Bill Zalakar has always been a self-starter. At the age of 10, he was ordering seeds and planting vegetables and by the time he was 14, he was hauling hundreds of pounds of tomatoes to the local grocery stores to make a little bit of money. He ended up being so successful that he paid most of his way through college.
He learned early on that for some things, you have to rely on Mother Nature, but his long-term goal was to find something he could have a little more control over.
Bill was lucky enough to live right beside a large greenhouse company called Johnson Florists in Pittsburgh. So, at 16, he applied for a job and applied again, and again, and again. Finally, the company told him that if he would work the night shift helping with the boilers, they would let him do a little greenhouse work.
He jumped at the chance and landed his first job at a greenhouse. “I always knew that’s what I wanted,” Bill says. From there, he went on to study horticultural business at Penn State, where he was active in campus life, including serving as president of the Horticulture Club.
“When I was at Penn State, my grades were not always that great. I’ll be the first to admit it,” he says. “I use it as a scenario to explain to people that everything is not always about grades.”
By the time his senior year came around, Bill didn’t even need to apply for a job. Flower Time, a bigtime Long Island grower-retailer had come knocking. While the company was looking for someone to work at one of their retail stores, Bill had his eyes on a job in the greenhouse.
“They never hired anybody for the growing facility. They were always hiring for retail stores, but I was insistent that my forte was really more greenhouse,” Bill says.
Flower Time agreed to hire him for a greenhouse position, and two days after graduating from Penn State, Bill was working in the facility on Long Island. Two and a half years later, Flower Time sold to the company that owned the popular Midwest chain Frank’s Nursery & Crafts.
At that point, Bill had gone into business with a partner to start a wholesale perennial operation and left Frank’s. “The family scenario really kind of dropped out of [Frank’s] and that’s when perennials were just coming out back in the 80’s,” he says.
He and his partner (his now ex-wife) weighed their options and chose to go into the niche market of selling 1-quart perennials, founding Hoff Gardens. “We were a company with zero money, zero resources; we were way under-capitalized, but we made it,” he says.
About 10 years later, all of the bills were paid, but Bill and his partner were going through a divorce. Being good friends with the Weiss family, he got some good advice from Russell Weiss. “Russell said, ‘Listen, the more you argue, the worse things are going to get," Bill says. “Try to work things out.’”
Russell helped the two mediate and Bill got started down a new path at Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches, New York, where he now leads the team as general manager at the main location.
Growing the team at Kurt Weiss
Century-old Kurt Weiss Greenhouses is very much a family business, and that includes Bill. Even though he doesn’t share the Weiss name, he’s a family member nonetheless, says Kirk Weiss. Kirk, who runs the operation with his semi-retired father, Russell, his brother and his two sons, has known Bill for more than 20 years.
“We’re basically the same age and it’s almost like we’ve grown up in the business together,” Kirk says. “He’s always willing to lend a helping hand no matter what.”
And Bill treats his employees like family as well. He and his wife regularly invite crew leaders to their house for dinner parties and find different ways to keep up the company morale. “That’s what I think I learned most from Russell Weiss, is making it feel like you’re a part of the family,” Bill says. “Some companies, they just lose that touch and the people don’t feel like giving that extra effort.”
Bill’s friendly nature and calm demeanor have helped him enact real change for both Kurt Weiss Greenhouses and the industry. Whether serving on the advisory board for Cornell University or the Long Island Farm Bureau where he’s acting president, Bill finds a way to lead people to make the right decision, says Mark Bridgen, Cornell professor and director of the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center. Mark describes Bill as the “Dr. Fauci of horticulture” because he always provides accurate information and hopes that people follow.
“Whenever he’s trying to convince a person or a group of people to see things his way, he presented the facts and the issues and hoped that the information that he gives is going to be enough to convince them to change their minds or to follow his lead,” he says. “He’s always impressive that way.”
Building from the ground up
As general manager at Kurt Weiss’ main location, Bill has had a hand in almost every aspect of the business. Any initiatives the company starts, Bill is there from the very beginning through to the day-to-day execution.
That’s understandable for a man who has done “basically every job” in the greenhouse, according to Kirk. “Our philosophy, as well as Bill’s, is that we work together. So, we wouldn’t ask somebody to do something we haven’t done ourselves, and we’ve done every one of these jobs,” he says. “If you’ve already done it, you understand the job.”
Kirk says two of Bill’s great strengths as a leader in the greenhouse are that depth of industry knowledge and his communication skills. That combination makes him a natural leader.
“It’s very easy to get people to follow him versus if you brought somebody in that knew nothing about the industry and didn’t know what it takes,” Kirk says. “That means a lot.”
And in his time at Kurt Weiss, Bill has been able to build a management team he trusts, including managers for maintenance, inventory, production, sales and growing. The team meets each week to discuss plans for production, shipping and everything in between.
