Follow the numbers

Follow the numbers

Features - Cover Story

Armed with a business management background, Jonathan Saperstein tracks every piece of data – big and small – at TreeTown USA.

April 10, 2017

Summer Greenslade Photography

Experience may come with age, but characteristics like instinct and perception don’t discriminate based on how many birthdays someone has celebrated.

Jonathan Saperstein became the owner of a 4,000-acre operation at the tender age of 27. It wasn’t a typical family transition – he purchased TreeTown USA, complete with seven locations across Texas and Florida, from his father David Saperstein. TreeTown USA wasn’t a company that grandad had founded 100 years prior. When Jonathan made the purchase in 2015, the nursery was only 14 years old. His father David was not a long-time nurseryman. Instead he had pioneered a new formula in the broadcasting industry. David founded Metro Networks in 1978, a Houston-based company that provided traffic reporting services, as well as local news, sports and weather to television and radio stations globally. Interestingly, David’s dentist told him about a new side venture he had started – a tree nursery. It piqued David’s interest, and in 2001 he founded the nursery.

Although Jonathan assisted his father in the nursery business, his original plan was to be an investment banker. During college Jonathan interned at both a tree farm and at a Wall Street investment firm. Those experiences, coupled with business management lessons from his mentors, were about to pay off. Soon, he’d buy and run the nursery.

TreeTown USA uses a grid system with mule tape to prevent blowover.
Summer Greenslade Photography

Jonathan is fearless, but not in a dangerous sense. He has solid instincts as to how a nursery can operate and he is driven to try new approaches.

Designed more like a large corporation, TreeTown USA retains an executive team which includes Jonathan as CEO, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, a senior vice president, and a national sales manager.

“We’ve added a lot of structure to the typical nursery formula,” Jonathan says. “But it’s more than just the executive team. We added more resources such an HR director and plant controllers at each division.”

Structure doesn’t refer solely to people and their roles. It also means meticulous planning and data tracking.

“We’ve built a significant amount of accountability into our structure,” he explains. “We plan things down to the weekly level. It used to be more of a loose process, but now it’s set in stone with an entire department behind planning.”

Jonathan Saperstein calls his employees the company’s greatest asset.
Summer Greenslade Photography

The team starts by producing a yearly plan, which is more of a guideline since circumstances change almost as soon as the plan is approved. But changes are sorted out through monthly worklist meetings, and adjustments are made to the yearly plan. Taking it a step further, weekly dashboards are tracked through the execution of worklists.

“Planning is necessary to become more predictable, both for our customers and for our own internal forecasting,” he says.

The execution of the nursery’s plans is tracked through an ERP (enterprise resource planning) program from Oracle. And this spring, TreeTown USA is rolling out a sophisticated upgrade and integrating mobile software. The software is accessible in the field via tablets and allows employees to track production, inventory, sales and front-office activities in real time. One of the special perks of the system is its ability to provide variance analysis.

“The system identifies a variance and we can make adjustments as needed,” he explains.

The nursery staff will be able to monitor rate of sale versus demand rate, make adjustments to production and pricing as needed, and track true cost and predictive cycle counting, for example.

Once the new system has been in place for about two years, it will have tracked enough data for each report to be tied to the nursery’s financials, he explains.

“We are a manufacturer, and we take this approach in everything we do. We’re a very process-driven organization,” he says.

People make the difference

Tracking all those pieces of data is a critical component of TreeTown’s success, but Jonathan credits the employees as the true driving force. It’s a lesson he learned from his father.

TreeTown USA employs 500 people and does not have a seasonal workforce. The company does not staff up or down.
Summer Greenslade Photography

“Our employees are our most valuable asset. It’s my goal to reduce employee turnover and make this one of the best places to work,” he says.

TreeTown USA currently employs 500, which is about 100 shy of what the nursery ultimately needs. There are no seasonal workers. The nursery does not staff up or staff down.

“Employees have to know the direction you’re going. I’m open about that. I impart the strategic plan of the business, and I try to put the right people in the right position and give them the right tools to succeed.”

Because of Jonathan’s focus on planning and tracking, goal setting is a dynamic part of the business. He empowers his staff by allowing them to help write their own goals, which are tracked and discussed often.

“We set goals, achieve them, and set new ones. Everyone’s goals are meant to instill teamwork,” he says. “We want people throughout the company in the different divisions to network.”

Divisions set master goals and people within those divisions set individual goals. Sometimes they intertwine. But that’s part of the advanced checks-and-balances approach that Jonathan emphasizes. Groups meet briefly every two weeks to discuss master goals.

TreeTown USA sells trees, palms and shrubs to garden centers, big-box stores and landscape professionals in the south and southeast.
Courtesy of Treetown USA

“We want people to understand that this is a priority,” he explains.

Each year, individuals are graded on their goal accomplishments.

“We’re trying to derive a solid process that keeps us focused,” he says.

A few short months after Jonathan purchased the business, he created an incentive bonus program that’s tied to goal achievement. The goals and the monetary awards are clear from the beginning.

“It’s a little like profit sharing, except it’s set to targets,” he says.

The nursery is trialing a mentoring program where someone is partnered with a seasoned employee, which helps put even more structure behind basic training.

To expedite loading and to decrease labor, conveyors extend into the tractor-trailer. What once was a nine-man job, it now takes four people to load trucks. The equipment is from Phil Brown Welding.
Summer Greenslade Photography

“Our expectations are that the seasoned employee will instill the tribal knowledge for that particular job or department,” Jonathan explains.

The company’s dedication to safety starts at the very top and is emphasized throughout the entire organization. Each location has a safety committee and a safety chair. Each morning, crews perform stretches and meet for a safety briefing.

Some employees are trained to operate the basic nursery gear, while others receive training on the heavy-duty equipment. To differentiate from the two, employees wear colored vests based on their level of training.

“If anyone is on a tractor with a fork lift, the color of their vest will tell us if they’ve been trained to use that piece of equipment. We keep safety in the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s important to all of us,” Jonathan says.