COVER STORY — Finding the Right Balance
For more that 40 years, Litchfield, Michigan has been home to one of the industry’s leading producers of plugs and liners. First, as C. Raker & Sons, and, since 2017, as Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants.
Tucked away in southern mid-Michigan, the company was founded as C. Raker & Sons in 1978 by three partners — two brothers (Gerry and David Raker) and a nephew (Tim Raker).
Over the years, the Rakers continually grew their operation by supplying high-quality, custom-grown plugs and liners to growers across the country. A little more than two-and-a-half years ago, the company was sold to a new owner and became Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants. Even though the company changed hands, a Raker was still running the business.
Today, David’s daughter, Susie Raker-Zimmerman, is piloting the company through some uncharted territory. Raker-Zimmerman grew up with the business and her passion and enthusiasm for the company and the horticulture industry is infectious.
While 2020 has created challenges that no one in our industry could have predicted, Raker-Zimmerman is dedicated to continuing the growth at Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants (R2) — and to have fun while doing so.
Big Grower caught up with Raker-Zimmerman at the end of May to learn more about how the company is persevering and innovating in today’s changing world.
RAKER-ROBERTA’S IS BORN
In late 2017, Eric Wallien, the owner of Roberta’s Unique Gardens in Waldron, Indiana, acquired C. Raker & Sons.
Raker-Zimmerman said the company was under pressure from its bank and was looking at its options. Roberta’s had been a Raker customer since 2011 so Wallien was familiar with the company and its capabilities.
At the time of the acquisition, Wallien told Big Grower, “The relationship I had with Susie had everything to do [with making the deal]. We’ve been doing business with them for a while. Their quality had always been great. We never had any problems.”
It was in his best interest to protect what Raker was doing for his company to ensure Roberta’s could continue to operate the way it had been, so Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants was born.
Even with new ownership, not much really changed. Of course, the legal, banking and business side of things changed on paper, but things pretty much stayed the same in the greenhouse. The young plant business remained the core business and the new Raker-Roberta’s was now able to explore additional opportunities and markets.
When the purchase was made, Gerry Raker retired and Susie was named vice president and took over the full reins of the company. Up until then she had been handling many of the company’s business administration responsibilities.
“Eric was a real blessing,” Raker-Zimmerman says. “He had a lot of faith and a lot of trust in me, and he lets me do my thing.
“We talk regularly and he trusts me. It’s a pretty cool relationship that we have.”
And Raker-Zimmerman adds, “I still work in a family business. It’s just not my family’s business.”
A BALANCING ACT
In 2020, Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants’ revenue streams fall into several different categories:
- Young Plants
- Direct to Consumer
- Consumer Ready Wholesale
- Hemp Transplants
Raker-Zimmerman says that by having these diverse offerings it provides the company with some stability. The challenge is finding the right balance as market conditions continuously change and then being able to react to those changes.
The foundation of the company is its young plant business. R2 is one of the industry’s leading commercial wholesalers of custom-grown seed and vegetative plugs and liners serving customers in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and overseas. As it always has been, the young plant business continues to be “very, very, very important to us,” Raker-Zimmerman says.
The direct-to-consumer business (where plants are shipped straight from the greenhouse to the consumer’s home) continues to grow, especially since Wallien purchased the company. Roberta’s Unique Gardens has been selling plants to gardeners on the QVC home shopping network and Raker helped fulfill those orders. Working with Wallien has helped R2 to expand that business segment.
The fundraiser product line is called Living Color Fundraiser and offers premium plant products to nonprofit groups as a method to raise funds. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has had a major impact on the fundraiser program in 2020, due to school and non-profit organizations closing.
To combat this, the Raker-Roberta’s team came up with a solution for these unique times. They decided to get into the retail game and launched Raker-Roberta’s Retail Outlet.
Another new area for the company is hemp transplants. Since 2018, the company has been exploring and trialing hemp transplant production. That hard work is paying off because this past spring, Raker-Roberta’s began custom growing hemp liners for the industrial hemp farmers.
Raker-Zimmerman says she is always looking to diversify their product lines and minimize their risks. The retail and hemp categories are two new areas that R2 looks to capitalize on for future growth.
A GREAT START GETS INTERRUPTED
The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted every single business in the industry in many different ways and Raker-Roberta’s is no different.
The year got off to a great start for the company; plug and liner sales were up, their direct-to-consumer business had doubled and the fundraiser business was on target for the year.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“We’ve taken some body blows because of it but nothing detrimental,” Raker-Zimmerman says.
One of those body blows was to the fundraising business. All of the product grown for that business is speculative, so it was planned well in advance and was growing when the outbreak occurred.
After talking with Casey Stanton, Raker- Roberta’s production manager, they decided to launch a retail operation, so on May 1, Raker- Roberta’s Retail Outlet (www.rakerretail.com) debuted. Since fundraiser product was now available, it could be sold in the new retail operation and help offset those production costs. The first products sold this year were a selection of vegetables, annuals, perennials, hanging baskets, decorative patio pots and more to consumers.
Raker-Zimmerman says that retail had never been a part of the business in the past because the company didn’t want to compete with any of its young plant customers in the region. That has changed over the years and they thought they really wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes.
According to Raker-Zimmerman, the retail business is not meant to compete head-to-head with full-scale independent garden centers. “We are specifically calling it a retail garden outlet … an outlet for our products. We have been very focused in how we approach our retail garden outlet [this year] and we know that it will evolve in the future.”
