Subscribe to Inc. magazine

Cultivating Growth

Behind the quaint New England facade of White Flower Farm lies a market-driven company fueled by repeat business and one of the highest average orders in the industry.
Advertisement

White Flower Farm has an almost storybook look to it. The white cottage and horse barns converted to offices nestle amidst manicured lawns, colorful flower beds, and hedgerows. Although White Flower is in the mail-order nursery business, about 15,000 visitors drop by its retail store from April to October. Many want to see for themselves the place so handsomely photographed in The Garden Book, White Flower's catalog. Some plan their visit for the one weekend each summer when cucumber sandwiches are served outdoors, with owner Eliot Wadsworth II and his wife, Sandra, helping with the iced-tea pitchers. This year, the sandwiches required 48 loaves of Pepperidge Farm extra-thin white bread.

"Right now, we've got 450,000 perennials in the fields," says the 43-year-old Wadsworth. "And every morning I get up and run these fields with my dog, looking for things like disease problems and water problems. What a marvelous thing to be doing for a living. The idea of being paid to be out making notes in the trial gardens is indescribable."

Yet this is no starry-eyed horticulturist with a tendency to lean on his hoe and gaze across the fields. With planting in some cases a year and a half ahead of fulfilling orders, and catalogs printed months in advance, the mail-order nursery business combines the advance planning and seasonality of the fashion industry with the perishability problems of the restaurant trade. And Eliot Wadsworth II is as comfortable poring over a spreadsheet full of numbers as perusing a field abloom with phlox, as familiar with leveraged buyouts as with species of iris. He is a tough-minded businessman who has found exactly the right business to be in.

White Flower Farm, selling only select flowers, sets the highest standards in the industry. Still, it is far from the biggest seller of flowers and bulbs through the mail. Companies like Breck's, W. Atlee Burpee Seed, and George W. Park Seed ring up several times White Flower's annual revenues of nearly $7 million. But where many others merely buy in, mark up, and redistribute most of what they sell, White Flower is a fully integrated company. It does everything -- growing, picking, warehousing, fulfilling telephone orders, shipping, even advertising. The decision to do everything has limited the growth of the company. It also has ordered its priorities. Wadsworth has put his capital into computers, greenhouses, fields, irrigation ponds, refrigerated warehouses, and shipping capacity. "When you add to all the physical investment a huge marketing investment," he says, "the equation just doesn't work." Hence, the overall strategy of White Flower Farm: dedicated service to repeat customers. White Flower showers its upscale customers with education, grooms them with unflagging service, and harvests the benefits -- loyal repeat buyers who, at over $60 a shot, undoubtedly place one of the highest average orders in the business.

"In a helter-skelter workaday world, White Flower shows it's possible to start with the clients' needs, work back, and still have a substantial financial success," says board member Bruce Schnitzer, a private merchant banker. "White Flower Farm is one of those places that restores the faith."

Located just south of Litchfield, Conn., White Flower Farm began as a hobby of a Fortune magazine writer named William Harris. Harris and his wife would leave their Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan on Friday afternoons and head for western Connecticut, they soon were bent over the gardens of their weekend home, a late eighteenth-century cottage. The name White Flower Farm, apparently, came from their foundness for white blossoms, which were easier to see as they worked the soil well past dusk. Although Harris turned his avocation into a mail-order business in 1950, he continued to run it more like a hobby right up until the mid-1970s. Which is when Eliot Wadsworth II showed up.

Wadsworth, out of business school, had spent a few years here, a few years there, without really finding his niche in the business world. He started out in investment banking in New York, where he got his first glimpse of leveraged buyouts. His next stop was Maine, where he co-owned several Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. While his partner oversaw day-to-day management, Wadsworth negotiated for real estate, built stores, hired and trained staff, and held the marketing reins. He was working nights and weekends, and, ensconced in the Maine woods, says he was "fearful of protracted bachelorhood." So he sold out to his partner, and went on to become an acquisitions analyst with now-defunct American Garden Products Inc., a Boston-based wholesaler and retailer. Wadsworth discovered then that "the guys who had the job I wanted were running nurseries." White Flower Farm, especially, caught his eye.