But Bill doesn’t just keep up with the upper management team. He makes sure to do his rounds in the greenhouse. “I do have a lot of involvement with the employees,” he says. “I’m constantly walking around the greenhouse or in the field talking to everybody.”
Diversifying the labor pool
Kirk says Bill has really helped Kurt Weiss Greenhouses navigate the changing landscape of hiring from simple word-of-mouth to delving into the different ways to diversify the labor pool.
In past years, to combat the ever-present issue of finding labor, Bill initiated several student programs, working with student organizations at The Ohio State University and with agriculture students from different countries around the world. “It has just helped a lot on the labor side of our business and scheduling,” Kirk says.
The company has gone from one full crew that worked whatever hours it took to get the job done to splitting the work up into shifts. Now the greenhouse has a night shift and a loading crew, with enough laborers to staff each.
“It’s been challenging the last few years — very challenging — to find labor. Every industry is facing that,” Kirk says. “We had to get really creative in how we attract labor — finding what time of day people had availability and working on setting up different shifts. It sounds easier than it is, but he’s working on a lot of that.”
Leading from the front
When COVID-19 hit, Kurt Weiss Greenhouses began throwing out Easter crops (Bill estimates the company destroyed about 70%). And while the company was missing out on early spring revenue, they were also trying to navigate social distancing and new sanitation procedures, Bill was leading the charge.
The greenhouse, like many others in the industry, wasn’t sure if they could remain open, Kirk says. But by working alongside his colleagues at the Long Island Farm Bureau, Bill was able to make the case for greenhouses to be deemed ‘essential.’
“Through his connection and the Farm Bureau, he was able to help a lot of companies out there and push forward,” Kirk says.
Bill made several trips to Albany to explain the situation to New York Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball, explaining that “plants are like animals,” Mark says. “They were given exceptions to animal facilities with cows and horses because somebody had to feed the cows and so on. And Bill convinced the commissioner that plants are the same way. If they don’t get watered; if they don’t get cared for, they can’t survive and the industry is going to suffer tremendously. He’s been one of the behind-the-scenes people that actually have been able to get things open for us.”
But that’s not the first time Bill has gone to bat for the industry. He and Mark met when Bill served on the advisory board at Cornell University. There, Mark noted that Bill was never afraid to be a voice for the industry whenever conflicts might arise at the university.
Mark describes Bill as “very outgoing, very friendly and very unassuming,” which have helped him become not only a voice for the industry, but a consensus-builder. “He’s not arrogant; he’s not forceful. He’s just a pleasant man who knows what he’s talking about and can convince people without being obnoxious. He can just convince people of the right thing to do.”
Kirk describes Bill as a team player who knows how to get people to work together. That comes in handy in his work leading teams at Kurt Weiss and as president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, as well.
“He’s very dedicated and he really represents a lot of different factors of agriculture by being from the floriculture side,” Kirk says. “Floriculture is a big part of agriculture on Long Island and so it’s definitely helped our growers and he’s really shining in this role.”
Not surprisingly, Bill’s car is almost always one of the last in the parking lot at Kurt Weiss. And between putting in long hours at the greenhouse and fulfilling his duties with the Long Island Farm Bureau, Bill is almost always working overtime.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing, otherwise it’s work. And I think that’s what drives him. He really does love what he’s doing,” Kirk says.
Bill has no plans to stop anytime soon and retirement is nowhere on the horizon. “The way it’s going right now is just the perfect following of my life how I would like it to be,” Bill says. Through work with the Long Island Farm Bureau, he hopes to advance into other key leadership positions, whether that’s in the U.S. horticulture industry or in government or international works.
“I want to put my efforts to help better our industry and see it grow so that it just doesn’t disappear,” he says. “To be able to utilize my resources and my involvement with all the people that I’ve met in the industry and in the political sector, I want to try to pull them together to educate a lot of the politicians, as well as a lot of the public out there about our industry and help our industry grow. So if I can take that path and keep going down that road, that would be happiness.”
As the eldest of three siblings, Donald Blew has always had an innate knack for leadership and responsibility. That hasn’t changed much, given his presidential status at Centerton Nursery in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Like many operations, management has been in the family for multiple generations and in Donald’s case, he leads the third.
Nearly 50 years ago, Centerton only consisted of 9 acres of land that were purchased by Donald’s grandparents, Ray and Marlene. That property was home to fewer than a dozen small greenhouses that held a few azaleas and rhododendrons, along with a 10- by 10-foot hut, otherwise known as the office. In 1977, Donald’s father Denny joined the company after graduating college. Now in its fifth decade of business, the nursery is operated by Donald and his two younger siblings, Robert (Bob) and Amy.
Currently, Centerton sits on 3 million square feet under plastic and has around 190 greenhouses that were drawn and built by Donald himself. The nursery now grows broadleaf evergreens, flowering shrubs, perennials and a full line of edibles (vegetables and herbs) — more than the few azaleas and rhododendrons it once had — and sells 10 specially crafted brands, along with many others.
