A creator of happiness

2018 Horticultural Industries Leadership Awards - Amy Morris

Amy Morris’ dedication, drive and keen management skills have propelled her to a successful career in horticulture.

August 14, 2018

Amy Morris has served as a leader over the past 32 years at N.G. Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants.
Photo: David Torrence

Finding your place in the family business when you’re one of nine siblings is quite the challenge, but Amy (Heimos) Morris, head grower and vice president of N.G. Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants in Millstadt, Illinois, has taken it in stride. Julie Allman, her best friend since the age of 8, attributes much of Amy’s success to her drive. “As the youngest of nine Heimos children, I believe Amy was determined to find her way among her eight older siblings in the family business. Can you imagine?” Julie says. “She had the education, work ethic and experience to do it.”

The family business began in September of 1951 when the week before getting married, Norwin Heimos and his soon-to-be-wife Shirley opened a small grocery store, Sappington Produce, located in Sappington, Missouri, in St. Louis County. A year later, Norwin added hardy mum production, and soon after, floral mums and poinsettias. It was at this time that he built the first greenhouses. Over the years, the company purchased land in Sunset Hills, Missouri, and Millstadt, Illinois, to expand into two ornamental plant companies, N.G. Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants.

One of Amy’s first memories of working in the greenhouse is from when she was 7. She was “standing on a soda crate or a bulb crate sticking bedding plants, impatiens and marigolds in 606 flats,” she remembers. “My dad would have us kids help after school, just for that crunch.” Throughout her teen years, she worked off and on for the company.

Julie remembers visiting Amy as a teen in the greenhouse. “We had fun climbing and rolling on the racks and [being] told to ‘Stop that!’” Julie says. Even Julie pitched in a few times over the years, helping Amy with an annual plant sale where they sold plants out of the company truck, “counting money and schlepping hanging baskets.”

Amy and her best friend Julie, surrounded by flowers even outside of the greenhouse

A future in photography?

Amy headed to Southeast Missouri State University in 1982, uncertain of her major. “I knew I didn’t want to do flowers,” she says. “I was like ‘I want to get out of the business, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.’” For a time, she thought she would study photography or something to do with newspapers. So she set off down a path filled with business and general classes.

In the second semester of her freshman year, she was approached by the head of the horticulture department. He introduced himself as a friend of her dad and asked her to come to the greenhouse and possibly give them some tips. “I don’t know anything, I don’t have any tips to give,” Amy insisted at the time. The professor invited her to take one of his classes, since “horticulture was in her blood.” Since she was unsure what direction she was headed, she figured it couldn’t hurt to try just one class. “I took Ornamental Plants and it was the easiest A I got in my life,” she says. “I’m all about getting a high GPA and I need a degree, so I said ‘Let me take a few more classes.’” After excelling in several more horticulture classes, she started to become more interested in it. By her sophomore year, she had made the decision to change her major to horticulture and leave photography and newspapers behind.

Amy’s father Norwin wanted her to gain experience at another greenhouse before coming back to the family business, so she went to work for Sanders Greenhouses for a year. She says it was a great way to learn how different people approach the industry and production. She returned to Heimos’ Sappington facility to fill in as assistant propagator when the head propagator left, and the then-assistant moved up to take the role.

From Sappington, she moved to the rented Oakshire facility for several years. Amy took over the fall mum program around the same time as the first flood floors were installed in the greenhouses. “I got to be the guinea pig and try them out and learn,” Amy says. “It took me a couple months to get it down. Every season brought a new challenge.” In 2001, Amy took the reins of the newly formed Millstadt Young Plants.

As Amy reflects on the 32 years she’s spent at Heimos, she’s proud of her role as a leader within the company. Whenever there was a need, she stepped up and filled in. For example, after their head grower quit in 2006, Amy kept finding herself troubleshooting problems with the other growers. “They would come to me and they would [ask], ‘What would you do for this?’” she says. “I got to the point where I’d start walking almost every day with every grower. Finally, my brother Bernie is like, ‘Would you just take over the head grower [position] for the company and keep working with the growers?’” And so she did.