The place was beautiful, and it grew and shipped a quality product. It was also, in Wadsworth's view, "significantly undermanaged." Harris was close to 80 and in failing health." Whatever else was going on," Wadsworth recalls, "they had not compromised their standards of taste and quality." At the same time, Wadsworth saw his peers, perhaps nudged by the environmental movement and back-to-the-earth sentiments, turning to gardening. In short, he saw the wind at his back and a perfect opportunity: a business with good rootstock, good opportunity for growth, and, not so incidentally, the chance to fashion a wonderful lifestyle. He signed up as general manager.

After proving himself "honorable" to Harris, Wadsworth bought the business in January 1977 for a price he describes "in the neighborhood of annual sales," which were then approaching $750,000. His Wall Street experience came in handy, for this, he says, "was a leveraged buyout with the leveraged in capital letters." To his small earnings from his restaurant business, Wadsworth added loans from local farm cooperatives and working capital and mortgage money from the Bank of Boston. And he talked Harris into accepting some two-year promissory notes.

Since then, Harris's 50 acres, 4 farmed, have expanded to 300, more than 100 of which bear some 1,000 different flowers and shrubs. Although total sales in the mail-order nursery business have flattened out in the past few years, and more companies have entered the market, sales at White Flower have risen 10% to 15% a year. The staff has increased from 12 employees and 20 seasonal workers to 83 full-timers and 60 seasonal workers. And Wadsworth recently purchased an old manufacturing building in nearby Torrington, Conn., which will provide 100,000 square feet for new offices for the sales, customer service, and finance departments, currently bursting out of their quarters in converted farm buildings and stables.

Wadsworth claims to be pleased with the growth he's so carefully nurtured. Yet he is also concerned: "I worry we'll be seen as a go-go operation," he says, "a rocket ship willing to sacrifice quality to growth. And that's just not true. Our corporate strategy is simple: we will be the quality supplier. Period." That means being a nursery first and foremost, and a mail-order business second.

A few words about pink lavender back up this contention. Not too long ago, this new shade, offering a dramatic contrast to lavender's traditional smoky blue, was the talk among nursery owners. White Flower quickly planted some in its test gardens, and lovely pink blossoms resulted. Everybody was excited, and plans were made to pair the pink and the blue and photograph them for the up-coming catalog. About then, Landon Winchester, White Flower's staff horticulturist, happened by, cut a piece off a trial plant, and held it to his nose. "We can't sell this," he said. The smell was only slightly bitter, but the point was, it was not the expected aroma of lavender. You can buy pink lavender from other mail-order nurseries, but not from White Flower Farm.

"Eliot has a very clear idea of what White Flower Farm is, and his standards come through consistently," says Lesley Nelmes, White Flower vice-president and general manager. "He loves beautiful things and respects them. I don't think anyone here is confused about what we do." Pointing to a recently cleared meadow and on to newly planted azaleas and rhododendrons, all of this far from the view of most visitors to the retail store and street-side gardens, she adds: "He wants us to be what we say we are."

The message is clear to White Flower's new production manager, Greg Jones, who was hired away from Gurney Seed & Nursery Inc., a catalog nursery easily three times White Flower's size.He left Gurney "partly because after a while, the plants become like nuts and bolts. At most places," he says, "nurserymen deal only with small plants or cuttings and roots. They really don't see the finished product. At Gurney, there was a guy who could identify many varieties of trees by their roots, but show him a leaf and he was lost."

Wadsworth himself likes to quote what he considers a great advertisement for a small brewery: "We drink all we can. The rest we sell." "That's the way we feel about the plants," he says. "The gardens here are allegedly for the benefit of our customers, but the fact is, they are for us. We are in it for the love of plants, not just to sell them." But sell they must, and at what appears on the surface to be a disadvantage. Specialty growers, limiting themselves to a few or a single species of flower, can almost without exception grow their product more cheaply than White Flower. Thus, many varieties, wholesaled to other mail-order catalogs, are sold at prices The Garden Book cannot match. White Flower has never even tried to compete on price.