The Blew brothers also co-own BlewLine Nursery, a bareroot daylily and shrub hub that was founded by their grandfather in the early 1990s to mitigate the unreliability of finding bareroot perennials. In 2006, they purchased the property with Bob serving as president and Donald as vice president and expanded the offerings to more than 100 varieties of bareroot shrubs. In 2016, they became a seller of the Star Roses & Plant brand.
While working at two nurseries may sound like a heavy workload, it’s virtually all Donald knows.
“I grew up on one end of the nursery, so I had a really big playground,” Donald says. “I even keep a picture here on my desk of me at 3 years old, loading a truck with my dad. That was always what I wanted to do — come back and run the nursery.”
After high school, both Bob and Amy went to college to pursue other careers. Amy majored in communications at Loyola Marymount University and Bob majored in agriculture business at Penn State University. And while Donald studied agriculture business as well, he attended Delaware Valley University with specific plans of applying his knowledge to the nursery. This wasn’t by choice but was a requirement by Donald’s grandfather who determined it a prerequisite to running the business. His grandfather had to practically “force him” to go, but it was Daniel Seik, an independent salesman for Centerton and decades-long friend of the Blew family, who suggested the major.
“I recommended it to him because with working alongside his grandfather and dad, he was already familiar with plant identification. He probably even knew more about the plants than his professors,” Daniel says. “But school gave him the background of business.”
Daniel says he’s known Donald since he was about 12, and although his siblings grew up on the nursery as well, Donald had an intuitive attraction for the business. Some natural qualities he has, according to Daniel, are “common sense” and the ability to “solve problems and figure things out,” much like his grandfather. He also says Donald was “curious” and “always designing things."
“Even though he doesn’t have an engineering degree, he’s definitely an engineer,” says Amy Ordog, who is five years younger than Donald.
When he began their Stone Cottage Farm — a line dedicated to lavender — Donald built the facility and designed rolling benches just from looking at other places. He also designed their potting machines, water boom, water tunnel, trimming machines and greenhouses, and has replicated concepts he’s seen from his trips to Europe. Amy says every time they attend a trade show, they ask Donald to replicate something and he'll respond with, "Yep, I'll get it done!"
From employees to family
Amy also describes Donald as “humble” and “hands-on,” and uses his interaction with their employees as an example.
“He knows every single person who works here — all 120 of them — and that makes me proud because there are other companies who don’t know who’s working for them,” she says. “He knows everybody’s first and last name and is the one who actually hands out checks.”
He also implemented a generous employee production bonus where employees receive a bonus for their daily accomplishments, on top of their hourly wages. But the biggest bonus he gives is in the employees evaluation three times a year.
“It’s just another way to say, ‘Hey, we’re all working together,’” Donald says. “It’s about the company and if the company does good, we all do good.”
Centerton also has a low employee turnover rate and treats everyone like family. Not only is the nursery run by a generation of siblings, it’s also operated by about 30 employees who were originally hired by Ray decades ago. Donald even said the original secretary his grandfather hired worked for 38 years before retiring just a few years ago.
Although Donald received higher education in the business, he says his father and grandfather were “really good teachers,” being there every step of the way, while also allowing him to make lesson-learning mistakes he’d never forget.
Those teachings were also paired with trust, as they handed him the reigns to continue the family legacy. Even then, however, at 90 years old, Ray still comes in several times during the week to see how things are going. “The company is like another one of his babies,” Donald says. “So it’s been very rewarding for him to see what we’re doing.”
Jerry Schmitt began his relationship with Centerton while working as an assistant buyer for Stein’s Garden & Home when the stores worked with Donald’s dad, Denny. Now as a senior buyer of live goods, Jerry says Centerton is “one of the best third-generation organizations” he’s ever worked with. He credits that to their innovation, growing techniques, adaptability and ability to navigate through challenges whenever necessary. He also says their partnership has allowed both companies to grow.
“Whether we’re just sitting down in a room and throwing ideas at the wall, we’re always working diligently on how we can add value to the product that is being put on the bench for the consumer,” Jerry says.
While he’s never traveled with Donald, Jerry has attended garden centers and trade shows throughout the country and overseas with other family members. And since Jerry is not a grower himself, he and the Blew family brainstorm ways to move forward with the ideas they’ve conjured on both spectrums. While Jerry says Donald is “a big part of that,” he credits Bob and Amy too. Their roles — Bob as vice president and head of marketing and product development and Amy as vice president of sales — cohesively work together.
But even though Jerry attributes the success of Centerton to all three siblings, he says a lot of the innovation and operational techniques “stem from Donald” which were “handed down from his grandfather.”
