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.”
Whether it’s on a dusty softball field, in a corporate boardroom or on a gravel-lined nursery plot, Lyndsi Oestmann remains consistently devoted to the task at hand. Her purposeful and sincere work ethic was forged when she was a child, watching her dad play professional baseball. It was reinforced as she played competitive softball, persisted into her college studies and eventually became etched in her career. Lyndsi owns and operates Loma Vista Nursery in Ottawa, Kansas, a business that was founded by her father, Mark Clear in 1991.
Lyndsi spent nearly the first decade of her life traveling to ballparks to watch her father play. From some of her first memories, he instilled in her not just the importance of hard work, but the necessity of it in every aspect of life.
“Dad always taught me that if I wanted something, I had to work hard for it,” says Lyndsi. “It’s something he’s always done, too.”
When Lyndsi started playing softball at age 12, Mark told her a lesson he learned from a former coach, “You can expect to play like you practice.” It’s a lesson she’s never forgotten and a standard that continues to drive her.
“We’re a very competitive family, and when dad was my coach, we always practiced like it was the ninth inning of the World Series,” she says. “It’s the same in business. You need to always do your best, not just when we’re pulling orders for the customer that will scrutinize the plants the most. We want to do that every time, every day.”
Sports has certainly influenced Lyndsi’s outlook and how she manages employees and the business. When she started softball, she was playing 150 games a year. Mark noticed her natural leadership qualities with the team.
“I was her coach and probably harder on her than most of the other kids,” he says. “Instead of moping or pouting about it, she looked on the positive side and worked until she got to be one of the better players in the area. She always dug in, no matter what it was, and she was always the team leader. It’s no different now as she’s running the nursery.”
Blazing a trail
Mark and the family moved from California to Olathe, Kansas, and started the nursery when Lyndsi was 10. Lyndsi and her brother performed several duties at the nursery and even planted the first crop of trees. As she grew up in the family business, Mark had dreams of Lyndsi and her brother attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, getting a horticulture degree, and coming back to work in the family business.
Lyndsi enjoyed working at the nursery, but she had different career aspirations. She attended Kansas State and received a marketing and international business degree with a minor in Spanish and planned to travel the world. After graduation, she landed a job at PepsiCo Inc. and got a taste of corporate America. She dove in, learning all she could about managing people and process improvement. While at PepsiCo, she learned about accountability and had the good fortune of being cross-trained within several departments.
She wasn’t traveling the world as originally planned, but unbeknownst to her, Lyndsi was soaking up valuable lessons that she’d eventually take back to the family business.
Mark bought property in Ottawa to expand Loma Vista and he needed someone to run the Olathe operation, which had been converted into a landscape distribution center. He asked Lyndsi to return home and manage the distribution division.
“I really liked being part of corporate America, but when dad offered me this opportunity, I thought, ‘I can do this because I’ve had this great training and I’ve been managing people at Pepsi and learning how to manage processes,’” she says.
Taking a job away from the family business also taught her how to work for a boss who’s not part of the family — something she recommends for anyone working for relatives.
“That was a really important lesson. It’s a skill you need to have to be able to separate the business relationship and the personal relationship,” she says. “On Saturday afternoon we may be celebrating a birthday and he’s my dad, but on Monday morning, he’s my boss. That really helped me be a better employee and manager.”
Lyndsi brought a fresh perspective when she returned to the nursery.
“Dad and I make an awesome team because his passion for the business has always been on the production side, and I came in and immediately focused on sales, customer service and marketing,” she says.
Since returning to Loma Vista, she hasn’t had a single regret — even through the Great Recession and the current COVID-19 situation.
“Coming back to the family business was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” she says.
Executing a game plan
As she gained a foothold in the distribution operation at age 23, she looked to some of her landscape contractor customers as mentors.
“I tried to learn some of their best practices and see how we could apply those to our own operation. I looked at companies with really strong cultures and ones that had good employee retention,” she says.
She asked her customers what they needed from the Loma Vista team, had face-to-face meetings with customers, conducted focus groups and sent out surveys.
“She’s a hands-on visual learner,” Mark says. “I was always more into the growing side of the business and she was managing our two distribution sites. She came in and found areas that needed improvement and executed those changes. She did it by building a good team. She’s got the team concept down pat.”
Four years ago, Loma Vista sold the distribution division to SiteOne, one of the largest landscape distribution companies in the nation. The deal essentially reduced the size of the company by half, which gave Lyndsi the opportunity to work on the production side of the business.
