Cover Story — Over & Above
When John and Jean Overdevest came to the United States from the Netherlands in 1949, they were looking for a new start.
After a couple of years of John working different horticulture-related jobs, that new start really got off the ground — or took root — as they pursued the American Dream and founded Overdevest Nurseries in southern New Jersey in 1952.
The Overdevests made their name in the marketplace by specializing in growing azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods, and Japanese maples.
What started out as a small nursery behind John and Jean’s home blossomed into a sizable enterprise that now grows more than 2,000 varieties of shrubs, trees, vines, perennials, and ornamental grasses on about 290 acres for independent garden centers within a 300-mile radius of Bridgeton, New Jersey.
From the very beginning, their founding principles were hard work and developing a “tradition of excellence.” Seventy years later, that is still the case, says Ed Overdevest, the current president, co-owner and the third child of John and Jean’s four children. Ed joined his parents in the company in 1975 after receiving his degree from Cornell University.
He purchased the 60-acre nursery from them in 1978.
After several years as a science teacher, his wife, Gail, joined the business in 1982.
In 2015, the third generation of the Overdevests, Ed and Gail’s son, Ryan, returned to the family business after spending several years working in New York City in the finance field.
Big Grower recently chatted with Ed, Gail and Ryan to learn about Overdevest Nurseries’ history, current business philosophy, and where the company is headed in the coming years.
It’s All About Quality
Overdevest Nurseries’ continued success can be attributed to staying true to their founding principles and staying focused on the needs of their customers. Over the years, “we have expanded on the strong foundation my folks started in 1952, and have remained dedicated to the independent garden center channel,” Ed says. While the product line has radically diversified from a dozen or so plant groups back in the 1950s to the 2,000-plus varieties today, it all boils down to growing plants that look great on the garden center customer’s benches when the consumer walks through the door.
To do that, the entire team focuses on quality in every aspect of the business.
“Quality is a given these days,” Ryan says. “We strive for absolute consistency from plant to plant and year to year. “One of the standards we use is that we only ship plants that we would buy ourselves — and we’re pretty particular.”
To produce to that level requires dedication and commitment from the entire team. The company doesn’t have a quality control department — at the end is too late. “We encourage and empower the whole team to build-in the quality at every step along the way,” Ryan says. “We set the bar pretty high for what we are trying to achieve here. We believe in what we are doing and challenge ourselves to do the very best that we can to meet our customers’ expectations,” Ed says. “We try to be innovative across the line, not only in terms of production and in the products we grow, but also in terms of creative marketing concepts and collaborating with other growers to accomplish more for customers and consumers than we could achieve on our own.”
Overdevest Nurseries was an early adopter of branding its plants. About 25 years ago “we began to look hard at what we might do to better promote the particular plants we were growing. That led to the formation of the Garden Splendor program,” Ed says.
So, in 2002, they partnered with their IGC customers, and the Garden Splendor brand was born. Today, the collection is made up of more than 500 varieties of ornamental trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses that represent the “best of the tried and true and the most promising of the exciting and new.”
“From its inception, it was geared as a complete program. One of the unique elements of [the program] is that we approached it as a co-branding concept with our IGC customer,” Ed says. “We recognized the value of our customers and their brand and name, so we used their name at every turn in the marketing of Garden Splendor — so it also became their brand.”
The program has evolved over the years and now works in parallel with the Handpicked for You program, which is a major component of SynRG — a group of five growers who work with plant breeders from around the world and IGCs in the U.S. and Canada to test and evaluate new plants.
Along with Overdevest Nurseries, the other four founding members of SynRG are Prides Corner Farms of Lebanon, Connecticut; Saunders Brothers of Piney River, Virginia; Sheridan Nurseries of Toronto, Ontario; and Willoway Nurseries of Avon, Ohio.
This group of growers was borne out of the EAGL (Executive Academy for Growth & Leadership) program created by Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University and Kellee O’Reilly at MonkeyBar Management. Ed Overdevest, Mark Sellew, and Tom Demaline were among the inaugural “students” in the executive mini-MBA program that is tailored to the green industry. Ed says he and his fellow EAGL alums “realized we shared similar business philosophies and that we could accomplish a lot more by working together than individually.
“SynRG is a group of competing growers that are very similar in terms of diversity of product and marketing orientation … By working together, we have greater access and earlier access to new varieties, which gives us more time to better evaluate them for our own purposes, our customers’ purposes and, ultimately, the consumer.”
