You won’t find Bill and Ryan Van Wilgen hiding at their desks behind closed doors. There isn’t a job at the garden center they won’t do.
Bill Van Wilgen, Owner of Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford, CT, never wanted to repeat the mistakes of his father and grandfather that nearly killed their family nursery business. When Bill’s grandfather died, his father didn’t know enough about how things worked to lead the company through the loss.
Today, this grower, retail nursery and gardener-centric shop grosses about $5.8 million in annual sales, operates three seasonal garden marts and is thriving, with last year’s sales 11 percent ahead of the previous year. Under Bill’s hands-on direction, the company has stayed true to its roots as growers, has inspired department managers to pull it through a perilous period and has put a well-groomed successor in place.
In the summer of 2007, Bill decided his only child, Ryan - who will ultimately take over as owner - needed an apprenticeship at another family operated garden center. So Ryan packed his pickup truck that September and drove west from the Connecticut coast to Portland, OR, for a yearlong post at Al’s Garden Center, where he worked in retail and production, then helped improve Al’s plant distribution system.
In June 2008, doctors told Bill he had leukemia. When he first battled cancer, a 2002 diagnosis of breast cancer, Bill had worked around his surgery, and worked daily during chemotherapy and radiation, even mornings on treatment days.
But this time, the battle was even more intense. Bill was hospitalized for treatment for weeks at a time and in touch only via e-mail and daily phone conversations with his office manager.
In the final 10 weeks of Ryan’s 11-month apprenticeship at Al’s, he crisscrossed the country to Connecticut to help his father, his family and Van Wilgen’s, then back to Portland to finish his assignments at Al’s.
That left department heads essentially running Van Wilgen’s from late summer through the fall of 2008. The work of steering Van Wilgen’s through day-to-day operations, preparing for next spring, managing an expansion of the retail building and maneuvering through the crashing United States economy all fell to them.
Bill refused to put anything on hold: “We’re moving forward. We’re moving on. What I didn’t want anybody to think is that I’m not going to be here next year. I was a stubborn guy,” he says.
That period was valuable training for Ryan, who was thrust into a general manager role earlier than anyone had planned and knew he had to respect the seniority of Van Wilgen’s managers.
“Sending Ryan to Al’s was a good move,” says Bill. “He needed a taste of something besides Van Wilgen’s culture. It was hard to see him go because he was valuable here already, but he came back 10 times more valuable.”
When Bill returned part-time in 2009 for spring peak after a successful bone marrow transplant, Van Wilgen’s had already emerged stronger. Department heads not only handled the day-to-day tasks, but planned future promotions and initiatives. Ryan had gained valuable experience and earned credibility for the department heads’ trust for his time away.
“Those months,” says Ryan, “taught me a little bit about balance and dealing with a lot of stress, which I hadn’t had to do before. I had to realize when to be where and make sure I did my best for Al’s because I still worked for them.”
His time at Al’s taught him more about the garden center business and family business than four years of college, says Ryan.
“Jack was tough,” says Bill of Al’s Owner, Jack Bigej. “He would call Ryan up on his days off and say ‘OK, get your butt down here. We’re going to go out and buy some product,’ and Ryan would say, ‘I’ll be there at 8’ and he’d show up at 8:01 and Jack would say, ‘You know, we just missed some deals.’”
(Learn more about Al’s Garden Center in Garden Chic’s “StoreStyle,” on page 61 in this issue.)
A Leaner, Stronger Van Wilgen’s
Through those challenging times, Van Wilgen’s remained profitable, and emerged from that period leaner and stronger. “It brought everybody together as a team,” says Ryan. “They became their own circle instead of looking to Bill for advice and guidance.”
Van Wilgen’s thriving herb and vegetable program traces its origins to those dark days. Ryan joined the plans in progress and worked with the grower to help execute the program for the 2009 spring peak. It grows 95 percent of its herbs and veggies in coconut fiber pots with organic soil, organic fertilizers and no pesticides, then merchandises the plants with large tags made of biodegradable plastic. Point-of-sale signage offers recipe ideas like “sweet mint pesto” and “mint brownies.” The tag includes the name of the plant, its photo and a green logo of two hands cupped around soil and a seedling with the words “Van Wilgen Grown.” The large tags are expensive to produce, but plants with them sell 10-fold over those with standard tags. Sales for the department tripled from $40,000 to $120,000, in just the first spring thanks to expanding the selection - adding some heirloom and hard-to-find varieties of herbs and vegetables. The program has come to be a highlight of the garden center. “The margin on it is very good,” Ryan says.
Van Wilgen’s also grows 85 percent of its flowering annuals, 60 percent of its perennials and 15 percent of its nursery stock. It emphasizes its plant quality and craftsmanship by selling its own-grown products in pots with the “Van Wilgen Grown” logo.
In addition, 14 acres of the 58-acre property are dedicated to growing Christmas trees for customers to select and cut.
Van Wilgen’s annual Pansy Party - added in 2010 - kicks off spring at the end of March and beginning of April. Inspired by Al’s promotion of primroses for 49 cents each, Van Wilgen’s sells pansies in 4-inch pots for 89 cents each. The “89” is symbolic of Bill’s determination to battle leukemia. He left the hospital with a weakened immune system and orders to avoid crowds for 100-120 days. But on day 89, he was doing so well his doctor gave him permission to go out with his wife to a restaurant.
