Cover Story — Plugged In and Ready for Growth
PLUG CONNECTION AT A GLANCE
Year Founded: 1987 by Tim Wada. Acquired by Ken, Deena and Matt Altman in 2016.
Location: Vista and Bonsall, California
Total growing space: 390,000 square feet of greenhouse on 11 acres in Vista and more than 800,000 square feet of greenhouse on 50 acres in Bonsall
Key Management Personnel & Titles: Matt Altman, president; Bruce Gibson, general manager; Jon-Paul Williams, sales director
Number of Employees: 190
Customer base/geographic area covered: U.S. and Canada
Plug Connection was founded by Tim Wada in Vista, California, back in 1987. The company was one of the first young plant producers on the West Coast.
Over the past 30+ years, Plug Connection has grown to become “one of the largest plug, liner and grafted transplant producers in the country” thanks to Wada’s vision and Southern California’s idyllic growing conditions.
In late 2016, Ken and Deena Altman, along with their son Matt, the owners of Altman Plants, also located in Vista, purchased Plug Connection from Wada.
At that time, Ken Altman told GPN: “We really see a lot of opportunities for building [the Plug Connection] business.”
And that is exactly what the Altmans have done over the past 16 months — grow young plants while growing Plug Connection.
Big Grower recently sat down with Matt Altman and Bruce Gibson, Plug Connection’s general manager, to learn about the “new” company and the plans for the future.
“Tim had built a great company and he was looking for a way to create an orderly transition to a different stage in his life,” says Altman.
“The purchase was an opportunity for us to diversify our business and secure the plug supply that Plug Connection was producing, not just for Altman Plants but for a lot of other growers that rely on Plug Connection,” Altman adds.
Several months after buying Plug Connection, the Altmans purchased EuroAmerican Propagators’ plant inventory and growing facilities in nearby Bonsall after the owners of EuroAmerican filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
That acquisition allowed Plug Connection to nearly triple its production capabilities overnight. Shortly after that purchase, the Altmans hired industry veteran Bruce Gibson to be the new general manager.
Gibson says that when he met with the Altmans to discuss the job, he was impressed by their vision for the company and its possibilities. “It looked to me like Plug Connection was the ultimate young plant company.”
“We are really lucky to have Bruce Gibson with us as our general manager,” Altman says. “He has such a wealth of experience. He has a great knowledge about the products we are growing and a business acumen for the industry. It was a big win for us to have Bruce join the company.”
The timing was good for the company and Gibson.
“It was the perfect situation for me,” Gibson says. “Ken and Matt have an unbelievable capacity for understanding the business and grasping the details.”
Today, Gibson and Matt Altman are working together to guide the day-to-day operations at the Vista and Bonsall facilities.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Over the years, Plug Connection has built its reputation on supplying large and small growers with a unique mix of products, programs, and services.
The light levels and growing conditions in Vista and Bonsall (the facilities are 9 miles apart) allow for shorter finish times, well-toned plants and year-round availability. “This [region] is the Cadillac for producing almost anything,” Gibson declares.
Purchasing EuroAmerican allowed Plug Connection to really expand its production capabilities as well as its product offerings. “The reason we were interested in the [Bonsall] facility is that it was a huge platform for growth. That [Bonsall] facility was made for young plants,” Altman says. It also provided more space for additional stock plant production.
Gibson says the Bonsall facility has significant stock blocks of grasses, unique annuals and perennials, succulents, tropical and semitropical shrubs as well as a large liner production rooting area.
At the Vista facility, the main production consists of seed annuals and perennials, tissue culture plants as well as liner production. The facility is one of the leading U.S. producers of grafted vegetable transplants and the location is USDA certified organic. The company also offers custom propagation services to its customers.
“The two facilities complement each other very nicely,” says Gibson, and he is really excited about the potential they have to offer in the coming years. “We are working hard to bring more products to market” which is rapidly expanding.
GROWING PLANTS AND PEOPLE
Altman and Gibson agree that it takes quality people to produce quality plants. They are both quick to give credit to the workforce at both locations for making things happen. “Growing plants and growing the people who produce those plants is what really motivates me,” Gibson says.
“We have a great team,” Altman says. When the Altmans bought Plug Connection, they knew that Tim Wada had a solid staff and the ownership transition would be a smooth one. Altman says most of the staff stayed on and is a “really high performing group.”
Gibson concurs. “Tim was a great manager. He attracted great people and he knew how to keep them.”
