plant mix that adds value to the company’s offering, inventory to support that mix, land with a solid infrastructure and an exceptional workforce.”
According to Kirby, over the last two years or so the company has really been focused on integrating back office systems, outward facing programs and communication due to the acquisitions. “Our internal slogan in 2019 was ‘Growing together as one!’ In 2020 it was, ‘Becoming one!’ and in 2021 ‘We are one.’”
Currently, Everde Growers has 14 farms in four states — eight in California, two in Texas, three in Florida and one in Oregon — and ships plants throughout the continental United States.
As the company has grown, the experienced and diverse management team has remained nimble in its decision-making processes by always staying focused on its core values and its customers — re-wholesalers, landscape professionals, IGCs and national retailers.
The knowledge and experience that comes with each acquisition “is a culmination of industry leaders, best practices, best management tools, world class production and sales teams all coming together as one,” Kirby says.
The purchase of Village Nurseries in 2017 and Hines Growers in 2018 really provided the company with a much wider customer base and created the opportunity to expand its sales force to address the specific needs of all of its sales channels.
He adds, “There is a willingness right now for everyone to seek the best ways of doing things. Even though there have been challenges, it’s been refreshing to see participation from the entire team.
By keeping in close contact with our customers and listening to their specific needs it allows the company to follow the simple business philosophy of “We grow what we sell and we sell what we grow,” Kirby says.
BUILDING STRONG RELATIONSHIPS
One of the keys to Everde Growers’ success in the past and its goals for the future
is the continual development of strong customer relationships. Kirby says providing the latest new plants as well as consistent quality with proven regional varieties has been and continues to be a top priority.
“Our goal is to stay very diversified while continuing to create a consistent customer experience. That is our overarching goal,” Kirby says. “We value our customers so much that we have written it into our mission statement — to be the best partner.”
“We spend an inordinate amount of time with our customers. That has been the cornerstone of our success,” remarks company spokesperson Nicholas Staddon. “We provide them with a lot of information and benefits to help them succeed.”
Staddon adds that even with the different acquisitions and the challenges of COVID-19, the team remains unflappable when it comes to helping customers. He says everyone wants the customer to succeed and is willing to do what it takes to make that happen.
One of the ways to do that is by staying in constant communication with customers to gain valuable insight and feedback into their needs.
In 2017, the company created the Landscape Architect Design Group (LADG) to keep its finger on the pulse of what landscape professionals need and to help them “foster deeper relationships with the company through educational outreach and collaboration.” (see sidebar: A Closer Encounter)
According to Leigh Schaffer, marketing manager, the LADG initiative allows Everde to cultivate relationships with the landscape architects and designers who can offer valuable feedback on new plants through field testing in real life situations.
EXUBERANT ABOUT AUTOMATION
One of the prevailing traits of Everde Growers is its “youthful exuberance” that starts at the top with CEO Jonathan Saperstein. According to Kirby, Saperstein is willing to try new things and invest in new technologies to achieve the company’s goals. “Jonathan gets excited about automation. He sees the great benefits it has to offer and not only create consistency with our crops but increased quality while gaining efficiencies.”
Kirby says the company strives to find new and better ways to do things. The company is currently implementing lean management techniques across the 14 farms to gain labor efficiencies and reduce waste.
Led by Matt Gold, the company’s director of continuous improvement,” We’re striving to become the best in class at everything we do,” Kirby states. “And while it may not be the easiest task, we have got a lot of willing and able players who want to roll their sleeves up and get the work done.
“We are not afraid to invest in automation. Those decisions are made financially, looking at the ROI, and the end result,” Kirby says. “If it is going to result in more consistent quality, and if the ROI pencils out, we are very financially sound and we have the ability to invest in automation. I would consider that one of our core strengths as well.”
NAVIGATING THOUGH COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone in the horticulture industry to make wholesale changes in the way they operated in the field, in the greenhouse and in the office. Kirby says this created some unique challenges, but Everde Growers has been successful in overcoming them.
“It is imperative to us that we maintain the safety of our employees. That is our number one core value,” Kirby says.