Once these new selections have gone through the rigorous trialing process and get a thumbs up from the participating growers and retailers, it is then certified for SynRG’s Handpicked for You Program. The Handpicked for You designation is a trustmark and “a certification that consumers value, giving them the reassurance they want and need when making their plant choices.”
Doing the Right Thing
Along with growing exceptional-quality plants, Overdevest Nurseries has always focused on growing sustainably — even before it became “the trend” for the industry.
“It’s been [our focus] from the beginning,” when his grandparents founded the company, says Ryan. “And my parents have always embraced [sustainable growing practices].” So, it is in his DNA to carry this forward.
In the past, “Sustainability wasn’t a word that was used in our industry. We just wanted to [grow sustainably] because it was the right thing to do,” Ed says. “As time has gone on, it has received a lot more attention, and is now part of our marketing because of consumer interest.”
In 2012, Overdevest achieved Veriflora certification that recognizes its commitment to the environment, its employees and the community.
“Veriflora certification was an initiative my mother recommended that we undertake to put a stamp on some of our efforts that we [have always been] doing with our IGCs in mind to give them a way of communicating that message to the consumers,” Ryan says.
Just a sampling of the company’s environmentally friendly growing practices includes a state-of-the-art irrigation water recycling system, an energy efficient propagation greenhouse, an integrated pest management (IPM) program and a company-wide recycling program. “We’ve been recycling forever,” Gail adds.
As the company enters its 71st year, the future looks very bright for Overdevest Nurseries.
While Ed and Gail do not have any immediate plans to exit the business, they know that when they do decide to transition to the next phase of their lives, Overdevest Nurseries will be in good hands.
“Across the board, we have a very talented and dedicated team. We are also fortunate to have one of our children (Ryan) come back into the business. He has provided a renewed sense of purpose for our company,” Ed says.
Ryan is the third generation to enter the business. He currently is the company’s chief financial officer and handles many other operational responsibilities. Ryan was a member of GPN’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2019 and was recently named the Young Professional of the Year by the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association. He is also a graduate of the EAGL program.
“The talents that Ryan brings to the table … he’s good under pressure, he’s very, very productive, level-headed, ingenious. It’s our industry’s next generation and people like Ryan who are going to create new opportunities with their own perspective. Gail and I look forward to continuing changes within our company and in our industry.”
And Ryan is up for the challenge. “In this business, you get a chance to play for a championship every year. Each year there’s an opportunity to improve on what you did before. You have a chance to make it better every year. I find that exciting.”
Keeping Everyone Informed
Overdevest Nurseries has always embraced the marketing side of their business. They offer a multitude of tools to reach both IGC customers and consumers, to keep them up to date on the company and its products.
The company’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/c/OverdevestNurseries) has more than 17,000 subscribers and a library of hundreds of variety-specific and “How To” videos that have been viewed nearly 3 million times. The videos are produced and hosted by David Wilson, the company’s director of marketing. Notably, all views and subscribers have been achieved through “organic” views — not through a paid advertisement.
The YouTube channel started in 2012 as a business-to-business (B2B) tool for sharing information with IGC buyers but evolved to more of a way to help gardeners succeed. According to Ryan, the IGCs loved the videos so much they requested that Overdevest create additional videos to help them educate their customers about plants and gardening practices.
“David is a one-man studio,” Ed says. “He’s a plant expert and a great communicator as well. He has a contagious passion for plants and helping others.”
OVERDEVEST NURSERIES, LP AT A GLANCE
Cumberland County, New Jersey
Total Growing Space:
Indoor: 1.5 acres (gutter-connected greenhouse)
Outdoor: 290 acres (2.7+ million sq. ft. of unheated overwintering poly houses)
Key Management Personnel & Titles:
Ed Overdevest, President / Co-owner; Gail Overdevest,
Vice President / Co-owner; Ryan Overdevest, CFO;
David Wilson, Director of Marketing; Sue Redfern,
Sales / Customer Support; Ken Stevens, Propagation
Manager; Felix Leon, Production Manager; Phil Touw,
Operations Manager; Luciano Cruz, Shipping Manager /
IPM; Teo Cruz, Tree Production Manager; Jenni Agosto,
Sales / Customer Service; Jeff Meehan, Sales / Logistics
Coordinator; Pat Hoffman, Liner Coordinator
Number of Full Time and Seasonal Employees:
Types of Customers:
Independent Garden Centers
Wholesale Landscape Distributors