A Perennial Success By Tim Hodson

In today's economy, growers of all shapes and sizes are constantly looking for ways to improve all of their operational efficiencies and get the most out of their business. For big growers, that can be quite a challenge.

But at Sawyer Nursery in Hudsonville, Mich., Bob Sawyer and his management team, headed up by Ken DeHaan, are continually developing new systems or enhancing existing ones to help the perennial grower prosper in today's marketplace.

The 53-year-old business supplies perennials in many different sizes to most of the major big box retailers throughout the Midwest, including The Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Meijer, Kmart and Lowe's, as well as some independent garden centers. They also sell perennial plugs to other growers in 128-, 72-, 50-, 32- and 21-cell flats.

Finished container plants make up 90 percent of the company's sales, 8 percent is plug material and the remaining 2 percent is bareroot product.

Weathering the Economy

The current economic downturn has made its impact felt throughout the country, but it hasn't really hurt Sawyer Nursery at the retailers that it services. In fact, it probably has helped as more consumers turn to the big boxes for all of their purchases, leading to more footsteps in the garden center and increased plant sales.

"Marketwise, this has been a very strong year," says company CEO DeHaan. "There has been a very strong demand for our product this year. People are staying home [because of the economy] and spending a little bit more on plants than maybe they would have in the past."

Dan Vander Schuur, Sawyer's general manager, agrees that the economy hasn't been the biggest challenge: "Our biggest challenge every year is environmental — the weather."

There's no such thing as the "perfect" spring; growers are always going to have to deal with the weather. "But we can't use the weather as an excuse," DeHaan says. "We have to learn to adapt." And use the information they have on hand to figure out the best way possible to produce the product and get it to the customer on time and in the highest-quality, most saleable condition.

Working with the Boxes

The demands and requirements of all of the different big box retailers that Sawyer works with are not an issue. Each of the company's customers has "a unique set of challenges" DeHaan says, but the company is flexible enough to adapt to varying needs.

When you work with the world's largest retailer, there are going to be challenges. But "Wal-Mart is very open to working with and learning from their suppliers," says John Wasson, a senior account manager who works with Sawyer's Midwest Wal-Mart stores.

Wasson says working with Wal-Mart and other retailers also gives Sawyer Nursery access to consumer research, such as color trends in fashion. "We look at [that type of] consumer research and apply it to the perennial business. It gives us insight into the mind of the consumer."

Working with the big retailers is "a lot of work," says Brad Klomp, another senior account manager who is responsible for Sawyer's Home Depot, Meijer and Kmart stores in the Midwest. "It is a lot of responsibility to take on each store's needs. We have information coming in every day. We know what they are selling and what they need versus what we have available to fulfill that need."

By putting merchandisers in garden centers at Home Depot and Meijer, Sawyer also gets instant feedback on that store's specific customers and what they are buying. This information helps sales as well as production.

And obviously Sawyer is doing the right things for its big box customers: In 2008, the company received corporate performance awards from both Wal-Mart and Meijer.

Information Is Key

Information — production, sales numbers, inventory data, accounting, shipping records, you name it — is critical to every department at Sawyer Nursery. DeHaan says the more information you have, the smarter you can work. "It helps us discover where we can save time, labor or money," he says.

This knowledge lets all departments make informed predictions. "It allows us to use only those resources needed to achieve our objective along with our customers' objectives," DeHaan says. The goal is not to waste any resources or effort and be as efficient as possible.

"We have systems in place to help everyone [throughout the company]," remarks DeHaan. "These systems help make sure the information flows at all levels."

Because they have access to so much information, Klomp says, "we are doing a better job this year than ever before by giving the customer exactly the items they need" in their garden centers.

Klomp says production is always aware of the sales department's needs, and the sales department always knows what is and isn't available from production. "We work very closely with each other and are aware of each other's needs. [Our planning] never stops. It is always changing and evolving," Klomp says.


There are many similarities and differences for annual growers and perennial growers, but there is one constant. "Our industry is all about color," Wasson says. "The only way we are going to get [retail] space is to sell the biggest, brightest and best color."

That means getting plants on the shelf at the right time so consumers will buy them. Vander Schuur says that can be challenging for production. "More than 50 percent of our product is grown in an uncontrolled environment, so that makes it tough to predict exactly when a crop will finish and be ready for retail. But by sharing information at all levels of a company, this becomes less of a challenge.

"We have become a lean manufacturer of perennials," Vander Schuur says. "You have to create a 'wow' factor inside the store; that means we need to grow a minimum of 10,000 [of a variety]" to meet the needs of all of their stores. He says one of his biggest goals is to train everyone in production on how to manage these high-volume product turns efficiently and effectively. Success in the garden center "is all about turns," Vander Schuur says.