The changes made since last March include approximately 10% of Everde’s employees working from home. The company has gone all-in on the adoption of digital/online communication for meetings, which Kirby says has created additional benefits. Instead of the quarterly in-person meetings, they now have bi-weekly meetings with employees in multiple locations, “which has really helped in strengthening and educating our team. It’s providing team building” across the country.
The company also has made major investments in providing for the health and safety of the production personnel at all of the farms, including purchasing “pallets and pallets of hand sanitizers,” providing more than 50,000 masks and thousands of on-site COVID tests for employees. Kirby said they also are working with local health organizations to get vaccines to their employees on-site, as they continue to roll out in 2021.
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
As Everde Growers continues to grow, Kirby says additional acquisitions are not out of the question, “especially if it aligns with our channel growth strategies and makes sense from a facility standpoint and brings on excellent employees, then it makes a lot of sense.”
Everde Growers is continually looking to grow itself and to grow its plants better and make itself more competitive for years to come.
“We feel that sustainability will give us a competitive advantage. One, by just having better growing methods and being a better steward to the environment. But we also feel it will give us some competitive advantage when it comes to employment,” Kirby says.
Everde currently has two farms that are MPS (More Profitable Sustainability) certified, and they are working on rolling out the MPS program at other farms across the country.
“But sustainability is more than just finding best growing practices. It’s about showing your employees that you care,” Kirby says.
“It is imperative that you invest in your personnel and create a culture where employees want to show up every day and contribute and that they feel valued,” he says. “We want to create the most desirable workplace culture. You have to grow the people before you can grow the business.”
EVERDE GROWERS AT A GLANCE
Year Founded: TreeTown USA opened its first farm is 2001
Corporate offices: Houston, Texas
West Coast main office: Orange, California
Executive management team: Jonathan Saperstein, CEO; David Kirby, Executive Vice President; Bud Summers, Chief Operating Officer; Jeff Pettit, Chief Financial Officer; Terri Cook, Senior Vice President of Human Resources; Alan Heinrich, Director of Horticulture
Locations: 14 farms in Texas, California, Oregon and Florida
Total growing space: Total production: 6,700 acres (Approximately 135 acres indoor; 240 acres under shade; and 6,500 acres outdoor)
Annual production: 33,000,000 plants
Number of unique varieties: 5,000
Number of employees: 2,000
The TreeTown Family Tree
The debut of Everde Growers in 2020 is actually the result of years of strategic acquisitions that reflects the company’s channel strategy to meet the needs of garden center retailers and the landscape industry.
2001 TreeTown USA opens first farm in Glen Flora, Texas
2003 TreeTown USA expands to east Texas through its first acquisition
2004 TreeTown USA acquires first farm in Florida in Pahokee
2005 TreeTown USA opens second farm in Sandcut, Florida
2015 CEO Jonathan Saperstein leads management buyout of TreeTown USA
2015 TreeTown USA acquires the Bunnell farm as the third location in Florida
2016 TreeTown USA acquires the Homestead farm as its fourth location in Florida
2017 TreeTown USA acquires Village Nurseries in California
2018 TreeTown USA acquires Hines Growers (ColorSpot) in California
2020 TreeTown USA rebrands to Everde Growers
A Closer Encounter
To facilitate communications with its landscape customers, Everde Growers has created two key programs: The Landscape Architect Design Group (LADG) and Horticultural Encounter. “The LADG is an opportunity to not only connect with our landscape customers, but also get valuable feedback from them on plant performance in real landscapes,” says Leigh Schaffer, the company’s marketing manager.
Pre-COVID, the company hosted in-person events where they would invite top landscape architect firms by region to meet for a one-day seminar, designed to provide landscape professionals with a deeper understanding of how and where Everde’s plant offerings would perform.
Not only would attendees learn about the company’s plants, there was a unique opportunity to network with their peers and Everde would provide additional information on industry trends and other educational opportunities. Participants also are given sample plants to trial for themselves and provide their insight into how they perform.
Everde would also invite customers to its regional Horticultural Encounter events, which the company hosted virtually in 2020. “This program is designed to introduce our customers to a wider array of plants and programs,” Schaffer added. The highlight of the event is the “plant vignettes,” which are carefully curated to show solutions to common landscape situations, such as hydrozoning or pollinator gardens.