A heart of gold

Amy’s drive has propelled her to new heights throughout her career, but her fun, energetic personality has also endeared her to many. “To know Amy, is to love her,” Julie says. “She can be intense, but also has a heart of gold.”

Jan Couch, territory manager at Syngenta, has known Amy for 10 years and says she’s full of energy and enthusiasm for the industry. “She reminds me that there are people in this industry who are truly passionate and invested in it,” Jan says. “She is upfront, honest and outspoken and caring. When you sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with Amy, you know she is present.”      

Nancy Rechcigl, Technical Field Manager at Syngenta, has known Amy for more than 12 years. Nancy says that Amy is an “exemplary mentor and role model to other growers and colleagues” and describes her as a “warm, generous person” who doesn’t get discouraged easily. She says that Amy “always provides a fresh, positive perspective to any project” and is “extremely bright and innovative.”

Those who visit Amy at the greenhouse are in for an energetic greenhouse tour. Julie recalls visiting one Saturday this spring and zipping around on a golf cart with Amy at the wheel. “That day I called her a ‘machine’ because she was thinking and doing so many important things all at once,” Julie says. As she was checking in on growers, she was also talking about the preparation for a wedding shower she was hosting later that day, dropping off a banana muffin to her father, making plans for her daughter’s birthday and other tasks. “At the same time, she was sending me home with a few beautiful red geraniums and mandevilla that we collected along the way,” she says.

Jan knows those tours well. “Get ready to take a high-speed cart ride, do a lot of walking and look at a lot of plants [with Amy],” Jan says. “A visit to Heimos is a bit like being caught up in a whirlwind of activity.”

Amy found the Spring Delano mum (a sport of Sunset Delano) in 1993.
Photo cOURTESY OF AMY Morris

Horticultural inspiration

Amy has been fortunate to be surrounded with many people who have inspired and guided her during the past 32 years. She says that her mother Shirley Heimos, who Amy describes as “an incredibly special lady,” was the most important person in her life, the one who drove her to be the person that she became. “With my dad working all the time he worked, she raised nine kids [herself],” she says. “As soon as I went to kindergarten, she opened the garden shop herself, and it was a top garden center in the St. Louis area. It’s still open today, the Sappington Garden Shop.” One of the lessons Amy learned from her was to be kind in tough situations; her mother always told her to “Kill people with kindness.”

Her father, Norwin Heimos, has also been a lifelong source of inspiration. “I’ve always gotten inspiration from my father because he’s one of the leaders of our company and our industry,” Amy says. “He is a man that never went to school for horticulture. He was a farmer. He took classes at the Ohio Short Course where he learned most of what he knew. And through trial and error, he learned a lot of information.”

Talking to fellow growers is also beneficial for Amy. “I’ve been able to work with so many great growers in our industry, and I feel like I have no problem calling one if I have a question, [or] if they call and ask me questions,” she says. “I find a lot of inspiration working and talking with them, too.”

Breeders are a group that Amy enjoys networking and socializing with. “I’m a very lucky person because with doing the young plants side of [the business], I’ve gotten to work really closely with a lot of the breeders,” Amy says. “And I love breeders. They are the most creative, imaginative people.”

Left to right: Amy’s sister Micky, father Norwin and brother Bernie, Amy

For the love of plants

Amy’s passion for the industry extends to both the people in it and the plants themselves. “I love the people out there,” she says. “I love being able to bring beautiful product to the local customers.” Amy will visit a local store where her plants are sold and see people picking them up, and that brings her joy. “Just seeing the smiles on their faces makes me so happy,” she says. “Knowing that you started this from either a little cutting or a seed, and here someone is planting it in their garden and it’s giving them happiness and fulfillment, that’s a beautiful thing.”

