Dynamic Duo By Paige Worthy

Fire and ice. Black and white. Yin and yang. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. History shows a long-running fascination with contrasts, and now the growing community has one of its own.

But Riverview Flower Farm's owners, brothers Rick and Dave Brown, found a perfect business match in each other. Though different in demeanor and their job functions — Rick takes care of propagation, product development and vendor relations; Dave handles the replenishment supervision, procurement and day-to-day staff management — the brothers each bring their own unparalleled savvy to the table.

And their shared business prowess across the board, not their differences, has helped secure their success as growers of gallon annuals and perennials for most of Florida's Home Depot stores.

The Evolution

Like many big growers, Riverview started out on a smaller scale. When the Riverview, Fla.-based growers first began growing in 1982, they were selling to independent garden centers. "That's all that was here," Rick says. In the early '90s, they started selling annuals and perennials to Frank's Nursery & Crafts, one of the first garden center "chains" — they were catering to 31 stores at the peak of that relationship, Rick says.

When their business with Frank's started to deteriorate (Frank's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection first in May 2002 and again in late 2004) the brothers looked for business elsewhere. Store personnel at local Home Depot stores knew them personally and knew the quality of their product from seeing it around the state. "They put in a good word for us," Dave says. And with a few calls to the right people, the partnership was up and running.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Rick says that Riverview's big break came in June 2002. They were already supplying 40 Home Depot stores in Florida, and they wanted more.

"We really coveted the Orlando market," he says. "There were 13 stores there that weren't being serviced properly." During a meeting with Cathy Morrow, their Home Depot live goods merchant, they were discussing the next move after taking over the Tampa market when she asked, "What do you want to do next?" Semi-jokingly, the brothers replied, "Cathy, we want the whole state!"

That was impossible, she told them: The Jacksonville and Panhandle markets were already covered. But the rest of the state was theirs. So, from 2002 to 2006, the brothers were on a "dead run" to expand their coverage and get all the new stores up to speed with the service Riverview wanted to provide.

In 2007, Riverview got the same reality check as the rest of the South: The one-two punch of a shaky economy and crippling drought sent businesses throughout the region into a tailspin. But things have leveled out for Riverview, and business is stable — if a bit stagnant — in 2008, Rick says.

Running with the Big Dogs

Working with Home Depot has been a wonderful partnership for Riverview. "They don't ask of me any more than I would ask if I were in their shoes," Rick says. "They give us that space; they water our plants. They try to drive their business by driving our business."

And Home Depot isn't shy about calling them for help. "We're constantly in communication on day-to-day issues — whenever situations come up that need to be resolved," Morrow says. But Rick says they like it that way. Vendor relationships, he says, have the potential to be strained, difficult and unresponsive, but Riverview has maintained a good relationship with Home Depot. Product quality is, of course, paramount, but their service and reaction to the big box's demands has set them apart from the rest of the pack.

"All they're asking is to show up with nice plants and put them on a table," Rick says. "In the nuts and bolts, that's it." One challenge they face today is the expanding opportunity — and tendency — for Home Depot's customers to shop around extensively before making a purchase, from independent garden centers to Lowe's, Wal-Mart and other mass merchants. "They're price shopping and quality shopping and variety shopping," Rick says. "[Sales] get split up, and we're selling at prices close to what they were 30 years ago." For example, he says, a mixed combination planter that once would have been worth $50 is now being sold at $20.

Taking the current economic climate under consideration, the brothers understand their situation could change at any time. So they take nothing for granted where their relationship with Home Depot is concerned. "We're not cocky," Rick says. "We're pushing, and we improve every day."

The Certification Question

Sustainability — one of the industry's hot topics — is another issue plaguing Riverview. In 2006, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded them the Environmental Leadership Award for their "Florida Friendly Plants" program, and they were the first grower to sign up for the state's best management practices program — which, Rick says, essentially is a commitment to do the right thing for the environment. "You don't have runoff; you don't do things wastefully; you're not polluting; you're not endangering," he says. Riverview is beholden to any number of state and federal regulatory agencies, including the EPA, the IRS and the DOT; still, it's not good enough for some, he says.