"Every plant that leaves the nursery has a bloom or a bud on it," he says. "We treat the perennial business exactly like the annual business. It is color all season long, from frost to frost."


While perennial breeders may not introduce as many new varieties and cultivars every year like annual breeders do, perennial growers are constantly looking for innovation: a slight change in genetics that will make it easier to grow or something that helps consumers keep plants healthy. Or maybe it is an original or creative way of packaging and selling a perennial. Anything to gain competitive edge or additional market share.

"Innovation is what is going to grow the business. A different pot. A different color. A different combination or a new item. You have got to have innovation every year," Wasson says.

Vander Schuur said the economy also is forcing some of the manufacturers to be more creative. One of the plastics companies that had been hit hard by the slowdown in the automotive industry came to Sawyer Nursery and asked them, "What can we do for you to be innovative?"

Representatives from the plastics company met with Vander Schuur's team, and they are now manufacturing custom shipping trays and containers for Sawyer that the nursery can use over and over. They're produced locally, too, which minimizes shipping and has a smaller, more environmentally friendly carbon footprint. "This gives us a cost advantage and unique items," Vander Schuur says.

It's All About Team

Ask Bob Sawyer about his employees, and he beams. "I am really proud of all of the people we have here," he says. "It's a team, and everyone works very well together."

They've always grown good plants in the nursery, he says, but it is the people that have made Sawyer Nursery a success story for more than half a century.

Looking back, Bob says, "We have learned a lot over the years. It has been quite a ride!"


Sawyer Nursery at a Glance

Headquarters: Hudsonville, Mich.

Growing area: Approximately 100 acres in Hudsonville, another 200 acres in Leesburg, Ala.

Ownership: Founded in 1956 by Bob and Shirley Sawyer. Sons Craig and Scott are now co-owners.

Management team: Ken DeHaan, chief executive officer; Dan Vander Schuur, general manager; Jim Zelenka, vice president, sales; Scott Langeland, chief financial officer; Brad Klomp and John Wasson, senior account managers.

Employees: Approximately 75 year round (250 during peak season) and 100 merchandisers


Sawyer Nursery is always looking to be more environmentally friendly.

All rainwater is collected and reused. All pots are made from recycled plastic. All greenhouse plastic is used as long as it is effective and then it is properly recycled. Custom-manufactured reusable shipping trays are made locally.

The majority of product produced at Sawyer's Alabama facility is grown outdoors, so there is no need for structures that would require electricity and/or natural gas to light and heat them. Other eco-friendly practices include the use of biological controls in the soils and insect predators to help control greenhouse pests.

Dan Vander Schuur says the nursery also has developed a system to determine rack configurations to maximize space utilization, minimize shipping costs and increase plant quality.

Customers like Wal-Mart have definitely noticed these sustainability efforts. "Sustainability is an important part in Wal-Mart's supplier evaluation process. Wal-Mart wants to align itself with those vendors who are making an effort to decrease their carbon footprint," says John Wasson. "Wal-Mart looks at [all of Sawyer's eco-friendly initiatives] and grades us on them."

It's Always Been a Family Nursery

When Bob Sawyer finished his military service in 1956, he founded Sawyer Nursery with his wife, Shirley, as an additional income source for their growing young family. He worked as a bricklayer and truck driver during the day, and worked in the nursery at night and on weekends. During the week, Shirley supervised the crews who were growing container plants for the local markets, plant brokers and other nurseries.

In the beginning, everything was shovel-dug and hand planted. "At the time, we didn't think it was real fun," Bob says. "But when we look back, it really was a lot of fun!"

After about 10 years, Bob left his brick laying and truck driving jobs and started working full time in the nursery while Shirley worked part time as a waitress. "Grandma took care of the kids," Shirley says.

Their hard work paid off, and in 1974, they purchased the more than 90 acres in Hudsonville, Mich., where the company is still located. In 2003, they leased an additional 200 acres in Alabama.

Things really started to take off for the Sawyers in the 1980s, and the company was incorporated in 1984. Perennial plants' popularity has driven the company's continued growth through the years.

Regardless of the company's size, Shirley says, "we have always been a family nursery," something the Sawyers find extremely satisfying.

They are extremely proud of all of their current and former workers. It is their hard work and dedication, Bob says, that has helped the company to where it is today.

Tim Hodson

Tim Hodson is editorial director of GPN's Big Grower. He can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1019.

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