What exactly is it that the horticulture industry does, according to Amy? “I feel like all we do here is create happiness [in the greenhouse],” she says. “Love and happiness. Even though sometimes there’s not love and happiness in this place because it’s so crazy busy.”

As anyone who has worked in horticulture knows, the going can get tough, even among beautiful plants. “Believe me, there have been many a times in this greenhouse I’ve sat and cried,” she says. “I have. I’ve been frustrated, I’ve cried, I’ve been angry, I’ve yelled. It’s not productive. You’ve got to figure out a way to make it productive and lead the team. But you get to be where you are [in the greenhouse].”

Loving being in the greenhouse is what has kept Amy coming back to work each day for 32 years. “The No. 1 thing is you’ve got to love what you do, because if you don’t like what you do, you’re not going to be happy,” she would tell someone considering a career in horticulture. And to Amy, there’s nothing better than walking through the greenhouse alone, smelling the scent of the plants and enjoying the quiet. “It’s very serene and surreal,” she says. “That’s my favorite time, the end of the day when the place is empty. I want to walk and look at the plants and take time to let the plants tell [me] what they want because they’re going to tell you what they want.” That would be her second piece of advice to a potential future grower — “Take the time to listen and look.”

The importance of watering

At one point, Amy was that potential future grower, and had a simple, but difficult lesson to learn. When Amy first started working full-time at Heimos, Dale Burkhart was the head grower, and soon became one of her mentors. When Dale told her she was going to be manning the hose, Amy was less than thrilled — especially when it turned into six months of nothing but watering. Dale told her that he needed her to master this task, and it was the most important lesson to learn. “Now I understand because I’m older and wiser,” Amy says. “But back then, I thought every schmuck gets the hose. But it’s not [like that]. The hose is the most important thing in the greenhouse, the water controls. So for six straight months, all I did was water. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from that.”

Once Amy “graduated” from watering, Dale began teaching her other tasks, like spraying, how to mix chemicals, etc. Later, Amy would move over to a 5-acre facility called Oakshire that they rented to grow geraniums and poinsettias. It was the first time Amy grew on her own, and it was a learning experience. “Dale would come over and check on me, and he would ask me point-blank, ‘What do you want to do?’” she says. “I got to make a lot of decisions, right or wrong, but I learned from the decisions.”

The head propagator at that time was Beth Adamecz, whom she also considers a mentor. “She was the one who taught me about the sowing and propagating of seeds — the timing of the mist, what needs to be covered and what doesn’t, the duration of mist, chemicals to put on new product, etc.,” she remembers. “That was a really good phase of my life, too, learning propagation.”

Sharing her skills

Amy has also had the opportunity to mentor up-and-comers just as she was mentored. One example is her nephew Adam Heimos, who has worked with the company for five or six years. Amy’s responsibilities had been increasing, and she found that she had less and less time to conduct the Heimos Poinsettia Trials. She officially handed the Heimos Poinsettia Trials off to Adam, who has run them successfully by himself for the past three years.

But Amy was still handling poinsettia selection and production, which took up a good bit of her time. This year, Adam “took 100 percent ownership of Heimos’ program for poinsettias,” Amy says.

“Sometimes it’s not about the amount of time you work with people, it’s the amount of information that you communicate with each other,” Amy says. “I’m not a babysitter and I’m not going to hold your hand. I will come in your area every day, check it out. If I see things that I don’t like, I’m going to tell you about it. If I see things that are going well, I usually hold my tongue a little bit and let him know once it’s shipped. You never want to jinx a crop.”

As head grower at both N.G. Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants, Amy had around 10 growers under her at one point. “To be able to get them to a point where they felt comfortable on their own, you work with them so much,” she says. “There comes a time when a grower knows that you’ve taught them all you can teach and you let them go with things and let them roll,” Amy says.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

As she did with Adam, Amy works to cross-train her staff so that all of the jobs are always covered. “I’m here to teach and created a team so that if something happens to me, I know the [greenhouse] is going to go on without a hiccup,” Amy says. “I’m huge on having that back support because you never know what might happen.”