“My grandfather was my mentor and he had a real knack for building equipment and working with his hands,” Donald says. “I inherited a lot of those genes. For our industry, a lot of things are specialized. There’s not a ton of things out there that will do what you want them to do. My grandfather started building some equipment and greenhouses, and when we came back from college, we took everything I learned from him — his inventions and fabrications — put a spin on it and began building more updated and modern buildings and machines, anything to become more efficient and easier on our help.”
The Blew brotherhood
Bob, who is two years younger than Donald, says he was always very protective, which Amy agrees with too. But as the older brother to a younger brother, Donald was the trickster.
“He was always the prankster older brother,” Bob says. “And he got his driver’s license before me, so we got to ride to school together. I was like the cool kid because I had an older brother that had a pickup truck.”
While they both started working on the nursery at a very young age, Bob says looking back, he realized their grandfather gave them “busy work” and “odd jobs,” most likely as a combination to grant them exposure to the land and keep them busy. This resulted in the brothers becoming “fairly well-attached,” with a lot of shared memories.
One of the first memories Bob has is from the summer of 1988, when he was about 7 and Donald was about 9. Since there is a local mollusk industry near the farm, Centerton uses the surplus of clamshells to fill potholes around the property. That summer, the boys filled each pothole by combining an old 1960’s Cub Cadet lawnmower that was missing the actual lawnmower attachment, and a 12 cubic-foot dump wagon. For weeks, Donald chauffeured Bob around as they filled each pothole and earned a dollar per load.
Another memory Bob has is from about 17 or 18 years ago. Since Centerton wasn’t as big then, oddball jobs like running irrigation for frost protection, were completed by the brothers. One morning — around 3:30 a.m. — the brothers turned the sprinklers on and noticed they had an hour to kill. Donald suggested they’d get breakfast, which they did, but not without a cost.
“We eventually lost track of time and when we got back to the nursery, all the irrigation that was running got ice everywhere, but we laughed so hard because we were so exhausted from being up all night,” he says. “It’s just a great memory to share with my brother because it’s so purely innocent, and shows that when working as hard as you can and being absolutely exhausted, you can’t help but to laugh at some things.”
Bob says their grandfather and father gave them room to choose the family business, but also made sure they took it seriously, and they did, which is why Bob joined the team after graduating college.
“Working here was never a forced thing,” he says. “We weren’t told to work here. But we were told if we wanted it, we could have it, but we had to work for it, which we did and still do.”
From farm to family
The constant words that Donald’s family and friends use to describe him are “problem solver,” “builder,” “innovative,” “proactive,” “no-nonsense,” “accomplishing” and “hardworking.” In fact, Daniel describes Donald as one of the first ones to arrive at work in the morning and one of the last to leave.
But although Donald is hardworking, his family says he is still very much a family man and never neglects his wife of 12 years, Karol, 11-year-old daughter, Audrey and 5-year-old son, Donald Jr., especially during the weekends when he’s partaking in his favorite pastime — boating.
A future of promise
Both Bob and Amy say they are proud to be Donald’s siblings and work alongside him while continuing the legacy their grandfather began. Daniel says Donald is the “ideal” person to lead the family operation, and work in the horticulture business.
“I think he’s the kind of people we need in the industry,” Daniel says. “He’s the kind of person who will try stuff and share his knowledge with others. He actually encourages people to share their knowledge for the greater good of the industry. He’s honest, hardworking, has a good heart, is a very good teacher and I think with the combination of everything, he’ll be a very good leader in the industry for a number of years.”
As for Donald and his plans for the future, he wants the nursery to continue evolving as it has every year.
“I think we’re set up right. Each year we say, ‘This is our best year ever,’ until we do better the next year. We’re on the younger side; we’re hungry. We’re ready to make moves and put the time in,” Donald says. “We’ve got a really good team of people here on board with us and they look forward to our next chapter too, and that’s really what it’s about for us.”
Pleasant Cove Nursery started in 1957 when John R. Collier, Frank’s father, started growing plants in the basement of his Tennessee home. The nursery moved out of the house and into the backyard, and eventually grew into the 500-acre, 20-farm facility it is today. Once staffed solely with Collier family members, Pleasant Cove now employs more than 60 workers during peak seasons.
John and his wife Elma ran the nursery in the early days with their four sons, John Jr., Robert, Frank and David. Frank remembers it was tough in those early days, working as a kid in the fields.
Frank joined up for good after he finished college in the mid-70s. The nursery has changed a lot since then, but so has the industry. And the Colliers have always been able to adapt, whether it meant applying new research and technology or engineering a new solution.
“We’ve still got the first 'vineyard' tractor probably in the state of Tennessee,” Frank laughs, “A Bungartz. It was a vineyard narrow tractor, with a Volkswagen engine. You see all kinds of them now, but a bit innovative for nursery use when we got it. I had a guy auditing us once and he wanted to know why this or that and I said, ‘Look, they don’t make things for nurserymen.’”