There are other problems as well. This year, there are shortages at White Flower Farm. Wadsworth avoids the temptation to buy replacements at wholesale, for to do so would be to lower the guard on quality control, an essential ingredient if customers are to return to White Flower year after year. Wadsworth is similarly unyielding with perishable surpluses. When White Flower fails to sell what it grows, he doesn't try to wholesale the extra plants elsewhere. Nor does he hold fire sales or try to finetune demand with last-minute advertising. He buries his mistakes -- literally. "We've tried a lot of things and essentially discovered it's throwing good money after bad. We've found it's best simply not to be too aggressive, not overcommit ourselves, not try to sell out every year to maximize the last dollar, because all we're going to do is offend the last 25% of the people who order."

Despite the problems, Wadsworth still believes in the White Flower way. He estimates that as many as one-third of the 250,000 clients who are sent White Flower's biannual catalog place at least two orders a year. "I think in the end, what the others are going to lose by their strategies is a clear identification with their product and an identification with their customers," he says, in an apparent -- though unspecified -- reference to Wayside Gardens, owned by George W. Park Seed Co. and one of Wadsworth's most formidable catalog rivals. "When you become a shipping warehouse in South Carolina, in the scorching heat, with big semitrailers arriving from Ohio, it's pretty hard to identify with a little old lady sitting on her porch in Vermont wondering whether her peonies are going to make enough roots, or whether the full moon is going to mean a hard frost for her garden. We don't have any trouble empathizing with her -- because we are doing the same thing she is doing."

In essence, the people who work at White Flower Farm are expected to sell education and service as well as to grow the biggest and best flowers. The Garden Book, for example, is not just a catalog. It is a beautifully written book filled with helpful advice and information for both beginning and experienced gardeners. The three most trusted words in home gardening these days may well be The Garden Book's sign-off:

Sincerely, Amos Pettingill

So graceful is the prose, so gentle the approach, so laid-back the sales pitch, that you practically forget you are a customer. Listen: "Tulips are the lipstick of the garden, adding a touch of color when and where it is most needed. They can be soft or bold, elegant or informal, but it's plain that if we didn't have tulips, someone would have to invent them. In our garden we make abundant use of a recent strain of tulips that can truly be said to be perennial. No, they will not last as long as peonies, but neither will we."

Wadsworth has made a lot of changes in his nine years at the helm of White Flower Farm, but there's one thing he didn't change. He kept Amos Pettingill in charge of prose and his gentlemanly mien the mode of doing business. People who come asking to see Amos Pettingill may or may not be disappointed.

"You're talking to him," Wadsworth says, should a visitor ask him to point out Pettingill. Wadsworth's predecessor, William Harris, created the persona. Wadsworth says he has just "shamelessly aped his style" and cooked up a signature to pen on letters. How does he envision this Pettingill fellow? "I see him as a 70-year-old uncle, somebody who has been gardening all his life, who has undertaken the job of helping you start your own garden. He looks like the face out in the hall," Wadsworth says, referring to a smiling, white-haired photograph of Harris.

"Actually," he continues, one foot up on his desk, "Amos Pettingill is not me. He's a distillation of the wisdom of everybody here. . . . We're just a bunch of Swamp Yankees trying to grow plants carefully and ship them carefully -- and we'll be tickled to death to do business with you." If that sounds a little bit like Amos Pettingill talking, it is hardly surprising, for Wadsworth admits it has become increasingly hard to determine where White Flower Farm stops and Eliot Wadsworth begins.