As time went on, Amy found herself working longer hours because she had so many things on her plate, and she knew it wasn’t sustainable. “[This] is leading me to delegate more and make sure that if I have to go and leave, I’m good,” she says. “As I progressed in the company and I ended up taking on more and more, I had to rely on my team to take more.” She’s been especially focused on delegating this year, as she knew she would be taking a two-month leave of absence — and it’s paid off. “I’m so proud of everybody here because they are doing a great job,” Amy says.

Tell it like it is

Amy has always been someone who communicates her thoughts in a direct way. “I am not a person that is very shy of telling people things,” she says. “I pretty much will tell you what I think, even if it’s not good, if it’s ugly.” And this, she says, is important to the growers that she oversees, because she wants them to understand that they made a mistake, but that it’s okay as long as they learn from it. “It’s so important to learn something,” she says. “If you do it again, then I’m going to get mad at you.”

Amy tells growers to keep production journals that include both those mistakes and any successes, as well as factors like weather conditions and other data points. “‘Keep track of records of what you guys do, and you’ll be a successful grower and learn from your mistakes,’” she advises growers.

Amy fosters a team mentality, and gets right out there with staff to finish the job as the need arises.

All for one, and one for all

When it all comes down to it, every team has its ups and downs. “You go through your bumps, you go through your positives and negatives,” Amy says. But she’s discovered over the years that she’s got a solid team under her, one that she tries to motivate each day with encouraging words.

Amy also stresses the importance of communication and working with growers to help them come up with their own solutions to problems. “You know what’s wrong with it, I know what’s wrong with it. What are we going to do to solve [the problem]?” Amy asks her growers.

One of the unique characteristics of her grower team is the fact that they walk each other’s greenhouse sections, getting each other’s opinions and insights into the crops. “I’m very proud of them for doing that because I’ve been to a lot of companies [where another grower] can’t come into [your] area, which I think is crazy,” Amy says. “We are here to be successful because each of us needs to feed our families. And if the company is successful, then we are going to be successful.”

And, from Amy’s point-of-view, you can find success by treating your employees like they’re part of your family. “They are part of your group, they are not there just for you to dump on,” she says. “When we are busy, I get out there with them and I work right alongside them. If they need help or somebody is behind, you work together as a team and you get everything done.”

While she does want them to feel like family, Amy is careful to also remain professional. “I have to be very careful about making strong friendships, but you still have to treat them like they are part of the family,” she says.

A future filled with plants and life lessons

Amy isn’t sure what she will do one day when she steps away from her role as head grower at N.G. Heimos Greenhouses and Millstadt Young Plants, but it may still involve plants. “[My husband] Craig and I always said we should get out of the big business and start a tiny mom-and-pop stand that’s only open a few months out of the year,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to get in an RV [with Craig] and drive all over America. I think that would be fun to do.”

Regarding the future of the industry, Amy has noticed some changes that she thinks will continue to evolve. First, she thinks that the industry will become “a lot greener,” in the sense of being environmentally friendly. She also sees a trend of marketing the plants through different pots and point-of-purchase materials at retail. And she was pleased to see “good, strong breeding” at the California Spring Trials (CAST) this past April. “I felt that this CAST was probably one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time, from north to south and all the way through,” she says. “It’s [about] making plants that are user-friendly, for the consumer to have a good experience.”

As Amy’s professional life shifts and evolves, she knows that she’ll always be learning from those around her. “I think every day you cross paths with people and, in a small way, you give a little and take a little from everyone,” she says. “And it doesn’t matter how big or how small it is, I think you can learn a lot from a lot of people. You can always take a small message from people if you listen.”

While she’s been told that she would make for a good motivational speaker, Amy laughs about that. “I said ‘No, I don’t motivate people,’” she recalls. “I just encourage them to bring out the best that they are, because it’s in there. Everybody’s got something.”