"You do these things — you're already doing these things — but you don't get any recognition from the big boxes because they don't know," Dave says. "We're up to here with doing the right thing, and they want us to be 'certified' and pay $10,000 a year [for Veriflora]? Above and beyond [the symbol and name recognition], you essentially get nothing."

Looking Toward the Future

The Brown brothers are optimistic about what lies ahead. Given 2007's severe drought and the shaky economic climate of the past few years, they're well aware that the status quo can shift at any moment.

"We feel like we're great with the software, with what we're doing. We're very efficient," Rick says. "I think we're able to prepare and deal with change."

They'd been considering an expansion of sorts — more of a modernization, Rick says — that would eliminate nearly all touch involved with handling, from planting all the way to loading product on the trucks. Rick and Dave had been exploring the European system and evaluating the costs of installing it, but Rick says it now looks like it may never happen for them.

"We're conservative. Most people are watching their pennies and have been all along. We've been playing that carefully and watching what we do — we don't have extravagant expenses and things that could come back to haunt us."

Regardless of any potential changes in the economy or environment, what sets Rick and Dave apart and makes them a great partner, Morrow says, is "their knowledge of the industry and their plants. They're continuing to look for new technology and new plant material. And their standards for quality? They really produce a beautiful product."


Life on the [Technological] Edge

Software technology has played a huge role in Riverview's growth. When Rick and Dave Brown started out, they were using VisiCalc — originally released in 1983 — then Lotus 1-2-3 to run their business, and operating Intuit's QuickBooks for billing. Then, about 10 years ago, they realized business had outgrown the capabilities of Lotus 1-2-3. "Literally, we would sit there, and [the computer] would process all night to crunch the numbers in the myriad linked spreadsheets," Rick says.

They planned to convert their systems over to Microsoft Access, a more powerful database program, and Deke Darsey of Innovative Technologies Group (Inntec) helped them make the transition. And a few years later, the need to grow and expand arose again. "When we knew pay by scan was imminent — we started talking about it four and a half years ago — we said, 'We need to kick this thing up a notch.'" And that notch was working toward managing each store's inventory themselves. Which is how Grower- Live came about.

Pioneering a New Frontier

Inntec wrote the original software, which was built on top of Riverview's Access databases and ran on their server for three years. Rick and Dave continued tweaking the software to fit their business, and when web-enabled PDA devices became available, they worked those in with the software as well.

The software is now integrated with every aspect of the business. On the road, a driver can take cell-phone pictures of new product after it is merchandised and of existing product on the shelves at Home Depot, and make them available for view in real time to anyone at Riverview using GrowerLive — linked to its related data in the system. The result is a more efficient, streamlined process of doing business.

"Take a big nursery — I could name 100 — and if they increased their replenishment efficiency by about 5 percent, this would be a godsend to them," Rick says. "It all goes back to our philosophy: Let's work hard; let's work as efficiently as possible and get it done. GrowerLive fits right in with that mold."

Lessons Learned Be adaptable

"The environment is going to change," Rick says. "Once you think you've got it figured out, it's going to change." In an uncertain market and uncertain time for the environment, it's crucial to remain aware of the current climate and prepare for a shift at any time — and be ready to react.

Educate yourself

Stay up to date on all the latest developments on the industry — including sustainability standards. Even if you don't agree with the developments, it's important to keep abreast of what's happening. Rick and Dave also regularly take trips to Europe to see how things are done across the pond, and Dave says they're eye-opening experiences.

Keep interacting

Network! Don't be afraid to share ideas with other growers, big and small. You can learn from businesses of every size. "Read, talk, ask and study," Rick says. "You've gotta stay fully informed." And one of the best ways to do this is to keep up a dialogue with the rest of your growing community.

Paige Worthy

Paige Worthy is managing editor of GPN's Big Grower. She can be reached at pworthy@sgcmail.com or (847) 391-1050.