"I do believe companies have to have an internal consistency about what they do," says Wadsworth. "And for better or worse, that reflects the work habits and integrity of the boss." Walking to his car, the sight of a lone dandelion will have him stooped and grabbing. Wadsworth has the lawns mowed not once, but twice a week. "The place looks like a new penny 365 days a year," he says with pride. An unkempt nursery, of course, is a candidate for disease. "But I am also fussy, partly because it's a way of expressing your affection and respect for the people who work for you." He pays his people well. Managers earn top dollar and experienced tractor drivers make as much as $7.80 an hour, considerably more than at other nurseries.Wages, says Wadsworth, account for $1 of every $3 taken in. To be tight with salaries, Wadsworth knows, would be ruinous: he needs a dedicated, stable work force, because farming is so labor-intensive and, most of all, because his emphasis on tending plants and customers with equal diligence demands it.

"White Flower trains its people well," says an envious executive of a competing mail-order nursery. "When I've called to place orders, I've found the operators qualified to handle many horticultural questions. I love companies like that. They are really good for the whole industry." The telephone operators at White Flower Farm, who take about one-third of the orders, attend regularly scheduled briefing sessions led by staff horticulturist Winchester, so they can advise and inform customers. In slow times, operators are sometimes given assignments in shipping and in the fields. This is not only to ensure a full day's work for a full day's pay, but to expose them to what they are selling. "If you stand in a field of 35,000 phlox, you'll remember it for the rest of your life," says Wadsworth. "You may not remember all 22 of the colors or varieties we sell, but you will remember what they look like and smell like, and about when they were in bloom."

White Flower is such a customer-driven company that when Wadsworth talks about the probable impact of a big new computer on order processing, he speaks what others might consider a businessman's blasphemy: "the trick is to avoid the temptation to sell, sell, sell." Instead of programming the computer to prod telephone operators with slick, suggestive marketing aids, Wadsworth would rather it help solve gardening problems. "What would our director of horticulture, David Smith, say if he were on the phone?" He believes that perhaps before the end of this year the computer will be able, while processing an order, to flag potential problems: plants not hardy enough for a particular zip code; one sun-loving flower in an order of shade dwellers; a combination f colors that, if destined for the same location, might not blend well together.

Indeed, in the person of Landon Winchester, White Flower Farm functions almost as a clearinghouse for horticultural tips, pointers, and desperately sought advice. With close-cropped white hair, silver-framed glasses, and an unhurried, gentlemanly air about him, Winchester might pass for Amos Pettingill's younger brother. He came to White Flower about four years ago after a long career with the Brooklyn Botantical Garden and a stint as superintendent of horticulture for the city of New Haven. On a particularly busy days, he may take close to 50 calls, without ever ending a conversation with the words, "Sorry, we don't have it." He'll find out who does and call back.

White Flower Farm guarantees everything it sells, and Winchester is typically the one who placates dissatisfied customers. He is, to put it mildly, a soft touch with replacements, whoch he views as goodwill advertising. "Many people call with their boxing gloves on," he says during a lull between calls. "And you can't blame them. This seems to be part of what goes with the name 'mail order.' Many people write me later and say, 'I'm sorry, I thought you people were like the rest.'

"Take that caller from Illinois earlier this morning. He ordered two hollies from us two years ago. He put them under a dense oak tree where they received too much shade. Now there was no moral responsibility on our part to offer him replacements. They are not on our shade-tolerant lists, so they shouldn't have been planted there. On the other hand, he seemed like a decent enough Joe. I see the replacement of those two hollies, at about $25 plus shipping, not as a minus, but as a plus. We'll have a person who was so surprised we would do this that he'll talk to everybody at the office about it, and we'll have a spokesman in Illinois."

Winchester signed on with White Flower Farm because he was impressed with the emphasis on quality by director of horticulture Smith and with the clear signal sent by Wadsworth. "He told me he wanted a horticulturist who could give the right answers. There was no implication I would have to bend to commercial pressures," says Winchester. "If Eliot was selling motorcars, I think I would have been tempted to work here."

The fact is, Eliot Wadsworth charms and impresses almost everybody who meets him. Perhaps because he attended prep school, Harvard, and Harvard Business School, or because of that roman numeral after his name, or because he's as apt to be reading Shakespeare as the business section of the newspaper, people assume he hails from money. In fact, his upbringing was strictly middle class -- and New England Yankee. He is smart, handsome, and, in old-fashioned parlance, a "well-rounded individual."

