Purposeful and persistent

Features - Cover Story

From their first plans laid out on paper to their current bustling operation, Becky and Jamie Thomas run Spring Grove Nursery with a meticulous approach.

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Strategy has been the cornerstone of Spring Grove Nursery since Becky and Jamie Thomas planted their first tree 20 years ago. The husband-and-wife team founded the nursery in Mazon, Illinois, after carefully contemplating the size and scope of their newly fledged business.

They didn’t enter the nursery industry on a whim.

Becky grew up on a corn and soybean farm and Jamie’s family also has roots in farming. The pair both studied horticulture in college. Becky graduated from the University of Illinois with a landscape architecture degree and Jamie studied recreation, parks and tourism at Western Illinois University. They were carving out their own path, with no immediate plans to become farmers themselves. Becky worked at a local design/build firm and Jamie was in the park maintenance division at a local park district.

Like most ag families, everyone in the family helps at some point on the farm, and Becky’s dad could count on her to help when he needed it most.

As the Thomas family grew from two to three with the addition of their daughter Maggie, Becky returned to the family farm helping her parents with the books while Jamie worked for a local farm drainage contractor near the family farm.

“My dad was an innovative and forward-thinking farmer. He was a leading pioneer in precision farming technology, and he was an inspiration to us thinking about starting our own growing operation,” Becky says.

Becky and Jamie approached her parents about joining the family farm operation with a venture of their own, to which they were quite supportive of the idea. Since both Becky and Jamie had a horticulture background, coupled with a shortage of trees in the marketplace, they decided to research starting a tree nursery. For a year, Becky and Jamie pored over Excel spreadsheets to find the best strategies and scenarios for their new business.

“We were starting from scratch, so we looked at so many different business scenarios,” Becky says. “We asked things like ‘What size do we want to start out the trees?’ ‘Where will we source liners?’ ‘How many acres should we plant first?’ ‘How long will these be in the ground before harvest?’”

The couple was very conservative in their estimates and purposely planned on production costing more and trees selling for less.

“Becky’s dad was an integral part of this process, as well as some of our partners we ended up doing business with,” Jamie says. “We knew some great people in the industry who taught us what trees cost per year to produce.”

There were several discussions regarding which market segment would be their customers. They eventually decided to serve multiple segments including landscape contractors, park districts, municipalities, retail garden centers and rewholesalers.

“We tried to keep it pretty even so when the market fluctuates, we wouldn’t have too many eggs in one basket,” Becky says.

They settled on a 60-acre nursery and took their business model to the bank, which wasn’t the smoothest process.

“Starting trees is a long-term process with a big upfront investment that doesn’t bring quick returns. That’s not a normal scenario for a bank,” Becky says. “We secured financing from what was then called Farm Credit Services, we got some help from my parents and we used the Farm Service Agency through the USDA.”

The new business owners planted their first tree in the field in 1999.

After all that meticulous planning, Spring Grove Nursery was a reality. Jamie was working full time at Caterpillar during the day and tending to the nursery at night.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun. And it was ours,” Jamie recalls.

Their first crop of trees was harvested around 2001, a little sooner than they predicted. By 2005, Jamie started working at the nursery full time.

“We were learning to grow trees along the way and develop our market and our sales strategies,” Becky says.

Challenges accepted

Early into their new career as tree growers, a menace hit the market – the emerald ash borer. This destructive pest appeared in Michigan in 2002 and it was quickly apparent at how serious a threat it was to the nursery industry, landscapes and forests. Some 30% of Spring Grove’s production was made up of ash trees.

“When we first started, our planting palette was mostly bread-and-butter trees. We didn’t have a lot of diversity at the time,” Becky says. “We decided to stop planting ash immediately.”

They knew the communities would have to stop planting ash and replace them with other types of trees. Becky and Jamie added several new genera into their planting mix.

“That was a big decision for us,” Jamie says. “We were worried about how this would affect sales down the road. Instead of having 200 of one tree, we were now going to have 50. It turned out to be the right approach overall since that’s what happened in the landscape industry anyway.”

People were looking to the nursery industry for answers and looking for alternatives to ash. Becky and Jamie were able to build trust with customers by explaining their options.

“These conversations were based in education and it was a great tool we could offer our customers,” Becky says.

