Editor's note: This article is part of the Next Generation special section from the March 2017 issue of Nursery Management.
Matt Sawyer knew he would eventually take over the family business. But when his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the timetable changed.
Matt’s father, Wayne Sawyer, was president and CEO of Bennett’s Creek Nursery, and a tough act to follow. He served as a past president of Southern Nursery Association, and served on multiple boards over the years with Virginia Nursery Landscape Association and the former American Nursery & Landscape Association. This publication named him its 2011 Grower of the Year.
Matt Sawyer had been prepared to take the reins. He has been actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the nursery for 14 years. He was the vice president of operations when his father died, and was particularly involved in the distribution center side of the business.
“My dad would have turned 60 last year in June,” Sawyer says. “He was going to be ready to start backing off more and more. That was the plan all along, but everything happened quicker than we had anticipated.”
Sawyer was comfortable in his niche of the business. He has a strong, capable grasp of the nuances of plant production and nursery operations. He has demonstrated a talent to develop new technology to make the nursery more efficient. But handling plants and handling people require two different skillsets.
“Mostly, what’s been new for me is the personnel issues; hiring and planning,” Sawyer says. “Dad always took care of that part. I’ve been learning along the way. It was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated. I always knew it was there, but wasn’t sure what depth you’d be getting involved in. I found that out pretty quick. That’s been the biggest learning curve for me.”
The Smithfield, Va.-based nursery encompasses 400 acres, 250 of which are in production. Bennett Creek’s growing and shipping headquarters is its Isle of Wight farm, several miles removed from the comparative bustle of Suffolk. Its Virginia Beach landscape distribution center houses several greenhouses and produces some annuals. Though the Suffolk location is now a landscape distribution center, it still houses Bennett’s Creek’s propagation facility. Sawyer says the nursery propagates about 750,000 liners per year, mostly woody shrubs.
The nursery sells to some independent retailers, but no big-box stores. Landscapers are Bennett’s Creek’s biggest customers, and the majority of plants are moved through the nursery’s own landscape distribution centers.
Sawyer says that business model minimizes the risk of the loss of one particular customer being detrimental to the company.
“A lot of what we do is based off trying to be organized for a group of customers that always aren’t,” Sawyer says. “That’s what keeps the distribution centers in business — being there when they come in last minute without a plan and pick from what we have in the yard.”
Bennett’s Creek does have many landscape customers that are organized and submit their orders ahead of time. Those customers are treasured, and the nursery rewards them with better pricing if they have plant material delivered straight to their job site.
“There’s less overhead when we ship it to the job,” Sawyer says. “We’re trying to have business models to suit different needs.”
Inventory and irrigation innovations
Keeping all of those customers happy is no small task. Inventory control is a major challenge for a grower that also manages several landscape distribution centers. Bennett’s Creek has tackled that particular challenge by developing its own mobile order entry system.
The old inventory system required a lot more time.
“When a person decides if a plant is ready for sale, they would have to make a note on the availability list, go inside and input those changes to the computer,” Sawyer says. “We want her to do it on the fly using an iPad. If you’re going to make that note, just do it once on a mobile device.”
Of course, a system like that doesn’t spring up overnight. The company is on its third iteration of its mobile order entry system. It started with expensive, waterproof, handheld PalmPilot-type tablets. The second attempt used an iPhone or similar newer, lighter-weight mobile device, running a remote desktop with a simplified interface.
The third, and current, iteration of the system is basically a webpage. Inventory managers can go to the web address on their device, log in and do all the necessary functions, from updating a plant’s status, ready dates, whether it’s in bloom, has a new flush or growth, berries, winter color — any feature that a customer considers before buying that plant. Sawyer’s team uses Microsoft Dynamics, a line of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software applications, as a leaping off point, with their own modifications to simplify the user interface.
“That’s been the easiest to use so far,” he says. “We didn’t go with a specific app you can find in an app store. It’s just a website with big buttons on it you can use with a touchscreen. We originally created that, and we keep modifying what we already have.”
Sawyer is very tech-savvy, and he’s put that knowledge to use improving processes all around the nursery. Last summer, he worked with Airtec to design a custom-built 30-foot boom sprayer. It provides GPS tracking to adjust flow rate based on speed variations, and a “positive charge” to help spray cling to the plants’ surfaces. A few years ago, he designed an automated irrigation monitoring system that allows employees to manage irrigation remotely. The Bennett’s Creek pumping facility was developed and built in-house to recycle the nursery’s irrigation water while minimizing pathogen and disease issues. Three computer-controlled pumps maintain pressure throughout the nursery. Because the system is variable-speed, Sawyer says it needed to have variable dosages of chlorine.
“It will turn one pump on slowly and if it can’t keep up with demand, the next one will come on, then the third will come on,” he says. “They have flowmeters attached to them and they change the chlorine flows to sanitize the water.”
Bennett’s Creek ensures water quality by checking chlorine levels at the irrigation nozzle.
“Chlorine will bind up to any organic matter and oxidize it and kill it,” Sawyer says. “And if you have no free chlorine at the sprinkler, that means the chlorine got used up in the line before it got there. You need to tweak your chlorine enough that you’re getting 2 parts per million at the sprinkler, then you know you have enough to kill everything it comes in contact with and have just a little left over when it exits.”