NORTH CAROLINA, USA: In the latest edition of FloraCulture International, we interview Abe van Wingerden, who, alongside his brother Art, own Metrolina Greenhouses, one of the largest, the single-site heated greenhouse in America. The 162 roofed acreages, located in the Charlotte region of North Carolina, ships out more than 180 trailer loads of products for big-box retailers, mass merchandisers, home improvement chains, and retail partners, including Lowes, WalMart and Home Depot.
As Abe’s family surname suggests, he can trace his family roots to the well-known Dutch horticultural family. His father and mother, Tom and Vickie van Wingerden, set up the wholesale plant business after immigrating from Holland in 1972. This year, Abe was appointed as the USA representative for the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH). In this interview, he talks about the nearly 60-year-old business and his hopes for the future.
FCI: How would you describe Metrolina Greenhouses?
Abe van Wingerden: “We are a $300 million, mid-size company, but we are still a family business. We believe our team is our number one asset, and we do all we can to deliver a world-class employee experience.
Our core values are ‘Integrity, Innovation, Safety, Work Ethic, and Quality’. We also operate with a 2030 Business plan Strategy document as our core, and this document allows all employees to know how their role fits into one or more of our four strategies. We have two locations and have about 800 full-time employees with 500 seasonal staff added in the spring. Additionally, we operate a 1,000 person service team that goes into the stores and assures the product is merchandised and displayed correctly.”
What does Metrolina Greenhouse grow?
We grow around 80 million plants per year in various shapes and sizes to our three retail partners. We have seen significant growth in the last 15 years as we were only a $70million company back in 2007. We grow mainly annuals and perennial for big-box retailers in the United States, but we also supply tropicals, veggies, trees, and shrubs for our customers.”
What is the number one lesson you have learnt during this global pandemic?
“That people are our most important resource, and communication is their most important tool.”
How has technology helped you keep an eye on consumer behaviour?
“The Daily Scan sales downloads from our retail partners allow us access to a treasure trove of data about our sales. Still, the key is applying that data to make significant decisions on both replenishment and forecasting.
For example, we use data from Weather Bell to download five years to weather data by zip code to match up with the sales data. This planning allows us to say, ‘The last four times it was 70-degrees, and sunny gave us an XX% increase in business. The last four times it was 62-degrees, and cloudy gave us an XX% change in the business’. This analytical way of looking at the business allows us to drive a five per cent to ten per cent increase in business without growing more products and making us more efficient. We use much of this same data mining in our environmental systems in the greenhouse to know our plants’ optimal watering and temperature needs.
We invest in several different technologies to drive our business. This investment is not restricted to sales technology, instore apps, in-house robotics, or any other innovation. Bottom line, we attempt to innovate in all of the work we do each day as it is the core strategy of the company.”
Ornamental horticulture has experienced one of the best years ever, there is more demand than supply, but is growing more products always the best solution?
“We look at the current sales rate as the “New Normal”, which is our yearly run rate. We have had 15million new gardeners enter the space in the last year, and if we only keep half of them, then our business will continue to grow. Consumers have invested a great deal of money and time in their homes the last year in the form of water features, gazeboes, outdoor living space, and other projects that are driving the need for plants annually in their yards. Even as we have “anniversaried” strong months in May and June that pandemic induced last year, we see an actual sales rate in the business this year in those months. Additionally, the work from home economy will not go back to 2019 levels and will settle at a new norm of more people working from home, which typically has led to more sales in live goods. Net, we are bullish, and we think 2020-2021 is the new baseline, but what we have effectively done as an industry is the fill the gap of supply vs demand, so the key is to maintain that so we don’t get back in an over-supply situation.”
Who has been your greatest inspiration in the ornamental horticultural industry?
“My Dad, Tom van Wingerden. While he did not always agree with my ideas, and I did not always agree with his, I was ALWAYS inspired by his drive and passion for this business.”
How big is the pressure to produce more sustainably?
“I don’t see it as pressure. I see it as the right thing to do because it is good for business. We have a four-tier sustainability plan for the company we have implemented and executed over the last five years.
As you step into the AIPH board as a representative for Region 4. What are you looking to achieve for the members in your area?
“My job is to represent our industry as a whole, not just a portion of it. This position will involve learning from my peers and doing all I can to gather feedback on our area’s regional needs, even if they don’t impact Metrolina directly. I look forward to the challenge and responsibility.”