That’s changed a bit, with Bouldin & Lawson just down the road making equipment to help the nursery industry automate. The Collier family still runs Pleasant Cove. Although John Jr. died in 2019, Robert, Frank and David carry on the Collier legacy of excellent nursery stock. The family always made it a point to have ties with regional, state and national trade associations like The Middle Tennessee Nursery Association, Tennessee Nursery and Landscape Association, Southern Nursery Association and AmericanHort. Frank has served in various capacities and has become known as a champion of research, including a stint as president of the Horticultural Research Institute. In 2011, Frank was inducted into the TNLA Hall of Fame.
“Frank has worked tirelessly on funding for HRI with much success,” says Michael Lorance, owner of Cherry Springs Nursery, another Tennessee-based wholesale nursery. “Additionally, he was instrumental in securing funding for the Nursery Research Station in McMinnville, Tennessee and the staffing required to make it the reality it is today.”
From a national perspective, the nursery industry is perpetually overlooked. It’s typically tucked under the agriculture umbrella as “specialty crops,” where it has to fight for every scrap of funding that makes it down through the Farm Bill.
“One of our old researchers, retired now, says ‘If you’re not sows, plows and cows, you don’t count in the state of Tennessee’ — and most likely any other state,” Frank says.
Frank is well-equipped for that fight for funding. He’s been doing it a while. Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president for government relations at AmericanHort, has known Frank for 30 years and sees him as a kindred spirit — someone able to speak the language of politics, understand the systems in place, and willing to use them to carve out a piece for the nursery industry.
“Frank is one of the most politically astute individuals in the industry,” Craig says. “In an old-school way, but I mean that positively. He’s all about relationships and quiet but effective influence.”
Craig sees the research center as a large part of Frank’s legacy as a nurseryman who understands the value of research and development and wants the industry to keep striving to improve itself.
“He was instrumental in the successful effort to establish the Nursery Crops Research Station at McMinnville, and for that matter, the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative, a legacy that has grown in impact and continues on.”
A resource for Tennessee
McMinnville is known as the heart of Tennessee’s nursery country. That makes it an ideal spot for a nursery research station. Built on the 87-acre site of a former commercial nursery, The Otis L. Floyd Nursery Research Center is a facility dedicated to the improvement of the Tennessee nursery crop industry. It is located approximately 80 miles southeast of Nashville on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
Through partnerships with the Tennessee nursery industry, Tennessee State University, the USDA, and state and local governments, the necessary political, social and economic support was assembled to construct the research station. In addition to considerable support from the Tennessee nursery industry, the Center has received donations from nursery growers across the U.S.
“We hooked up politically with Dr. Otis Floyd who was chancellor and president at TSU and made it happen,” Frank says. “It’s a good deal for the industry. Plus, it connects all over the country. Oregon, California, Ohio, to Beltsville, Maryland. I’m very proud of that. Hopefully we get these young people to keep it going, keep it funded.”
Construction of the laboratory/administration building began in 1994. The 20,000 square foot building has 10 laboratories, offices for 12 scientists, a 200-seat auditorium, and 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Other facilities include a state-of-the-art pesticide mixing and storage facility, a fire ant quarantine facility, soil mixing/composting facility, shade houses, propagation houses, irrigated container yards, a pot-in-pot yard, and an equipment/maintenance shed. The entire site is plumbed for irrigation using either well water or municipal water.
Frank says a nursery advisory group meets with the station’s director to provide input on potential research projects for its scientists.
“Our station is unique in a lot of ways,” Frank says. “It’s got a great staff and a great director. We’ve got Tennessee Department of Ag plant industry inspectors there on the site. We’ve got extension there on the site, which is really good for the scientists to be able to talk to the inspectors and vice versa. It’s a one-stop shop.”
As the Nursery Research Center expands, specialists in other disciplines will be added. The areas that are currently prioritized are agricultural mechanization, pesticide/environmental sciences, applied plant physiology, and additional pathology and entomology programs.
Facilities planned for the future include student housing, storage areas for scientist’s field supplies, increased shade house and greenhouse capacity, and over-wintering structures for containerized field research material.
The Nursery Research Center is only about 20 minutes from Pleasant Cove Nursery. And Frank has made sure his nursery has implemented some of the station’s R&D findings. From the use of cover crops between rows in the field to protection from soilborne diseases and insect pests, to crop improvements in boxwood and viburnum and a hydrangea breeding program, the scientists have completed very useful projects.
Another collaborative effort
Frank was also one of the key industry forces behind the creation and early growth of the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI).
In 1996, the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA), the Society of American Florists (SAF) and the Ohio Florists Association (OFA) launched the proposal when they asked U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS) for research help. The resulting partnership has lasted more than 20 years. In March 2018, FNRI received $1 million in funding as part of the spending bill passed by Congress.