Gibson says the Bonsall operations had to be totally restaffed after the EuroAmerican facility was shut down during the bankruptcy proceedings last winter. He says the entire process of “redeploying” the workforce has gone incredibly well and the key personnel are in place and ready for future growth.
“The teams in Vista and Bonsall do such a tremendous job of producing quality plants for all of our customers,” Altman says.
Bringing new products to market is a top priority for the team at Plug Connection and it is one of the keys to the company’s success.
Finding the right products for growers to produce for today’s consumers is a challenge that Plug Connection is up for. Altman says he is really excited to work with breeding companies to create a new type of supply chain that goes from the breeding lab all the way to a final product.
“New plants are the lifeblood of our industry. You have to bring new plants to the market for the consumer to stay interested. That’s what our industry needs to continually do. Our goal is to work closer with breeders and really tighten the supply chain between breeder and retail. By doing so, we can develop a product mix that brings innovation and uniqueness to the market. This helps growers make more money and keeps our industry relevant to the end consumer,” Altman states.
“It has been a lot of fun getting even closer to the breeding companies. We do a lot of trialing of new products, so we are in touch with all of the major breeding companies regularly,” Altman says.
“With so many new products [being developed], we have to maintain our focus on the products that are most important to the growers we are serving,” he adds.
Gibson says Plug Connection’s product mix helps differentiate the company from other young plant producers. “We have to be pretty discriminating [about which] new products we pick up. We are looking for those products that set us apart and we are pretty aggressive in pursuing them.”
STANDALONE COMPANIES WORKING TOGETHER
While Plug Connection and Altman Plants may share the same ownership, they are two very separate and standalone businesses. But Altman and Gibson both said the two companies are always looking for synergies they can take advantage of that will benefit both companies, because that’s just good business.
Gibson says the companies often look to each other to help solve the other’s challenges. “The synergies are an added benefit for both companies,” he says.
“Plug Connection has some real advantages with the freight lanes that we have created with Altman Plants because we ship all across the country. Leveraging those freight lanes is going to allow Plug Connection to ship farther and maintain economical freight costs. That will really expand Plug Connection’s footprint in the market,” states Altman.
Altman Plants was able to move all of its propagation to Plug Connection, including some key personnel. Plug Connection also has an expanding tissue culture lab that produces new plants bred by Altman Plants as well as other breeders.
Gibson says each company has it specific expertise and has unique relationships with other companies in the industry. This has opened doors to new business for both.
When the Altmans decided to buy Plug Connection in 2016 they knew the company was in a good place — both geographically and business-wise.
“We thought Plug Connection was a very important piece of the industry that would allow us to diversify. It allowed for an orderly transition of a really stable, well-run business that would give us a platform for growth,” says Altman.
“Tim Wada was a very conscientious grower. He was always looking to produce high-quality plants. From the beginning, he was always willing to add genetics if the customer wanted them,” Gibson says.
That is still the game plan. “I personally love working with growers that are interested in finding innovative ways to solve problems that we can work together on,” Altman says.
He explains that one of the priorities for the company is to have access to as much information as possible. The company has spent a lot of time and money on electronic data integration (EDI). This will allow Plug Connection to communicate with the breeder farms and the broker companies so that they can provide growers with real-time availability and production numbers and help everyone be more efficient.
“We have a vision for where we want Plug Connection to go. We see so much opportunity for this company out in the marketplace,” Altman states.
Altman knows that it can’t happen overnight. “There are really good people working toward that vision. We have done a lot of work to put ourselves in a position to succeed from a logistics, product mix and quality standpoint,” he says.
“It is an exciting time for Plug Connection because there is a large amount of change and expansion taking place and an opportunity to make a difference in the business.”
INTRODUCING TRUE BLOOM ROSES
Six years ago, Ken Altman had a vision of creating a different type of rose breeding program — and now that vision is coming to fruition at Plug Connection and Altman Plants.
Later this spring the companies will be introducing the True Bloom Roses series. Ping Lim, the company’s rosarian, has been working tirelessly to create this new series of six roses.
Altman Plants is one of the largest container rose growers in the country, and Altman wanted to take advantage of the company’s expertise and introduce a series of very disease-resistant roses.
“It has been a long process to breed, evaluate and trial these varieties,” Matt Altman says. “And we are really excited about releasing them to the market now.”
“The difference is they are bred to have a true rose bloom, so they don’t have the low petal count that some shrub roses have,” he adds.
“It’s hard to get a rose that is disease resistant, with large blooms and is fragrant,” but they have achieved it with the True Bloom series and now it is ready for growers.
Plug Connection will be the source for True Bloom liners.