The pansy promotion sells more than 20,000 4-inch Van Wilgen’s-grown pansies, and draws customers to buy another 40,000 pansies Van Wilgen’s grows in 6-inch pots, bowls and basket containers. The promotion turned March from an $80,000 month to a $220,000 month.
Last spring, the peak was excellent, says Bill. The warm weather was perfect for an annual pansy promotion and kicked the season off to a strong start. “We’ve been doing this a long time, and we just got a year when everything clicked,” says Bill.
It used to be that landscaping was Van Wilgen’s bread and butter. But in 1990, Bill was “running ragged” and decided to better develop the garden center to diversify the business. In November 1992, he hired Robert Hendrickson from The Garden Center Group as a consultant. “He’s been with me ever since,” says Bill. “I had growing in my blood, but I’ve had to change my focus to be a business person.”
During a store renovation, Van Wilgen’s pared down its product assortment and has since stayed true to items for gardeners. Bill sums it up this way: “We used to carry buckets of bunny [manure] … and all the weird little do-dads. It was in one year and out the next, and we were always a year behind.”
Ryan continues, “We decided to do better at what we do best: we do plants and everything that goes along with plants.” That meant cutting non-gardening home decor or gift-related items, phasing out outdoor furniture and expanding and revamping garden-related lines like tools and pottery.
A few years ago Van Wilgen’s bought from three to six pottery vendors. Now, it purchases 99 percent of its pottery with the help of a Border Concepts consultant who advises on color, style and merchandising, and visits every spring to set up the pottery displays. The pottery category now grows by 4 percent annually.
Van Wilgen’s has become ruthless about product selection. “We have a saying,” says Bill. “‘If it’s still around at Thanksgiving and you bought it, you’d better know how to eat it for Thanksgiving dinner.’” What’s unsold by November is a money-loser, says Bill. “Trust me, I’ve eaten a few things, and I have a couple of managers who’ve eaten a few things.”
In sticking to what it does best, Van Wilgen’s started adding seasonal garden marts in 2010 with shops in Guilford and Old Saybrook. In 2011, it added a third mart in Milford.
Sales tend to grow by 30 to 40 percent in the second year of the marts, which are extremely profitable due to relatively low overhead. Ryan calls them “blooming plant vending machines” for Van Wilgen’s-grown plants.
Culture Built on Trust & Autonomy
Both Bill and Ryan watch the big picture, and Bill focuses on executing long-term plans, like a 10-year transition plan in the works that is naming Ryan an officer of the corporation, granting him an ownership share. Bill is also eyeing more opportunities for garden marts.
These days, Ryan is increasingly involved with day-to-day details and Bill is weaving in time to tend to his health and get away, preferably on his boat. Bill says, “I’m still here, but my focus is different and I take more time off.”
The key to Van Wilgen’s success is a company culture built on trust and autonomy.
“All of my managers are their own bosses,” says Bill. “I step in when they lose touch with the focus of the company or if I see something I want to do different. But they’ve been with me such a long time that they are coming to me with new ideas they want to do. So it’s kind of a joint effort. They take ownership.”
Employees also understand Bill and Ryan will do any job in the company. “Ryan and I are not afraid to go out and unload trucks all day,” says Bill. “That’s not beyond us. I don’t sit in my office as Mr. President not doing anything.”
igc retailer vital stats
Business founded 1920
Retail Locations North Branford - 1920; Seasonal marts: Guilford - 2010; Old Saybrook - 2010; Milford - 2011
IGC Retailer IGC 100 RankING No. 80
Annual Gross Sales $5.8 million
Percentage Retail 97%
Percentage Landscape Design 3%
Customer Count - up or down? Up 8%
Average Sales Trend Up 11%
Average Sale Per Customer $64.51
Inventory Turns Per Year 6.1
Customer Radius, in miles 20 miles
Number of people in radius 885,000
Number of garden centers in radius 6
Number of big box stores that sell L&G in radius 8
Estimated Space Allocation
Total Retail 47,000 square feet
Outdoor Sales 2.2 acres
Indoor Sales 6,500 square feet
retail greenhouse Growers Aid, 23,500 square feet
Landscape staging 500 square feet
Storage Warehouse 8,500 square feet
display gardens 12,000 square feet
Number of parking spaces 174
Hours of Operation
Mon - Sun, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Peak Mon - Fri, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Sat - Sun, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Winter Mon - Fri, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sat, 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Sun, closed
Full-Time Off season - 6-10, Peak season - 42
part-Time Off season - 1-2, Peak season - 55
Department Managers Off season - 4, Peak season - 9
Office staff Off season - 3, Peak season - 4
Payment & Registers
Credit Cards 82%
In-House Charge 1%
Number of Registers Year Round 3-10
POS System in use SimPOS!
Industry Associations/Group Affiliations
CGGA, CNLA and The Garden Center Group
Monthly Sales Percentages
Product Category Breakout
Green Goods 69.6%
Landscape Design & Install 3.2%
Casual Furniture .1%
Advertising Expenditures: 3.5% of total sales
Direct mail - newsletter 15%
Van Wilgen’s Success in the Trenches
From: IGC Retailer, January/February, 2013