Peter K. Bretting, USDA-ARS National program leader for plant genetic resources, is one of nine national program leaders that constitute crop production and protection. He was the lead USDA-ARS researcher for the FNRI from its inception in 1998 until the mid-2000s.
“It was meant from the inception to be sharply focused on the needs of industry,” Peter says. “ARS would handle research, whether it was feasible, how to go about it in terms of scientific approach, and the industry provided input about relevance.”
As the FNRI was being established and thereafter, Peter and the other researchers received guidance from Frank and other industry leaders about the types of projects upon which they should focus their efforts. Those communications were important because they helped ARS know what the most important priorities were for the green industry. It was a collective effort and it grew into a well-functioning partnership.
Frank’s sterling reputation as a nurseryman and collaborator made him the perfect person to coordinate between all the stakeholders in the initiative and ensure everyone was rowing in the same direction.
“He rapidly established himself as a trusted and discreet partner,” Peter says. “Some of the early discussions were quite complicated and had to be dealt with carefully and adeptly. Frank had such a reputation among industry and universities, UT and Tennessee State and with us, that he played a key role in fostering communication so that all the many players in the initiative were aligned along the same effort.”
Some of Frank’s reputation was due to being part of a community of straight shooters: nurserymen who forged substantial deals with a handshake because generations of trust. But he also earned that reputation through his actions and his ability to communicate.
“It’s watching him in action,” Peter says. “If he said he would do something, he would do it in a very capable way. If there wasn’t a clear path to a particular goal, he’d let you know that right away. And collectively we would work on a different approach.”
If the research team ever had a question or hit a snag that involved the green industry crops, their first step was to pick up the phone and talk with Frank to seek his advice on how to proceed. On the other hand, if something potentially controversial or contentious was emerging, they would hear about it early from him.
“He was very good at establishing people as colleagues rather than adversaries,” Peter says. “That was really critical, especially at the beginning of this when there was some misunderstanding or lack of information on what the initiative meant and what its focus was. He was very effective in communicating that to a broad spectrum of industry colleagues and university colleagues too. Of course, he surely promoted the effort in Tennessee, but he was also always looking at the broader picture. He would work on behalf of the more local interests, but the regional and national interests, too. He was really quite selfless in that regard. That contributed to widespread trust of him, his advice and his ideas about how to proceed.”
For many years, Dr. Judy St. John was a high-level official at the USDA-ARS, and the industry’s primary champion for FNRI.
“Frank established a superb relationship with Judy,” Craig Regelbrugge says. “In fact, I can’t swear to this, but he may have been the one to give her the nickname ‘Mother Nature,’ which stuck with her for the rest of her career and to this day.”
For his part, Frank is thankful to Dr. St. John and the other ARS scientists for all the work they did for the industry.
“She was a keeper,” Frank says. “She’s always helped the small crop growers like us. Judy St. John and ARS have been really good to us on specialty crops funding and research.”
Looking to the future
Frank hopes the next generation of nurserymen will continue the commitment to research that has served the industry well. He also has advice for the next generation.
“Ask a lot of questions,” he says. “Don’t be bashful.”
He also suggests visiting other nurseries in other parts of the country to see how they operate. You can pick up a lot of information that way, and many of the little things are done differently from place to place.
“A friend of mine’s son, he’s a good kid. I told him, ‘Buddy, you need to go to another nursery for a couple years, at least two or three,’” Frank says. “And he went for a year, came back afterwards and said ‘Thank you.’”
The nursery industry’s efforts to honor its past and commit to its own future is easily seen at HRI’s annual meeting each year. Nursery owners in attendance make pledges of substantial funds for research, often in memory of parents or in honor of their children.
“Instead of saying ‘I’m going to buy myself a new boat or motorcycle,’ they’ll say ‘I pledge $50,000 in the name of father, mother or child on behalf of research,’” Peter says. “As a researcher I can’t think of a more committed group of industry folks.”
The Collier family has its own named endowment fund, the Elma E. and John R. Collier Memorial Trust Fund. And Frank has plenty of hope for the future.
“I think this shows, this virus deal, that we’re essential,” he says. “If you’re stuck at home, you can plant some plants, trees, vegetable crops. The whole nation will figure that out sooner or later.”
Still, even in an age of virtual trade shows and video conferences, the skills that make Frank such a successful leader are good as gold.
“The influence Frank had been able to wield, that was interpersonal,” Peter says. “How can you do it in days like these when you can’t look a person clearly in their eye, share a meal or have a drink or two and forge those relationships of strong trust? We haven’t come up with a technological fix for that.”
Growing up with his two brothers in Mount Vernon, Ohio, near Columbus, gardening was a chance for George Pealer to spend time with his dad.
“It wasn’t a huge garden, but that wasn’t the point,” George says. “He spent a few hours a week out there and he let me tag along.” When he got to high school, the Pealers moved to Bexley, Ohio — a larger Columbus suburb — where George worked at Connell’s Flowers. At the time, it was one of the largest florists in Ohio.