“It was a great move for our company,” she says.
Now the company was solely focused on growing and there were some staff changes, which presented another chance for Lyndsi to learn new skills.
Her first lesson was in approaching change. The company’s controller was leaving, and Lyndsi took over the finance and accounting duties of that position.
“I was ready to change everything. We were doing a good job, but I felt like we could be so much more efficient,” she says. “As I started talking to one of our key team members about all of these changes, they had one of those deer-in-the-headlights looks.
“I tended to approach change like just grab the bull by the horns and just do it. But I’ve learned that I need to slow down a bit and respect how others react to change. It’s important to have lots of communication during changes, really overcommunication in this case, to have complete transparency and buy-in. Because nothing works without buy-in.”
Providing for people
Mark taught Lyndsi a lesson that she never forgot and one that resonates with every decision she makes about the company.
“Dad has always said that people are the most important asset of a company,” she says.
Investing in the Loma Vista employees has been her top priority. Applying some of her experiences from PepsiCo, nursery team members are cross trained to understand how each department affects the others. There’s accountability throughout the system.
“It used to be that one person knew how to do everything, and if that person wasn’t at work, there’d be a lot of people standing around not knowing what to do. So, we developed a playbook for our company with strong documentation of our processes and a formalized planning system,” she says.
Another vital part of training at Loma Vista is taking part in nursery conferences and visiting other nurseries.
“I want everyone on our production team to have lots of contacts in the industry,” she says. “If they’re facing a challenge, they can pick up the phone and call on a fellow grower. Or they can go on a nursery tour and bring back an idea for us to execute. A good example is our propagator, who’s been here for five years. She went to Bluebird Nursery to look at their perennial production. Making those contacts and going to those events has totally changed the dynamic of our team.”
The nursery’s interns also get the same opportunities to learn from industry events.
“We take our interns to Cultivate each year and they’re tasked with finding one thing or one idea that can be used or implemented at Loma Vista. It’s great having a different set of eyes there. They have an interesting perspective,” she says.
Lyndsi brings in three or four interns each year from all over the country. They spend time with the management team and one-on-one with Lyndsi. They go through every department and see how the operation works. They attend planning and management meetings.
“I take them out into our local Kansas City metro market to visit related businesses and set up tours with our customers, other nurseries and independent garden centers because it’s important for them to see other parts of the industry,” Lyndsi says. “I encourage them to actively seek out mentors, to be curious, ask questions and to share their ideas. No matter your experience level, once you understand the ‘why’ behind things, you can be the person who effects change.”
Once the interns have completed that process, they’re able to choose one area of the nursery to concentrate on for the remainder of their internship.
“I’m inspired by her support of students and emerging leaders,” says Sarah Woody Bibens, executive director of the Western Nursery and Landscape Association (WNLA). Lyndsi serves on the WNLA Board of Directors.
Loma Vista provides a sponsorship that brings students to The Western [trade show] each year. And she takes that extra step to ensure interns and their families are comfortable before making the trip to Loma Vista.
“She genuinely cares for these students. Part of her process involves asking students who the support people are in their life. Lyndsi called one intern’s mom to reassure her about the responsibility they take with the students,” Sarah says.
Lyndsi values every person that’s related to the nursery, from each employee and their families to the customers and the community.
“My mission in business is to help the company become the best it can be,” she says. “The company is a lot bigger than just a nursery and its employees. The health of a lot of families relies on Loma Vista, and I take that really seriously.”
That blends impeccably with her mission in life.
“I want to always strive to be the best version of myself, to act with purpose and outwardly express people’s value to everyone I encounter,” she says.
Caitlin Hupp, a territory sales manager at Loma Vista, says she admires Lyndsi’s ability to see the potential in people and help guide them to their best role.
“There’s so much about Lyndsi that makes her a great leader. She’s very conscious of everyone having a work/life balance and she gets to know the families of everyone here,” Caitlin says. “I admire that she’s worked in every role in the company, so she can speak from experience no matter the job. She doesn’t hire square pegs for square peg roles. She sees the potential in people, lets them experience the company culture and helps find a good fit for them.”
Cheryl Boyer, the nursery extension specialist at Kansas State, has been colleagues with Lyndsi for about 12 years.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed watching her career grow. It’s wonderful to have a progressive nursery leader in Kansas,” Cheryl says. “Her perspective — coming from Pepsi and then landscape distribution — is one of the key reasons Loma Vista is successful. That combined with the culture she’s built. The fact that the nursery even talks about culture is amazing. She puts a lot of time and effort into training and mentoring new leaders.”
