Nursery Grower of the Year

Features - Cover Feature

Bennett's Creek Nursery is Nursery Management's 2011 Grower of the Year.

December 15, 2011

Name: Bennett’s Creek Nursery. Locations:  Headquarters and distribution center in Suffolk, Va. Main growing facility is in Smithfield, Va. Other distribution centers are located in Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Va., and Powells Point, N.C. Founded: 1974 by Art Lancaster. Production: More than 200 acres of container production including trees, shrubs, color and pot-in-pot production. Employment: Peaks at 120, reducing to about 85 in the off-season. Sawyer family: His son Matthew, daughter Katie and daughter-in-law Lauren are actively involved in the business.


Bennett's Creek Nursery, headquartered in Suffolk, Va., entered the year with a very distinct directive.

"What we've done is say we're going to take this on as a challenge and make it work," said president Wayne Sawyer. "One of our slogans around the nursery is, 'failure is not an option,' and we're working hard on a day-to-day basis to make sure that doesn't happen."

The mantra has been a success. In fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, the company had increased revenues 16 percent over the previous year. This comes after a three-year period where Bennett's Creek had seen total sales drop 30 percent.

For his leadership and focusing on adapting to market conditions, Wayne Sawyer has been named the 2011 Nursery Grower of the Year.

In addition to increased revenues, becoming more labor efficient and adapting what crops to grow have been equally important to Bennett's Creek.

"We've had to change the way we do production. We've had to change the plant mix we've had — the things that we grow," Sawyer said.

"We're targeting local landscape companies along with our garden center customers to see what they're using in their landscapes, and what people are asking for in their stores. We're checking out gardening magazines to keep us abreast of what is going on.

"We've had to look at the labor aspect of it and cut back on our labor costs. So it's been the whole gamut. We've had to look at this whole nursery situation of what we need to do to be relevant today."

Color change
One of the most evident changes at the nursery is the crops grown. Watching the market demand for blooming and color products go up, Bennett's Creek has cut back on its production of evergreens.

"In the early days we were all green goods. It was hollies and ligustrums and pyracanthas, and now it's all about color," Sawyer said. "It's roses. It's pansies. It's a whole array of spring color, It's hydrangeas. It's working with other growers that are patenting material."

The change in crops is directly related to consumers, and their buying preferences.

"It's all about the color, texture, blooming and things that make your landscape stand out and different," Sawyer said. "It used to be back in the old days you'd put 10 hollies in front of your house. Nowadays they want nandinas and 'Gold Mops' cypress and Drift roses and Knock Out roses."

Out of this need for color, and a need to differentiate Bennett's Creek product, the company developed the Blooming & Beautiful line of plants.

In this program, annuals and perennials are sold in 6-inch white pots with the Blooming & Beautiful logo. The idea is to give consumers a recognizable product that will perform well once planted in the landscape.

"When a customer enters into a garden center they can go after our plants, and hopefully they've had a good experience with them in the past. We want to differentiate ourselves with size. Everybody seems to be cutting down on the size of their pots [on annuals and perennials], so ours is a true 6-inch pot," Sawyer said.

The larger container allows Blooming & Beautiful plants to develop larger root systems, and Bennett's Creek also incorporates control-release fertilizer into the potting medium.

"We're hearing from our customers that people come into their stores and say, 'I want that white pot that says Blooming & Beautiful on it. I really had great luck with those and I really like the quality of those plants,'" Sawyer said.

In the future the company plans to expand Blooming & Beautiful to include 8-inch, 1-gallon and 2-gallon plants, and incorporate other crops such as flowering shrubs and fruit trees.

"For fruit trees, I could even see us expanding the program to include 7-gallon containers," Sawyer said.

Showroom on wheels
The company also developed a "rolling showroom" – the Blooming & Beautiful van, which spends days on the road visiting garden center clients.

"The driver shows off what is looking good and what is blooming and beautiful at Bennett's Creek Nursery right now," said Wayne's son, vice president Matt Sawyer. "Customers love it. We see a direct correlation from when we started to use it and customers picking up their sales. When times were tough and we cut back on sending the van down the road, we saw those customers stop purchasing."

The company also sees a spike in sales on the products showcased in the Blooming & Beautiful van, driven by Janie Moody.