“It was a bit of shock, but it was probably the best thing for me, moving away from a small town,” he says. “Connell’s had a greenhouse and a plant retail business, so I was able to work in the greenhouses and help out in the flower shop and receive flower shipments. It really got me interested in growing flowers.”
After high school, George attended The Ohio State University and planned to study botany. He thought he might end up as a teacher before a class put him on the path of being a grower. Today, George runs Millcreek Gardens, an annual, perennial and herb growers in Ostrander, Ohio — within driving distance of where George grew up and attended school. George founded the business in 1978 with his late wife Lynda.
“I went to a horticulture class for freshman and that really made an impression,” he says. “That was all it took. I realized from then I wanted to be in horticulture. I didn’t know exactly what part, but I loved the flower part of it and Ohio State had wonderful floriculture faculty. It was really easy to get immersed in it.”
In his career, George has served on the board of directors of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association and as the president of the Perennial Plant Association while Millcreek became one of the first nurseries in the Ohio Valley region to sell herbs on a wholesale basis. Today, he is still at the business every day, trying to help it grow and help every employee succeed.
“He’s at the forefront,” says Fred Higginbotham, Millcreek’s growing operations manager. “He will just come up and say, ‘Tell me where I can pitch in; tell me where I can help out.’ No job is too big or too small for George. People see that commitment he has.”
Different kinds of education
During his time studying horticulture at Ohio State, George met three professors who had a major influence on him.
“There was Dr. Fred Hartman and he was the professor of pomology — the study of fruit production,” George says. “He actually taught that Horticulture 101 class and he ended up being my advisor the whole time I was at Ohio State. Another teacher was Dr. George Staby. He taught the perennials identification class and he also taught perishables research. His class was one of the things that solidified my career choice.” Jokingly, George says he liked Staby despite him being a graduate of longtime OSU rival Michigan State.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was well-known floriculture and greenhouse professor Dr. D.C. Kiplinger, whom everyone called Kip.
“He was also very instrumental in founding the Ohio Florists Association, which is now AmericanHort,” George says. “When I could have graduated with a degree in pomology, I decided to stay on a couple of extra quarters to take the greenhouse management class with Dr. Kiplinger, which turned out to be a life-changing thing because I knew I could be a grower and it’s where I met my wife, in one of his classes.”
Throughout his college career, George continued to work at Connell’s to pay his way through school. It is a decision he says only bolstered his education.
“I would take horticulture classes all day and then almost have a lab afterwards,” he says, “because I was using my hands and doing the stuff I was learning about.”
At Connell’s, George started out by cutting flowers. At the time, the business would receive large shipments of roses, carnations and other flowers from growers in California and Oregon. The in-house flower designers had different ways of using each kind of flower, so they each had to be cut in a certain way before being placed in buckets and coolers. Around the holidays, George also started helping out with deliveries and packaging shipments.
“The diversity of the plants we worked with was amazing,” he says. “Being the biggest florist in Ohio, we’d get in flowers that other people didn’t have, and we’d get them directly from another grower. We’d get them shipped in these massive boxes and you’d never know what exactly would be in there.”
The defining relationship
In George’s last quarter at Ohio State, he met his future wife, Lynda, in a greenhouse management course taught by Kiplinger. They started dating soon after.
“She was a very strong woman,” George says. “She went to Purdue University and had a degree in microbiology, and when she graduated, she worked at a medical center in Indianapolis doing cancer research. She realized after a year or two of doing that she didn’t want to spend her life in a lab. She had been married, had children and got divorced.” George says Lynda came to Columbus with an interest in horticulture and knew Ohio State was a good opportunity for her to begin doing the kind of work she wanted. Ultimately, she got a horticulture degree from Ohio State.
Soon after he met her, though, George moved three hours away to Salem, Ohio, to work at a friend’s orchard. He had spent some college breaks working at orchards and thought that was the kind of work he wanted to spend this life doing.
“But I realized I really wanted to grow flowers and not apples and peaches,” he says. “When I left college, I really first thought I’d grow fruit and own a farm market. Plus, I missed my future wife and when I moved back to Columbus, we were able to spend time together, which was a good thing.”
The two married in 1977 and founded Millcreek Gardens a year later in February 1978. Before starting the business, the two traveled together, visiting operations such as White Flower Farm, a nursery in Connecticut, and Gilbertie’s Organics, an herb farm in Connecticut, and thought the operations set a blueprint for them to found a business together.
At the beginning, George returned to work at Connell’s for three more years as the business got going. At Millcreek, they combined two passions — George’s for perennials and Lynda’s for herbs — into one combined vision. They settled down in Ostrander, located just outside of Columbus, and for a long time, Lynda grew the herbs day in and day out. When she took a step back from growing, she still helped behind the scenes.