Mark also marvels at her ability to build a team.
“When she’s looking for a new team member, she’s looking for someone who’s better than she is at certain tasks,” he says. “The team that’s in place is the best it’s ever been. It’s one of the best things she’s done for our company.”
Reacting with purpose
As the nursery was navigating the Great Recession, Lyndsi made a profound observation during a budget meeting with her dad, an operations manager and the accounting manager.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’re four people and we’re trying to move the direction of 150 people. We need everyone in the company to hear these numbers. We need everyone to understand what’s going on so the four of us aren’t spinning our wheels.’”
The company became totally transparent and began sharing all financial information in company meetings, including how the nursery is performing compared to budget and how it’s doing compared to industry benchmarks.
“It has made a huge difference. Having buy-in from everyone – not just your top managers, but your middle managers, supervisors and down to the individual level — it’s difficult to get 100% buy-in, but we’re working on it,” she says. “One person, or in our case four people, can’t make the company successful. It is the effort of every single person here because every person is here for a reason.”
The employees appreciate the transparency.
“When Lyndsi implemented the open-book mentality with our budget and finances, that let us know she believed in our capabilities and our ability to problem solve,” Caitlin says. “She gives us the power to get involved and make decisions about the business and the direction we’re going, and to provide solutions to obstacles.”
During the last recession, Lyndsi also realized the nursery’s customer base needed more diversity.
“We were deeply tied to the commercial construction market, so we took a hit during that time,” she says. “We knew right away that we had to put some measures in place, which took a lot of time and planning, to diversify our customer base. We put a lot of work into our product mix, our production timing, how we tag products, how we deliver products and how our sales team operates. I feel a lot more comfortable having a diverse customer base as we face another recession.”
With the recent COVID-19 concerns, Lyndsi realized the importance of being nimble, which also means having a well-developed plan in place.
“We work off of really solid plans — plan A, B, C, all the way to Z if needed. You have to be able to make changes in a timely matter and plan for the things that you can control,” she says. “In the past I have spend a lot of sleepless nights worrying about things that are out of my control. That’s futile. Now we plan for possible scenarios and execute the plan based on variables we can control.”
Loma Vista’s customers appreciate the team’s focused planning and the calculated reactions.
“My company started in 1991, the same year as Loma Vista, and we were their first credit customer,” says Marty Seiler, principal of Epic Landscape Productions in Olathe, Kansas. “Lyndsi has worked hard to lead Loma Vista and take it a step forward. Sometimes in family businesses, the second generation rides the coattails of the first generation. That is not the case with Loma Vista. She’s very professional, well studied and very knowledgeable of the industry. There’s a high level of confidence from father to daughter.
“She demonstrates a passion and love for the industry. She’s personable and easy to talk to. As we’ve gone through the recent COVID-19 issues, we’ve been able to work through some of those issues together.”
Leaning on family
Lyndsi says motherhood has changed her the most, bringing her more empathy and patience.
“I feel so fortunate as a mom working in a family business. And now I try to extend grace to the moms working in our nursery,” she says. “When I had my youngest, we were right in the process of buying a second distribution center location and we opened it about a month after she was born. I just strapped her into the baby carrier and took her to work. We did that for six months. It was nice to get to go to work and spend time with her.”
Her girls are ages 8 and 6, and Lyndsi says they love to go to work with her. “They like to prune and check on the crops. My 8-year-old has even answered the phones,” she says.
Lyndsi and her husband recently bought an old farmhouse and they enjoy remodeling projects with a special emphasis on the landscape, of course.
“He’s in the construction management business and is a really smart businessperson, and I’m able to talk to him about the nursery business — but not every night,” she says with a chuckle. “He’s patient and he’s a good problem-solver. In his business, safety standards are so rigorous, so he’s helped me strengthen our safety program. That was a focus for us this year.”
Lyndsi can always count on her brother for advice. He’s in the produce business in Southern California.
“When I need an outside opinion, he’s one of my go-tos,” she says.
He’s the one in the family who lived out Mark’s dream and received a horticulture degree from Cal Poly. He also received a master’s in ag business from Purdue.
“I tried to hire him back into the nursery last year, but he decided not to move back to Kansas. I guess we can’t compete with Southern California and life on the beach,” she says.