Just as the nursery was hitting its stride, Becky and Jamie faced their greatest battle – the Great Recession. But the meticulous planning, the spreadsheets and the strategizing from the start of the business, as well as their perseverance and industry partners, helped keep the nursery going during this tumultuous time.

“The nursery industry in northern and central Illinois was hit really hard and we had to stay very lean,” Becky says. “We were already lean because we were basically a startup.”

Some nurseries stopped planting. But Becky and Jamie stood strong and decided it was better to keep planting and be consistent. Spring Grove’s bank pushed back on that decision.

“The bank reminded us that the operating budget was getting tight and to skip planting trees for a few years. But being consistent and planting a new crop every year was really key for us. It was really hard to do, but that long-term outlook and vision allowed us to say ‘No, we’re going to plant every year,’” Becky says.

When this determined husband-and-wife team started planning the nursery in the late ‘90s, they had three goals in mind: a superior product, hands-on and trustworthy relationships with customers and a fair price.

“That guided us when we were first starting out, and when the recession hit, we stayed true to that mission,” Becky says. “Everyone was beating each other up on price during that time, but we weren’t going to do that.”

It wasn’t price, but the value of the product that was the center of all conversations with potential and current customers, Jamie says.

“We knew those tough times wouldn’t last forever,” Jamie adds. “On the other side of the recession, we learned that our consistency helped keep us going. We never sacrificed the quality in the field. We kept maintaining trees and we didn’t cut back on labor costs.”

The art of marketing 

Becky and Jamie knew selling trees went far beyond simply sharing an availability list. Instead, they share the many benefits of trees as part of their marketing plan.

“We used to go to the ANLA Management Clinic every year, and one of the first ones we attended included a presentation by Nancy Buley of J. Frank Schmidt & Son and Keith Cline of the U.S. Forest Service about the calculable benefits of trees,” Becky says. “We jumped right on it and started telling people about how trees absorb stormwater, help reduce air pollution and reduce cooling and heating costs for buildings. Since then we’ve added more benefits to our marketing campaigns as more research becomes available.”

Focusing on the benefits message makes it easier to sell more trees and takes the emphasis off of prices, Jamie says.

“What’s really fun for us is when our daughter was in kindergarten, we started planting trees with her class every year and would teach the kids about the same benefits. It’s been a fun sideline that we’ve done,” Becky says.

Recently, Spring Grove Nursery has been selling to more municipalities and park districts than in previous years.

“We love working with that segment of the market because we’re working directly with and for communities,” she adds.

Becky’s brother Chris and his wife Marlee help keep them up to date with retail trends. They operate iTrees.com, an online portal for tree sales in the Chicago area.

Pricing strategies

Properly priced products and tracking costs continue to perplex some in the nursery industry, but Becky and Jamie’s strategic way of thinking helps them clear some of the confusion.

“Costs are always a challenge and there’s no set formula,” Jamie says.

The nursery industry lacks clear benchmarks, especially since certain costs are customized to each operation, Becky explains.

“We have a lot of conversations with Charlie Hall and try to read as much as we can from him, but there’s so much variability from operation to operation,” she says. “Besides tracking production costs, we also have to consider what our local market will support.”

The nursery is transitioning to GrowPoint inventory control software, which will allow them to track costs more closely and price trees accordingly.

“If it’s more difficult to grow a buckeye than say an Autumn Blaze maple, we can charge more for that buckeye,” Jamie says. “Or if a tree needs more touches throughout production, we’ll want to price that tree differently from others. Since I’m out in the fields every day, I know how many times a tree gets touched from the time it comes off the liner truck to the day we dig it.”

Jamie will be able to access production and inventory information from the field.

“We also wanted to invest in something that would allow our staff or family members to access that information when our business eventually transfers to the next generation,” Becky says. “A lot of nursery production information is handed down from generation to generation. Since we’re the first generation growing trees on this farm, we needed to get the information out of our heads and into a program.”

After 20 years, the nursery has expanded to 95 acres and a more diverse plant palette, and this sedulous couple is geared up for the next 20.

“Any challenge that comes our way — weather extremes, shortages and gluts, labor shortages or economic issues — we try to find the positive and learn from them,” Becky says. “It’s important to be adaptable.”

For more: www.springgrovenursery.com