A lasting legacy
Some of JBN’s next-gen dream team: (Top row L-R) Jake King, Jacob Graber and Julian Gonzales III; (Bottom row L-R) Erika Ramos, Michael Dean, Carl Mini
Ken Kirk Photography

A lasting legacy

Features - Cover Story

How Jim Berry recruited and developed an enthusiastic group to join the next generation at J. Berry Nursery.

January 10, 2022

Jim Berry is jazzed about his team of next-generation leaders, including Brooke McCown, R&D director.
Photos by Ken Kirk Photography

Jim Berry, founder of J. Berry Nursery, sports two common looks as he hustles around the Texas-based nursery. The serious look of steadfastness takes over his countenance when he’s contemplating the next marketing idea, hand-pollinating a hibiscus, or working through a distribution plan for his expansive box-store customer base. When he dons that jovial grin, the one you can read across his entire face, it’s fair to say it’s spurred by the delight and contentment in the dynamic team of next-generation professionals he has built.

McCown says she loves working in horticulture because “I get to work outside in all of God’s creations and share it with all the pepole who work here and the people who love plants.”

Jim and his business partner (and son), Jonathan, attracted young, enthusiastic people in key areas of the nursery, including head and section growers, a production manager, a propagation manager, a research and development coordinator, an inventory manager, key account managers, a plant health manager, and a construction manager.

It was no simple task assembling this team. J. Berry Nursery is a successful nursery with a lot to offer, but it takes internal evaluation and introspection to become a company that the next generation of nursery leaders wants to join.

“First, we had to establish ourselves, determine our core values and know both our strengths and weaknesses,” Jim says. “We also had to determine our market position and each of our personal natures.”

Creating a solid job description was another critical step, he adds.

“We tried to create as large as possible pool of candidates. We positioned ourselves as an employer of choice. It seemed to be well known that we were a fast-growing nursery and a market leader in branding and product development. So our reputation helped a lot,” Jim says.

The Berrys used a tool called The Predictive Index to help

their recruiting efforts. The Predictive Index (predictiveindex.com) is a talent optimization platform that offers ways to “understand people and teams — specifically what drives behaviors at work,” as well as to discover “how to impact that behavior, ignite enthusiasm, and align business strategy with talent strategy.”

Jim, Jonathan, and their directors used the tool on themselves and prospective candidates.

JBN grows a mix of its own brands, as well as some national brands.

“Everyone has basic tendencies as to how they behave and interact. We looked for people that fit our company culture and fit with our team based on the behavior we learned from The Predictive Index,” he explains. “The first interview was a Zoom meeting with my leadership team. When someone was selected for an on-site interview, they were introduced to the whole team where we all got a great sense of whether they were a fit or not a fit. We had to sell our company and our team. Job searchers have choices. And like any company, we wanted to be wanted.”

Since assembling this young team of phenoms, he’s imparted some essential advice to each of them: Do not be afraid to make mistakes as they are great teachers. He asks them to speak their mind as “their voice and intellect are to be appreciated,” he says. He also encourages them to appreciate and support one another.

Having a group of next-generation nursery leaders choose J. Berry Nursery as their employer prompted Jim to fine-tune his leadership and teaching skills.

“The better teacher I am, the quicker they feel empowered and important,” he says. “When you make the right hire, within months they make significant contributions to the operation. I don’t necessarily need to learn from them. I need to get out of their way and admire how great they are and how great they will be.”

Jim refers to himself as “sort of a fossil” with a chuckle, and the nursery’s leadership team as “seasoned,” which is why it was imperative to find a young team that will lead the nursery during the next generation.

“I’m so proud of this team,” Jim says. “We have high aims as a company, and to reach greatness that endures, we must identify and develop leaders that will lead in 2030, 2040 and beyond. We have them on board now.”

Brooke McCown, research and development coordinator, works directly with Jim.

“I’m learning from the best,” she says. “Jim is open minded and he’s all about innovation. He’s not afraid of change or taking risks.”

Jim Berry stands in the midst of the nursery’s expanded dock, which supports JBN’s sales growth.

Brooke joined the nursery three and a half years ago right out of college. She shadowed people in all departments, which allowed her to learn about the nursery at a slower pace. Raised down the road from the nursery in Grand Saline, Texas, she raised and showed cattle. With a degree in ag services and a minor in horticulture, she envisioned a career in the cattle business. But a chance encounter at a local chamber of commerce event got her foot in the door at the nursery.

“My dad, who’s never met a stranger, was talking to Jim at a chamber lunch said, ‘I have a daughter about to graduate from Tarleton [State University]’, and Jim, who also attended Tarleton, said ‘Tell her to stop by the office. I may have a job for her.’ I interviewed for an assistant position and got the job. It’s been a great experience ever since.”

Brooke and her colleagues bring a fresh perspective to the mix.

“We are a young team, and we are driven,” she says. “We all come from different backgrounds, and we rely on each other’s perspective. We work things out together and ask a lot of questions.”

Some of JBN’s next-gen dream team: (Top row L-R) Jake King, Jacob Graber and Julian Gonzales III; (Bottom row L-R) Erika Ramos, Michael Dean, Carl Mini

Accelerated growth

J. Berry Nursery has enjoyed consistent double-digit growth during the last 15 years. At the end of 2021, sales were 25% higher than the two previous years and Jim says he expects that growth trajectory to continue. His new team couldn’t have come at a better time.

With the growth in sales, it was necessary to invest in more distribution. In 2021, the nursery significantly expanded its dock to better serve its box-store distribution.

“That’s our wheelhouse and there’s still so much market opportunity to be had,” Jim says.

Hollywood Hibiscus selections are trialed extensively before being released to the market.

The nursery also recently partnered with Plant Haven International, which will take over the management of JBN’s intellectual property, with the exception of the Hollywood Hibiscus line. It’s a partnership that Jim says will “open up opportunities for more nurseries to become licensed growers of our genetics.”

The nursery’s genetics division has released several varieties, including: the tropical Hollywood Hibiscus, Summer Spice hardy hibiscus, Black Diamond and Emerald Empire crapemyrtles, Déjà Bloom Azaleas, Cabana Canna, and Crown Jewels begonias. The nursery also grows a large selection of Proven Winners and First Editions shrubs and perennials, as well as shrubs and perennials. Jim has partnered with Dr. Dariusz Malinowski, Texas A&M AgriLife Research breeder of winter-hardy hibiscus, and released nine cultivars in the Summer Spice brand.

The nitty-gritty

When it comes to selecting hibiscus for new introductions, Brooke and Jim inoculate plants with pests then weed out all the ones with susceptibility -- whitefly and leaf spot are the main culprits.

They’re also looking for high bud counts, stacked buds per petiole, exotic-looking flowers, and flowers that last two or three days.

There are several varieties in the R&D greenhouse that have dark stems – a characteristic that is proving to be a lovely addition, Brooke says.

Testing is rigorous and not for the weak.

Left: (L-R) Kayla Sellers (account manager), Emilia Edwards (production coordinator) and Brooke McCown (R&D director) make up the rest of JBN’s team of next-gen leaders. Right: Gonzales (plant health manager) scouts a group of plants prior to shipping.

“We start at the liner stage, and if we see a problem, they’re culled,” Brooke says. “They won’t even get a chance to be potted up into quarts.”

They often start with some 2,000 seedlings to evaluate, of which many are culled.

“Then we keep culling until we eventually get down to 15 or so, then down to five. Those five are sent to our growers in Florida for trialing,” she explains.

Crosses are hand pollinated.

“Anything we introduce starts with science and genetics,” Jim says. “We must deliver an exceptional product to the consumer. After all, we’re here to serve the end-user.”

For more: www.jberrynursery.com