And there will be a next year. Raker- Zimmerman says the first month was a huge success and has been very gratifying for customers and employees. It has been an opportunity for all of the greenhouse employees to work in a new area and see how their end products affect people.
“Sometimes we forget, being the ‘plant manufacturer’ that we are, the joy of the products we grow and sell and that they make people happy,” Raker-Zimmerman states. “Because we get caught up in the production process and everything that goes with it, we sometimes forget we are selling something people love.
“That has been very good for the energy level of the company … to see that joy. It’s been a nice secondary benefit.”
Raker-Zimmerman said it also has allowed the company to get even more involved with the local community. The Raker-Roberta’s team has developed special promotions to give back to their customers, offering special sales for first responders, health care workers, teachers, farmers and other deserving groups.
THE EMERGENCE OF HEMP
Raker-Zimmerman is always looking to find new revenue streams, differentiate her company and alleviate some of the risk of being too reliant on just one or two product lines. That’s one of the drivers for R2 getting into the hemp transplant business. They want to be able to use their decades of young plant production expertise to deliver healthy hemp plants that are ready for the field.
When the 2018 Farm Bill passed and it became legal to grow hemp anywhere in the United States, “I started diving into it and seeing what it would take and how it could potentially fit into our operation,” Raker-Zimmerman says.
R2 worked with the Michigan Greenhouse Growers Council to learn more about the crop, how it was produced and if it was a category the company might want to invest in. Raker- Zimmerman then started talking to other people in the industry “because that is what I am best at — talking to people and working relationships.”
As a result of some of those conversations, R2 began working with two hemp breeding companies, The Hemp Mine and Cultivaris Hemp, to become a rooting station and create a full-blown hemp liner program.
Raker-Zimmerman says the process took a while but it is all coming to fruition this year.
“In the spirit of the Raker ornamental trial garden, we are going to do a hemp garden in Litchfield this year. We are going to be showcasing about 35 different cultivars — very similar to the way we do with ornamentals.”
Because hemp likes to grow in long days, she says they plan to do two different plantings (one in mid-June and another in mid-July) and “our goal is to prove that in a northern climate with our excessively long days in the summertime, that you don’t have to plant in May to get a full crop.”
The R2 team has high hopes for this year’s trials and further expansion of the program in 2021.
Raker-Roberta’s invests heavily in its trials gardens (https://trialgardens. raker.com). The trial garden serves as an extension of the company’s in-house research and development team as well as a sales and marketing tool.
The gardens are made up of more than 6 acres where over 3,000 new and existing varieties are continuously evaluated.
“Trialing has always been a part of what we do. We have been trialing in some way, shape or form since 1978,” Raker-Zimmerman states. “About 15 years ago, Gerry Raker said, ‘Let’s take our trial gardens to the next level. Let’s make Raker a destination.”
So that is what they did. They leveled their existing gardens and built a showpiece out in the fields of Litchfield. It is one of the can’t-miss stops of the Michigan Garden Plant Tour (see sidebar).
Product managers are in the gardens continually evaluating new and existing products to ensure R2 is offering its customers the best products. It provides the production team with a chance to see how products that will be in full scale production next season actually perform in the garden.
The trial garden also helps make Raker a go-to location for customers. Raker-Zimmerman and her team believe that if they can bring customers to their house and show them their capabilities in the greenhouse and in the gardens, then hopefully that will translate into additional future sales.
“It is a huge, huge investment. On average, we are bringing up between 2,000 and 3,000 regional customers, brokers and sales up to visit us in the gardens every year,” she says.
In 2020, R2’s trial gardens will feature comparison row trials in the sun and in the shade. They also are showcasing cut flowers, container vegetables and the new “speckled” petunias. Hanging baskets and large containers also will be trialed this year.
PASSIONATE ABOUT PLANTS … AND THE FUTURE
Like any smart businessperson, Susie Raker- Zimmerman is always worrying about what will happen in the future but she is also a realist.
She knows that 2020 is a truly extraordinary year for her business and the entire industry. What started out as a really good year has created some question marks but she is finding the appropriate answers to those questions.
“I am very thankful that we were able to stay working throughout the entire COVID situation.
I just want to make sure I am doing all of the right things the rest of this year to ensure our profitability for 2020 and 2021.”
She says because no one has ever experienced a year like 2020, it makes forecasting for 2021 a bit of a challenge. But she is optimistic that as the year goes on, things will come into better focus and it will make it easier to plan for the future.
And she remains upbeat and determined about the days ahead for the industry and Raker-Roberta’s.
“I am passionate about plants! I love our industry! I love my team! I love what I do for a living!” Raker- Zimmerman declares.
RAKER-ROBERTA’S YOUNG PLANTS AT A GLANCE
Year Founded: 1978-C. Raker & Sons/2017-Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants
Location: Litchfield, Michigan
Business Divisions: Young plants, direct to consumer, consumer-ready wholesale, hemp transplants, fundraiser
Total growing space: 450,000 square feet of indoor growing space, 750,000 square feet of trial gardens (public and private) and outdoor production space
Number of Varieties Grown: More than 4,300 SKUs
Key Management Personnel & Titles:
- Eric Wallien, owner;
- Susie Raker-Zimmerman,
- vice president;
- Casey Stanton, production manager;
- Jim Whitehill, chief profitability officer;
- Kelly Staats, sales manager;
- Greg Michalak, HR and trials director
Number of Full Time and Seasonal Employees: 60 full time/180 seasonal
Customer base: Spring: Young Plants – Small to medium wholesale and grower retailers | Homeowners | Nonprofits
Fall: Young Plants – Mostly large wholesale growers