“The thing that always impressed me about Lynda was that she loved herbs, and loved to cook with them, but couldn’t find them anywhere,” George says. “But we saw them [on our trip] and she thought it would be great to do them here. She was really a pioneer in our area for growing herbs in pots like you see now. It’s such an integral part of our company now. People know us for our perennials and our herbs.”
Lynda died on Christmas Eve in 2018, leaving behind George, six children and 12 grandchildren. She made an impact on everyone she met.
“She had extremely high standards,” says Nathan Pealer, George and Lynda’s son, who works in real estate. “She pushed everybody to be better. And since she had such high standards, everybody tried their best around her, be it her family or someone at work. She held herself to those same high standards, too.”
“She was only here for a couple of years when I started here,” says Higginbotham, “but I’d never seen a man have as much love for his wife as George had for her,” Higginbotham says.
Helping others grow
Higginbotham first visited the company in the early 2000s during an open house and says he was “blown away” by the facility even back then. After interning at Millcreek one summer and graduating from Ohio State the next spring, he joined the company “basically after graduating” in 2005. He started out as an assistant grower, became a head grower, and then was finally promoted to his current role as growing operations manager about five years ago.
From the time he first visited Millcreek, Higginbotham saw that George went out of his way to help him however he could.
“Throughout the years, the thing I can stay about George is that he’s the nicest guy ever,” Higginbotham says. “He treats everybody from seasonal employees to somebody who’s been here for 25 years exactly the same, always with a smile on his face. It’s one thing that sets George apart.” Higginbotham says that it is not uncommon for George to hop in and help with shipping, putting stickers on pots or bringing out cold Gatorades for the workers in the greenhouse.
Higginbotham adds that the culture George has created is the major reason he has stayed at the business and cannot imagine himself leaving any time soon.
“It’s about the people,” he says. “We have people that have been here 20, 25-years plus. Like any good organization, the good starts at the top and works its way down. And while George is very involved, he lets a lot of us on the management team have the freedom to do what we do and do our jobs. I’ve always appreciated that there’s a lot of trust involved here.”
One other way George has empowered employees over the years is by consulting with HR firms to help develop best practices and help employees develop skills. A coach George brought in helped Higginbotham develop confidence in himself and challenged him to set goals for what he wanted to accomplish in his career. At the time, Higginbotham says he was one of the newest employees at Millcreek and was having trouble finding his niche.
“At times, it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But it’s truly one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
Another employee George helped empower is Megan Armstrong, the company’s assistant general manager and business office manager. Armstrong came to Millcreek in 1998 after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in environmental and plant biology. Her father knew George from business they had done together and encouraged Megan to visit him at the university job fair. She started working at Millcreek full-time the following summer.
“I’ve been here ever since,” she says. “This is an overall great atmosphere. It came from him and Lynda.”
For the first part of her career, Armstrong was a grower working with gallon-size perennials and, in 2004, was named the Perennial Plant Association’s Young Professional of the Year. In 2012, she was promoted to assistant general manager, taking on responsibilities outside of growing like budgeting, staffing and overall company management.
According to Armstrong, it was a change she wanted, and one that George encouraged her to seek out. And like Higginbotham’s improvement, it came after an HR firm George hired helped do some necessary restructuring.
“The company was at a point where we needed to have more structure than we had, so [George] hired an HR firm to assess our company and help formalize people’s responsibilities,” she says. “Out of that, we got the growing side and the office side. I applied for that office position, as I’d already naturally been taking on a lot of office responsibilities like availability lists and customer communication and our website. I was naturally inclined to do those kinds of things and was bolstered by the plant knowledge.”
“One of the biggest things is the trust George places in people,” she continues. “He may challenge you for an idea, like developing a new product line for the slow season, but he’s not going to pigeonhole you. He wants your input, wants your ideas and is willing to go for it.” Both Armstrong and Higginbotham both say that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, George has been essential in keeping the company connected while also prioritizing employee safety while working and trying to keep business as normal as possible.
George’s knack for empowerment extends to Nathan and his other children, too.
“For my entire life, I’ve talked to him almost every day and he’s been a constant source of positivity and support and a steady force as far as someone I can always talk to,” Nathan says. “Each and every day, even now when I’m almost 40 years old, I love talking to him about anything I have going in. It could be business, home renovations, gardening or Buckeye football. He’s a big part of my life.”
For George, at the end of the day, empowering employees is part of the ethos he and Lynda set out to create when they founded Millcreek back in 1978. To him, along with quality and profitability, values like integrity, leadership and teamwork are part of Millcreek’s DNA. Ultimately, a significant part of his legacy is helping people find their passion just like his dad, his Ohio State professors and first employer did for him when he was just starting out.
“Our mission statement is ‘growing high quality plants, people and relationships,’” George says. “For us, that says it all.”