Lyndsi also leans on a tight-knit group of female friends who are also businesswomen.
“I lean on them personally and professionally,” she says. “It’s critical to make connections outside the industry and see how others handle challenges.”
Whether it’s examples from her dad and industry mentors, or advice from her circle of friends or her husband, Lyndsi has learned that effective leadership characteristics involve being a good listener, listening to understand, being open minded, admitting when you’re wrong and being OK with it, as well as willing to make mistakes but learn from them.
Even when he’s not at work, Steve Castorani has always gotten satisfaction from working with his hands. Growing food in his gardens, a project in his woodworking shop, renovating a 200-year-old house, tinkering around on his 1946 Chevy truck or his motorcycle — the 64-year-old president of North Creek Nurseries is a worldly, well-rounded individual. It’s a trait he says has served him well and he recommends it to any young aspiring horticulturist.
“Try and learn as much as you can about as many things as you can,” he says. “It’s great to be a specialist, but to run a farm or nursery you need to have an understanding of many different things. Plant geek plus engineer, business specialist. Be open to new experiences.”
Steve Castorani’s parents were Italian immigrants. His mother was born in the mountains, his father nearer to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. His father, a mushroom grower, died when Steve was two years old. His mother, who ran a liquor store in Wilmington, Delaware, raised him with the help of his grandparents.
The family gardened and grew a lot of their own food. Coming from Italy and growing up during the Great Depression, they were self-reliant — a virtue that Steve learned well.
There were several older Italian men, friends of his family, who taught him the value of work and the rewards of gardening. Steve helped one of them on the farm and learned how to grow vegetables and make wine. Another one taught him about greenhouse growing and plant care.
He learned an important lesson from those days. If you work hard you also have to play hard — it’s the key to a balanced life. His family influenced him. But his education and that well-rounded nature came from Girard College.
When he was eight years old, Steve’s mother enrolled him at Girard, an orphanage for fatherless boys in Philadelphia. Stephen Girard was a tremendously wealthy business titan. However, he had no heirs and used his vast fortune to set up a school that would mentor and educate fatherless boys from poor families.
“What that meant back then was to prepare us for life by training for a trade or a vocation so we would find employment for the rest of our life,” Steve says. “When you graduated, you knew how things worked.”
The Girard curriculum was quite different than what a young boy would learn in a typical orphanage or boarding school. Steve learned woodworking, electrical, even became a mechanical draftsperson before he was 16. Although being away from family was difficult and he didn’t always enjoy his time there, Steve’s experience at Girard shaped him into the man he is.
“My deeds must be my life, when I am dead my actions must speak for me.”
Those words were inscribed into the chapel at Girard College and Steve read them every time he walked into the building. He’s always remembered that quote, and Girard’s words remind him to put value on his time and the actions taken in his own life. From having a family and raising two sons and seeing them be successful in their own lives to being an entrepreneur with the opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives. He encourages others to find their passion and focus on what’s important. He’s proud of his accomplishments at North Creek, as well, and the difference it has made in the lives of many people.
“Whether we’re providing plants, we’re repairing ecosystems or we’re just giving people jobs — and helping them to learn new skills, give them opportunities — even if they move on,” he says. “And to be working in ways that I am able to give back, help others, plus have businesses that grow and sell plants that enhance people’s lives as well as enrich nature and the environment.”
After graduating from Girard at 16, Steve began studying at the University of Delaware. During that time, he started his first business. With his mom’s help, he bought a $500 pickup truck and a rototiller. He worked other odd jobs through college, then after graduating in 1979 with a Bachelor’s in Plant Science he began a landscape design and installation business that was an outgrowth of his first venture as a student.
In 1979 Steve began Gateway Landscaping and Woodworking Inc., a landscape design-build firm located in Hockessin, Delaware. Later he founded Gateway Garden Center, a natural outgrowth of Steve’s landscape business. Established in 1986, Gateway specializes in perennials, conifers, native plants, aquatic plants as well as water gardens. Today, Steve’s wife Peggy manages the business.
In Gateway’s early years, Steve met a few influential Philadelphia-area plantsmen that guided him on his path. Dr. Richard Lighty (affectionately known as “Uncle Dick”), the founding director of the Mt. Cuba Center, was one of Steve's professors at UD. Dr. Darrel Apps (“the good doctor”) was a prolific daylily breeder and former nursery owner who was leading the education program at Longwood Gardens. After attending one of Dr. Lighty's lectures at the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Steve expressed interest in incorporating grasses in his landscape designs. Dick suggested he seek out Dale Hendricks from GreenLeaf Perennials (now Aris), who was growing grasses on the side.
Dale was interested in native plants and ecological landscapes and wanted to start a specialty nursery. After a few months of conversations, the two men decided to start a business together. Steve and Dale founded North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pennsylvania in 1988.
During those early years Steve was busy full time with Gateway Landscaping and Garden Center. Several Gateway folks were part time with North Creek as the two companies shared bookkeepers, office space, trucks and much more.
“What I admire about that organization is they started with hardly any money and built up what they have today, from scratch,” says Dr. Apps.
The first year’s crop was produced at Gateway’s greenhouses during the spring and summer of 1988. Steve kept his landscape crew busy in the fall of ’88 by building greenhouses in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, on the farm that would become the North Creek Nurseries you see today.
In those early days, Dale was the driving force behind North Creek’s plant selection. He had many business contacts and plant geek friends. Steve kept the business organized and handled building and equipment. He also had contacts and good relationships with accountants. Steve’s clear head and conservative approach to the business made for a strong foundation.
“He obviously took risks on the likes of me,” Dale laughs. “But of the two of us, I’m the crazy risk-taker and he was the level hand. You can see how well he’s done in the 10-11 years since I’ve been gone. That level hand is really what’s needed to run a business of that size.”
In 2008, Dale wanted to retire from the business, and Steve purchased his share of the company they built together.
“His influence is still present in the nursery and he is still a close friend — we still do some collaboration on plants,” Steve says.
Along the way, Dr. Apps convinced Steve and Dale to get involved in the International Plant Propagators’ Society. That proved to be an organization that benefited all sides. Steve developed friendships and found mentors like Dick Bir, a N.C. State University professor and extension specialist who was one of the godfathers of the modern native plant movement. And Steve was true to the IPPS ethos “To Seek and To Share,” taking leadership roles, including president, giving talks at meetings and tours to teach the younger generation, as he once was taught. He was awarded the honor of Society Fellow in 2005 and became the recipient of the society’s prestigious Award of Merit in 2012.
From its conception, North Creek Nurseries was a wholesale propagation nursery with an emphasis on Eastern U.S. native plants. However, several factors needed to converge for the business to grow into its current form. Sustainability and ecology certainly weren’t buzzwords in 1988.
“The markets had to mature to a point where it became important to more people than just us,” Steve says.
That happens through education and unfortunately, a degradation of the environment that these things became more relevant in the public’s mind.
“You have the hive collapse of the bees, you have water issues or lack of water. All those things play into what we do,” Steve says. “But until it affects somebody’s food supply or the air they breathe or the water they drink, most people don’t think of those things. Then it becomes relevant.”
There been temptation to expand the business into other realms, but North Creek has always tried to stay true to its initial mission. When Steve and Dale started the business, there wasn’t much of a native plant movement. Sustainable growing practices wasn’t a hot topic in the 1980s like it is now.
But when government or public perception starts to put demands on businesses, those businesses need to react. Steve has always tried to anticipate regulations at North Creek and Gateway.
“It’s a lot easier to be proactive and fix a problem than be reactive to something that happens,” Steve says.
Tried and true
Steve’s experience running a landscape design and installation business gave him an advantage some pure growers lack.
“He has a great perspective having the retail store, former landscape company and working in the wholesale liner world,” says Tim McGinty, North Creek’s general manager and COO. McGinty started at North Creek 17 years ago and says he and Steve balance each other out well. Steve agrees, and says Tim’s experience has been instrumental in the nursery’s growth.
North Creek makes a point of trialing all the plants it propagates. Dale says that Steve pushed to make sure the nursery was growing landscape-friendly plants, not just ones that would excel in “the rarified environment of the greenhouse.”
“We grow plants that stand the test of time,” Steve says. “And that’s kind of a guiding principle.”
The trial process helps eliminate the urge to grow every new perennial that comes down the pike. The goal is to be reliable and selling customers a flash-in-the-pan plant doesn’t help achieve that goal. Steve wants to avoid the treadmill of trying to figure out every year what the hot new plant will be.
“We have plants that have been in our quiver that have just been bulletproof,” he says. “They last in the landscape, they’re colorful, they’re textural, they have all those criteria. But they actually live for the customer and they live in the environment.”
North Creek maintains its landscape trial gardens on the property and invites potential customers to tours and open houses.
“Coming from a landscape background, he always wanted the place gussied up nicely with good trees, shrubs and perennials,” Dale says. “The fact that people could come see the plants we were trialing really helped our reputation. These guys aren’t just propagating things, they know how they grow.”
From rain gardens and stormwater management and restoration projects to displays showing the benefits of native plants on the pollinator population, North Creek Nurseries’ grounds have much more to show than just rows of plants.
“Steve doesn’t just take a little segment of the business,” Dr. Apps says. “He thinks through the whole picture of how it all fits together.”
Building a lean machine
North Creek wasn’t immune to the recession. Many of its key customers struggled to stay in business, some ended up closing. In 2009 the company determined a transformation was necessary to stay profitable and maintain relevance. North Creek committed to adopting LEAN culture and began looking for efficiencies. LEAN is all about finding ways to get jobs done with the least amount of labor spent.
“That can be sort of top-down, but not with Steve,” Dr. Apps says. “It’s more getting everything he can from employees and how they think they can do it better. From my observations, [Steve is] one of the best people managers I’ve ever seen. He really is good with people. Everyone is involved in the decision making.”
Steve respects his employees and the decisions they make. It’s a good leadership mentality, he says, and it helped when it came time to find areas from production to shipping that could become more efficient.
“Make sure you are a good listener,” he says. “It’s best to gain a thorough understanding of people and processes before making judgments. Everyone has a story and you will be amazed what you can learn by asking questions.”
At times, Steve’s commitment to sustainability was tested. In North Creek’s early days, the nursery grew a lot of miscanthus.
“Then our landscape architect restoration buddies started beating us up for it,” Dale says. “‘We’re making a lot of money selling these plants and now you’re calling them invasive?’”
Steve and Dale began researching the situation and eventually determined that the plant really was a problem. The company made the decision to stop growing it to stay on the side of conscientious plant selection and preserve their reputation as responsible stewards of the environment. It was a hard decision to turn away from that business, Steve says, but it was the right thing to do.
“We could have kept selling miscanthus and made a lot of money on it,” Steve says. “There are other nurseries that are still doing that… they’re more economically-focused rather than ecologically-focused.”
In 2004 Steve co-created the American Beauties Native Plants brand with Mark Sellew of Prides Corner Farms. This was a way to spread awareness of the benefits of native plants and popularize the category.
Mark Sellew had the idea for a native plants brand percolating in his head for a while before he approached North Creek Nurseries’ Steve Castorani with the idea.
“Frankly, Prides Corner hadn’t been doing a great job of selling native plants,” Mark says. “So I wanted to start a native plants brand. I approached Steve and told him, ‘You’re the native plants guy and I want to start a brand. Are you in?’ And Steve took the challenge, and it’s been an incredible partnership and friendship.”
American Beauties Native Plants are currently available at independent garden centers in Eastern, Southeastern, Midwestern and select Western States. When the brand was established, it partnered with the National Wildlife Foundation’s wildlife habitat program. During the first 10 years of the program, AB donated more than $275,000 to NWF.
In the early 2000s, Steve was working on a mission and vision statement for North Creek. He was focusing on sustainability, which was nowhere near as popular a term then as it is now. Ed Snodgrass, a good friend of Steve’s and the owner of Green Roof Plants, made a point that still resonates with Steve.
“The most sustainable thing that you could do is in your business is not recycling, using less water, or all the things that we think of when we think of sustainability. All that stuff’s great. But his point was the most sustainable thing you can do is actually provide paychecks to these people, give them opportunities to work and to empower their lives and give them learning experiences.”
Succession planning is difficult for Steve, as neither of his sons are involved in the business, but it’s been on his mind since 2016, when he had a major health scare. Right before Christmas, without even knowing he was sick, he started to hemorrhage and was hospitalized with diverticulitis.
It was a major shock for someone who had always been extraordinarily healthy to have a near-death experience. It was the catalyst that got him thinking more seriously about succession planning.
“After getting knocked down in 2016, you wake up and you say, well, you’re not going to live forever.”
Still, he has no plans to retire soon. He would like to spend more time on his hobbies and less time managing the business. The current COVID crisis is another example of how successful nursery owners need to be able to roll with the punches.
“You have to be adaptable, have faith in the future, stay focused and work hard,” Steve says. “It helps to have great people supporting you.”