Blessed with a bevvy of mentors, Ferenc Kiss received knowledge, patience and devotion from people on two different continents. For decades, he’s been paying it forward one reassuring word at a time.
As co-owner of Cavano’s Perennials in Kingsville, Maryland, plants are his business, but people are his biggest asset. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae and sitting in front of a screen, Ferenc is often found mingling with nursery staff, encouraging each one of them – no matter their position or tenure.
“My goal is to be a forward-thinking leader. I hope to support my staff, mentor young professionals and students, and ultimately change the industry by thinking outside the box,” Ferenc says.
Employee development ranks at the top of the most important tasks and communication is the key, he says. Ferenc and his business partner Taylor Pilker have created a company culture that revolves around openness.
“You must communicate with your employees, which can be hard sometimes,” Ferenc says. “Never forget to talk about the successes, failures and challenges [within the business].”
His principal goal is to get feedback from all employees, even when it means breaking through someone’s shyness or fear of speaking out.
“They are doing the work and they might have some real ideas on how to improve some processes,” he explains. “Getting feedback is important to me even when sometimes it’s a suggestion that’s just a baby step. Companies from small to large use processes, and the reality is most processes are highly inefficient. It is the responsibility of the leader to recognize inefficiencies and, with the help of the team, improve the processes. And that requires excellent communication.”
Talk isn’t always about the processes. Ferenc relishes the chance to introduce his employees to other business owners and luminaries of the industry.
“I want to open their eyes and encourage them. Sometimes you have to push them a little to learn more. I want to give people opportunities. I’m so proud when I can say, ‘He was an order puller and now he’s a nursery manager.’”
It’s important to Ferenc to create growth opportunities for his employees.
“We are unlike a lot of companies out there and our average employee age is shrinking,” says co-owner Taylor. “We’re committed to helping them grow in the business, and Ferenc was instrumental in creating that culture. It’s important to him to push for education and help shape the development of the staff.”
That desire to nurture was born from his three-year horticulture apprenticeship in his birthplace of Switzerland. Just shy of his 16th birthday, Ferenc began studying under a master horticulturist, Gert Pistorius, at P. Schaer Nursery in Reinach, Switzerland. Ferenc spent Monday through Friday at the 4-acre perennial nursery getting all the practical experience of production and propagation, and Saturdays were reserved for trade school.
“It was very hands-on where, after three years, you are not an expert, but you learn steps one, two and three and build from it,” Ferenc recalls. “If you wanted to be a master, you went to the university and learned the business aspect of your trade.”
A few short months after beginning his apprenticeship, Ferenc told the master who was training him that he’d like to own a nursery.
“Little did I know that 30 years later, on a different continent, in a different country, my dream would come true,” he says.
Pistorius was Ferenc’s first mentor – he was strict, quiet, frugal and very knowledgeable.
“He gave me a strong foundation of how to propagate perennials and to never stop learning,” Ferenc recalls. “He also taught me to push myself to become better and pass on what I know to the next generation of growers.”
From the fall of 1989 until the summer of 1990, Ferenc worked for Blooms of Bressingham in England at a job that would link him to his future in the United States.
“I rented a room in a house owned by a couple named Sam and Joyce who regularly rented out rooms to interns working for Blooms of Bressingham,” Ferenc explains. “Sam and Joyce kept a photo album of the interns that stayed with them. They showed me a picture of a young American woman, which turned out to be Martha Simon, the daughter of Richard Simon, whom I’d intern with later.”
During 1991-1992 and again in 1994-1995, Ferenc was an intern at Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton, Maryland, a company he found with the help of the Perennial Plant Association. It was there he met his other mentor, Richard Simon.
“Richard showed me the passion and beauty of perennials from a more artistic perspective. We spoke a lot about plants, and he took me to some special locations to view native plant species. I was in heaven,” Ferenc says. “Without Richard, I would not be here today owning Cavano’s. Richard opened the door for many professionals. He brought over Kurt Bluemel from Europe, who then stayed in the United States. Kurt started his own nursery and became a springboard for many future nurserywomen and nurserymen, as well. But in the end, it was Richard who started the whole process, for which I am forever grateful.”
After his first internship with Bluemount Nurseries, Ferenc “went on a walkabout” for about nine months. He travelled to Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji and New Zealand. He was 23 and had never travelled alone.
“I met so many amazing backpackers and learned quickly that travelling by yourself can be very tricky. You have no one but yourself to rely on. When you get sick, which I did, there are no parents or friends there to help you. You grow up fast and realize quickly that you have to make it,” he says.
He’s been able to use lessons learned from his 9-month trip throughout his career.
“I had some insecurities at the beginning of my trip, I can see some of that in some of the young people here,” he says. “I didn’t have someone I could talk to or ask questions of, so I tell the young people here they have me for that. I had to learn to trust in my capabilities and I try to pass along that lesson.”
Ferenc says the experiences he gained from his journey made it clear that helping others when he is able is the most important thing he can do.
“Sometimes, you have to go to the past to find inspiration for the future,” he says.
In 1995, he immigrated to the United States and left everything behind in Switzerland, much like his father did when he left Hungary for Switzerland.
Ferenc jokes that he chose to immigrate to the U.S. because he watched too much American television. In all seriousness, he found a love of perennial production in North America after his Bluemount internship.
He joined Cavano’s Perennials in 1998 and developed a deep appreciation for the work that founders George and Marlene Cavano started, as well as the work their son Tom had preserved when he took over the business. Ferenc and business partner Taylor purchased the business in 2015.
“My mission in business is to continue growing Cavano’s and its people. I want to make the previous owners, George and Marlene Cavano, and Thomas and Nancy Hensler, proud. They trusted me and Taylor to continue the legacy of Cavano’s Perennials.”
Ferenc can’t pinpoint a specific instance that makes him the proudest of his team because he says they do so every day.
“Without the team, Cavano’s is nothing. I am extremely proud of employees who started their careers at Cavano’s. We have several employees who’ve been here their entire career,” he says.
The Cavano’s team is not afraid to make mistakes because Ferenc understands that is part of the learning process.
“I tell people, ‘You’re going to make mistakes and you will kill some plants in the process.’ But I am there to guide and teach them,” he explains. “After a while you can see the development of the individual and see them blossom. It takes time and it is worth every minute. I received the guidance and patience from my mentors, and now I can give back.”
Taylor has noticed that Ferenc does more listening with the Cavano’s team than he does giving instructions. That, coupled with teaching them how to learn from mistakes, gives them a real sense of responsibility, Taylor adds.
“He has really good instincts for people and for business,” Taylor says.
Building a solid and successful team means giving credit every time it is due.
“Whenever Cavano’s is successful, the team gets the credit. When we fail, I take the blame. I, along with my team, try to create an environment of trust for our employees. I always like the quote, ‘Our people succeed because we allow them to fail.’ After a failure, comes change. Change is good. Think about the failure and how to improve on it. Think about the process and how you can make it more efficient. You must build a dedicated team, then encourage and inspire them. Your managers are a vital part in team building,” Ferenc says.
He also acknowledges adaptability and confidence as vital principles.
“Once you understand that set schedules and goals with your team can change at any time, you must be confident and adaptable to make the necessary changes. Show your team that you are confident and can adapt quickly, and the team will follow and contribute to the process,” he says.
He also recommends staying positive and focused.
“You must always try to be positive and motivate your team. Through positivity and focus, the team can overcome difficult situations and reach their goals that were set by you,” he says.
And all of these approaches are important when dealing with change, which doesn’t have to throw your plan or your team for a loop.
“Change should be embraced — it is a challenge. Change occurs all the time. Nothing is constant,” he says. “Human nature is to not like change, and sometimes to even to fear it. Once you make a change and it is a success, keep pushing. If you make a change and it is a failure, keep pushing harder. Over time, your people will embrace changes because it becomes a part of who they are. They will see and believe in the benefits to them and the company.”
Ferenc also find inspiration from his business partner. The pair worked side by side for seven years and became good friends before they became co-owners of the nursery.
“Taylor has experience in the corporate world. Our varied backgrounds complement each other very well,” he says.
Taylor is equally inspired by Ferenc.
“What’s great about working with him is we don’t always agree, but the level of trust and familiarity we share is something I don’t think I could find in another person or business partnership,” Taylor says.
There are no foes in Ferenc’s world. Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nurseries, says Ferenc has a way of bridging all gaps and bringing everyone together.
“A few years ago at MANTS, Ferenc, Taylor and Tom invited all of their customers and suppliers to an old-school jazz concert where the trio played for everyone. I walk into the room a little late and sit up at the front. When I looked around the room, I could see a lot of my customers, his customers, my competitors and their competitors. To pull together that event where we’re all breaking bread together and sharing a night out was so cool. It shows that the pie is big enough for everybody,” Steve says.