If there is a sticking criticism of White Flower's owner, it is that he tries to do -- and does -- too much. All the recent logistics for a White Flower tour of English gardens were mapped out by Wadsworth, who personally scouted lodgings and restaurants. "It was fun," he says. A longtime follower of Horticulture magazine, and with no more publishing experience than his own mail-order catalog, he talked The New Yorker into buying the ailing magazine with him in 1981 and soon turned it around. Three years ago, White Flower was named a finalist in a magazine advertising competition sponsored by the Magazine Publishers Association. Listed alongside big Madison Avenue ad agencies as producer of the White Flower ads was the Isaiah Smith Agency of Litchfield, Conn. Who's Isaiah Smith? "Well, that's me, too," says Wadsworth.

"He has so much energy and enthusiasm that he has a tendency to say, 'I'll take care of that." Then he gets a call and there's just not enough time," says Lesley Nelmes. "If he were perhaps a little more realistic about his limitations. He'll say he'll take the photographs [of a particular flower for the catalog], but when that flower is in bloom, he's in Boston." She feels he needs to delegate more authority to the topflight managers he has hired. Because he so often "steps into somebody else's niche," Nelmes says, "he deprives them of the satisfaction of doing a job themselves."

Wadsworth pleads guilty, admitting he should have been entrusting more to others far sooner. Whether it's sooner or later, given his present schedule, some delegation seems inevitable.

Visited one morning last spring in his Litchfield office, Wadsworth -- wearing a green cable-knit sweater, khaki pants, tasseled loafers, and socks closer to pink than red -- had a healthy glow. There was no sign, as noon approached, that he'd been up for nearly eight hours. He'd left home in Brookline, Mass., before five, and, with a hired student behind the wheel, had sat in the backseat under a reading light porting through his briefcase during the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Litchfield. Since moving his family from the cottage at the farm to Brookline, each week he shuttles from one side of New England to the other. Restrained by his Yankee notion of how to grasp purse strings (tightly), which also limits him to $35 motel rooms, Wadsworth travels in an American sedan so undistinguished it might moonlight as an unmarked police car.

With his workday now approaching 12 hours, Wadsworth quits his office for a late-afternoon walk. His son, Eliot, he says, has worked at the farm the past two summers, putting in a couple of hours a day and punching a time clock. Eliot is eight and already knows the names of two to three dozen flowers and perhaps half that many weeds. Wadsworth's oldest daughter, Eve, age five, will start next summer. Natalie, but two, will have to wait. The notion seems a bit old-fashioned, but it would not displease Wadsworth if one of his children eased into his rubber gardening boots one day.

He passes his cottage and heads through a newly cleared meadow toward some recently planted elms. He stops by one of them, and rubs his hand along a crack where the bark has split. "The south side," he says. "The tree probably needs water." On he continues, to a hill overlooking what some employees refer to as "Lake Wadsworth." The one-acre pond was formerly a swamp. Snowshoeing there one day, Wadsworth saw that it hadn't frozen over and realized it must be spring-fed. He recently had the swamp cleared and an irrigation pond carved out, which also doubles as a place to swim and fish. Nearby, under a stand of mature oak trees, he planted laurel, rhododendrons, and azaleas in what he calls "a knockoff of a hillside at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh."

Walking back, a half moon shows in the fading blue of a brilliantly clear afternoon. Though it is barely sweater weather, Wadsworth worries aloud about the possibility of a frost that night. Back inside the office he asks for $20 from petty cash for the drive back to Boston. He's offered $30, but turns down the extra $10. "I'd probably just blow it," he says. After retrieving his overnight gear from the cottage, he is soon in his car and headed down the lane, past the gardens. Pasted on the back window of the sedan is a bumper sticker: Amos Pettingill for President.

Last updated: Feb 1, 1986




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: