Homeward bound

Features - Leadership

A well-established and highly successful career with big-box sales compelled one nurseryman to return home to his family and his young plant business. Find out what he learned along the way.

August 3, 2016

All photos by Chris Ho

Somewhere in time an unknown author penned the phrase, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And while Thomas Wolfe declared, “you can’t go home again,” one green industry road warrior hung up his traveling shoes to get back to his propagation roots so he could spend more time with his family.

Anthony Hoke, owner of Silver Falls Nursery, admits he has been on an amazing journey throughout his green-industry career. He began in the corporate nursery world in 1993 selling to East Coast independent garden centers and rewholesalers with a nursery in McMinnville, Ore. From there he transitioned to a nursery who sold to mass merchants where he says he got a doctorate in “mass merchantology.” Next he forged out on his own as a nursery sales contractor, and for almost 15 years focused on sales to big-box stores or vendors that sold to them.

While it was always exciting to him that this small-town guy was sitting in conference rooms of the largest retailers across the country, it was also humbling as he knew he hadn’t reached that destination without the guidance and support from others.

Hoke learned early about tight costing models, a lesson that was verified during his time working with big boxes.

Red light

Although he’s not sure why, Anthony says he kept the room keys from his hotel stays for 18 months, and they stacked up over nine inches tall. That got him thinking. He missed his wife. His kids were growing up. He knew he only had a few years left to be with his girls before they left for college and started on their own careers or families.

Anthony says that a scene from the movie Forrest Gump kept playing over and over in his head — the one where Forrest was running back and forth across the country and he suddenly stopped running. He says it was like that for him. After many years on the road he realized enough was enough. It was time to stop and go home.

So he called it quits in July of 2014, on his daughter’s birthday. He took off his watch, stopped shaving and put the suits and dress shirts in the back of the closet. He went fly fishing for two weeks by himself, traveling all over with no cell phone, no email or plan. He was trying to become the husband, father and friend he used to be before his career got carried away. While he doesn’t regret the corporate life and feels blessed for all the opportunities it presented him, it paled in comparison to being home every day to say good morning and good night to his family.

Green light

Hoke advises growers to look at their daily numbers regarding inventory, turns and margins.

The focal point of Anthony’s journey back home was to be active daily in his liner business, Silver Falls Nursery. His core focus and true love is liner production because, “liners are the building blocks upon which the foundation is built for growing your business,” he says.

Anthony’s mission is to be a young-plant supply chain partner to those who have a desire to build long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial. Right now his company’s theme is “plants with purpose.” He doesn’t want to grow a single unit that doesn’t have a home waiting for it.

“We’re interested in growing with those who understand the economic benefit of having a strong, reliable partner that helps reduce their residency time and provides a liner that has a static cost, outstanding quality and care that they can rely on for future years,” Anthony says.

According to Kyle Fessler, owner of St. Christopher Nursery of Gervais, Ore., Silver Falls appears to be hitting the nail on the head.

“Silver Falls is my key source for propagated material,” Fessler says. “We primarily grow larger stock, and having a quality liner supplier enables us to focus on finished stock without having to spend time, money, and other resources building younger stock. I can build my program and get top-notch, consistent supply year over year, all with the ability to adjust our program as needed. We have access to a lot of new products on the market, as well as the staples we grow every year.”

Lessons from the big boxes

Anthony learned several lessons from the big boxes, and has incorporated those into his nursery business.

Working with the big-box stores taught him to know his costs and his customers, and the relationship between the two.

Stephanie Pratt, customer service assistant, inspects Buxus ‘Skywalker,’

“The box stores are very good at several things, and one area is they have fantastic analytics and are able to truly understand their customer and product flow. I’m much more into my numbers than ever before,” he says. “In my twenties, Gary Brooks of Maple Tree Nursery got me excited about the value of having exceptionally tight costing models and knowing the accounting end of the business. When you combine that end of the business with the customer point-of-sale data at the garden center and sales reports on the wholesale end, it becomes very useful information. Now you have power and control of your business. Consistent, meaningful sales information helps you guide your inventory and production plan to a successful end.”

Inventory turns is another lesson he’s parlayed into his own business. Inventory is cash and you have to turn it.

“Small pockets of inventory aren’t an asset after a while, but rather, they become an expense and can slowly drain you through maintenance and handling costs. Plan your entrance into the market as well as your exit with each plant and season,” he says.

Planning is another tool he borrowed from the mass merchants.

Hydrangea ‘Miss Saori’ is part of a limited release this year. Hoke has been preparing to take it to market for the last three years. ‘Miss Saori’ was the Chelsea Flower Show 2014 Plant of the Year.

“The box stores and large grocery chains are excellent about planning all aspects of the business, sometimes years out. The grocery folks in particular are very forward thinking, and that takes a while to get used to. But once you do, the ability to plan is welcomed,” he says. “Christmas is a great example. Many think of Christmas programs in June or July after spring is over. In the box store environment, Christmas begins in early January, and in grocery it begins in the third quarter of the previous year you’re selling. With sales planning, the further you can plan it out, the better you are.”

A critical lesson he’s adapted from his previous career is that sales budgets are not suggestions.

“You have 16 weeks to make your sales budget, and if you lose a day or weekend of sales, you have to figure out a way to get it back,” he says. “In the box-store environment, no one is satisfied with an OK sales day or weekend. There is a constant monitoring of inventory dollars, turns, and margins. On the wholesale level you have to do the same. Don’t look at monthly numbers, look at your daily numbers. Know each day what you have sold and what you need, and never feel comfortable. When Mother Nature is your silent partner, you must control cost and inventory, and sell, sell, sell.”

Pondering plants

Production manager Juan Guerrero has been with Silver Falls Nursery for 20 years.

Anthony is passionate about all plants, which is mirrored by his diverse plant mix. He also likes to find those plants that have been passed over or forgotten over the years by breeders and growers. Every breeder has a plant or two that they believed in, and might have been exceptional, but it wasn’t taken to the market for one reason or another. Those plants are still sitting in the breeders cutting blocks or gardens. Anthony loves when he comes across a gem like that. Gardening trends come and go, the market cycle fluctuates, and plants are passed over in the market and eventually don’t show up on the retail sales floor that often. Taxus is a great example of a plant that is fantastic, but over the years has become undesirable in many markets, but not for a specific reason. When it’s grown correctly and planted in the correct spot, it’s an excellent plan, and one that Silver Falls includes in its inventory.

His journey back to the farm has also brought about opportunities to begin working with companies who specialize in new plant introductions such as Concept Plants. Anthony has the U.S. exclusive to receive Concept Plants’ woody line and takes them through the quarantine process to build numbers for the future.

He says with brand new plant genetics you have no choice but to take growing liners seriously. In some cases, he might be delivering a plant to a customer that represents a breeders’ entire life’s work. If he delivers a liner that is inferior, or below expectations, it not only reflects poorly on his business, but in an instant he could wipe out a breeders’ livelihood if a customer deems that plant unacceptable. Likewise, if he provides a healthy and strong liner which performs like the breeder promised, then he says, “we’re off to the races.”

Even when you identify a new plant winner, it still takes patience, which is the case with a new hydrangea, Miss Saori. After three years of care and development by him in the U.S., he is just now able to do a limited release of this Chelsea Flower Show 2014 Plant of the Year winner.

Roots of success

Silver Falls has more than 5 acres of liners in production, including a number of flowering shrubs such as Passionate Hydrangea.

Anthony compares his business philosophy to a chance meeting in 2012. He was on a flight home and noticed a very charismatic gentleman in the waiting area. This man changed seats and ended up sitting next to him on the flight to Portland. Normally he settles in for quiet downtime, but in this case he struck up a conversation with this man. Their four-hour visit transformed Anthony’s life. The gentleman’s name was Greg Bell, the author of “Water the Bamboo.” In the book, Greg uses giant bamboo as a metaphor. When you plant giant bamboo, it sits below the surface for up to three years before you see the plant begin to develop. The tricky thing is that you have to water and fertilize it even though you see nothing happening. If you do the required maintenance it will sprout and can grow 90 feet in 60 days. The giant bamboo plant also has an expansive and massively deep room system that is developed over those same years. Anthony equates that to his business relationships. He feels we all need to be sure we continue to water the bamboo daily. He also thinks about our families and businesses and how the strength of the roots of those relationships allow us to develop and grow in amazing ways.

The success that Silver Falls is cultivating with its customers is due to a team effort. Anthony firmly believes that great teams are what make all of us successful. He says he doesn’t know anyone who has done it all on their own. He fondly recalls advice he received as a young man — don’t be afraid to hire people smarter then you and don’t be afraid to pay people more than yourself. Anthony says he gets a buzz from putting together great teams and having those around him excel beyond what they ever thought they could.

For more:www.silverfallsnursery.com