"I have a schedule where I visit all the local garden centers in the immediate area. I see their buyers normally and show them what we have and explain anything new," Moody said.

A great deal of the success of the Blooming & Beautiful van lies with Moody and the relationships she has with her clients. Moody said she has the best job at the nursery,

Distribution partnership enhances products

Bennett's Creek Nursery operates landscape distribution facilities in Suffolk, Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Va., and Powells Point, N.C.

These sites offer a wide range of plants, mulches and other supplies to landscapers, municipalities and other wholesale buyers. But a relationship with Turf & Garden has allowed the company to offer customers a whole range of hard goods and supplies.

"When we started the distribution concept, we didn't have the full capital to get into irrigation, lighting, fertilizer and grass seed, and one of our customers was into that," Sawyer said. "And so we asked them if they'd like to join with us and take on part of this building that we were constructing for our new distribution center, and they did. So we can be a true one-stop shop where a landscaper can come in and get his plants, his mulch, his topsoil, his irrigation supplies, his lighting supplies, his grass seed, hand tools, whatever he needs."

The Turf & Garden stores are currently located at Bennett's Creek's Suffolk and Powells Point locations, but Sawyer said he hopes to someday have them at all four facilities.

One key to success is that, like Bennett's Creek, Turf & Garden has an equivalent reputation for good customer service.

"They've always had a good reputation and we thought it was a good fit. A lot of their guys we've known for years and they're known for their excellent customer service."

"They're all happy to see me," she said. "With most of them we've developed a good relationship over time and I consider them my friends. It's me sharing my love of plants with my friends who love plants."

Labor difficulties
Over the past year the company has worked hard to eliminate labor costs, but Sawyer said 2012 will be even more challenging.

The company has participated in the H-2B program to secure migrants to work at the company's distribution centers. But proposed changes in H-2B will make that program more expensive next year. The company could resort to H-2A workers (designed for agricultural migrant workers) but that decision is still in the air.

"All the [labor] cost saving that we've been able to cut out, with eliminating some of the middle management, and changing the way we were doing some of our production, that increase [in H-2A and H-2B wages] would eat all that right up," Sawyer said. "We're still looking at what we're going to do next year, whether we're going to participate in the H-2A program, whether we're going to do a combination of H-2A and H-2B, but the labor costs alone for our particular company are going to increase around $10,000 every two weeks. Over a course of the year, we're probably looking at an increase of $225,000 to $250,000 if we keep doing things the way we do now."

Bennett's Creek has become more active in recruiting from the local labor pool. But Sawyer knows that he needs to make nursery field work more attractive to domestic workers. One option is alternative schedules that may involve people working half days, or at least fewer hours in the day.

"I don't have the answers today, but we're looking at what could make our work a little more fun," Sawyer said. "Everybody wants to work at a nursery, work at a greenhouse. It looks fun being outdoors. But what can we do on the production end to make it so it's not a grueling job, but something that's more enjoyable?

"We're going to have to do like the hospitals and other industries and look at full-time equivalents. We may have a 20 percent increase in employees, but everybody not working as many hours. We have a number of employees that say, 'I enjoy this work, I just don't want to work 10 hours a day during the busy part of the year and I don't want to work six days a week. I wouldn't mind working four to five days a week, but that's it.' So we're going to have to change our way of thinking when it comes to labor, but I think we're going to get there."


With increased costs associated with H-2A and H-2B next year, Wayne Sawyer is exploring options with the local labor pool.


Overwintering made simpler

Compiling and covering container crops for overwintering is always a daunting task. Through trial and error, Bennett's Creek Nursery has simplified the process while not losing any more crops to the cold. In fact, the quality has improved with the new system.

In the past, container plants on shrub beds were packed can tight, then covered with plastic and shade cloth for winter protection. Charlie Baines, vice president of production, said the company decided to experiment to see if the plants could survive with less protection.

After several years of trialing, many crops are now covered with only shade cloth, and coming out of winter with no problems, Baines said. And now they're even leaving shrubs spaced through winter as a way to save labor.

"And what we're seeing is that our crops look even better in the spring. Because when spacing happens in the spring, it's when everything is happening at once," Baines said. "If it gets to be mid-May and things aren't spaced, then we might see some leaves start dropping. Now we see things coming into spring even sweeter and without the leaf drop problem."


For more: