Bissett Nursery, a three-generation family business in a mostly unautomated industry, learned how to use up-to-date technology to make itself indispensable to its customers

Jay Ratto was feeling desperate. the landscape contractor had been hit hard by the recession, and he'd watched his high-end residential sales dwindle as Long Island homeowners became more demanding and more tightfisted. It was the the spring of 1991, and two prospective customers were giving him a particularly hard time. He'd shown them other jobs he had done, recommended plants and shrubs at nurseries and in books, and walked them through blueprints drawn by his top-notch design staff. "But they were still really hesitant," recalls Ratto. "They were having a hard time envisioning everything." Ratto found himself spending time and money redrawing blueprints in what was starting to seem a futile attempt to woo those customers. "The hell with it," he finally said. "I'm tired of redrawing."

He'd reached the point where he was willing to try anything. Jim Vazzana, design consultant for Bissett Nursery Corp., in Holtsville, N.Y., had been "all over me like a cheap suit" to try his new computer-imaging service, says Ratto. "But I was stubborn." Vazzana had explained that he would take a picture of a prospect's house, scan it into his computer, and, selecting from his custom-built database of more than 4,000 images, produce a "rendering" of the property as it would look if professionally landscaped. Ratto, though still skeptical, decided to work with Vazzana to create computer-generated pictures that showed the two prospects' houses completely landscaped. As it turned out, the clients "were completely wowed," says Ratto. He won both jobs -- worth about $75,000 total -- and became a dedicated convert to imaging.

Over the past two years, Ratto has more than tripled his residential sales (from $150,000 to $600,000), has increased his average sale by at least 10%, and has eschewed blueprints in favor of imaging as a marketing tool. "I buy a lot more from Bissett now," says Ratto. "We do an image, and then we put together a plant list to work within the client's budget. We have a much better relationship than we had in the past." And for Bissett Nursery, that was the idea all along.

Jimmy Bissett, 30, estimates that the company's computer-imaging technology, in only two years, has generated about $7.5 million in additional sales for his customers, 75% of whom are small contractors like Ratto. About $3 million of that new business went back to Bissett Nursery, a $15-million to $20-million rewholesaler of nursery materials, hard goods, and lumber. Computer-imaging technology is a service that keeps customers loyal, and it has given Bissett a competitive edge in an unkind economy.

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Only 10 years ago computers and other modern office technologies were as foreign to Jimmy, the company's vice-president, and his father, Jim Bissett Jr., as they were to just about everyone else in the nursery business. In fact, Jim, who still owns the company, was downright distrustful of the new equipment. He had seen others in his industry attempt to automate and "fail miserably." He and his grandfather had started out as roadside peddlers 30 years ago, and they'd grown the business into one of the largest horticultural rewholesalers on the East Coast by getting their hands dirty, not by punching keyboards.

But in the early 1980s things began to unravel. The Long Island construction frenzy had fueled tremendous growth. From 1984 to 1985 the Bissetts' sales grew from $6 million to $10 million, but Jim and Jimmy were still running the nursery as if it were a mom-and-pop operation. Invoices were still written by hand, bookkeeping often ran a full month behind day-to-day operations, receivables averaged 60 to 90 days, and inventory control was pretty much a joke. "Every morning Jimmy and I would ride through the nursery and make mental notes of the stock," recalls Jim. "We never even got out of the truck to count." But the worst was, "the line of customers was out the door," he says. "Sometimes they had to wait for their invoices for 25 minutes after their trucks were loaded." Since Bissett was one of the few nurseries that offered one-stop shopping for landscape contractors, "customers were forced to come here," says Jim. "But they might have chosen to go elsewhere if they could have. We just weren't serving them properly."

Jimmy -- who was then working in the yard, waiting on customers -- and Jim knew the construction boom wouldn't last forever, and the company was in danger of losing business when the building pace slowed down. The Bissetts realized they had to regain control. And Jimmy had a vision for the nursery. He wanted the company to grow, with a focus on vertical integration, but he didn't want to incur huge labor costs. "I knew what my goals were, and I wanted to find the quickest way to get there," he says. As it happened, the "quickest way" was through Bob Pospischil, Jimmy's brother-in-law, who was then a marine fighter pilot based in California. The former Top Gun flight instructor was comfortable with the intricacies of both technology and finance, and the intuitive, often impulsive nurserymen hoped Pospischil would be their rock. He agreed to sign on as chief financial officer in August 1985.

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Pospischil spent his first two months at the company as a student, making his way through buying, sales, shipping, customer service, and accounting. "I wanted to see how everything was integrated," he says. "My goal was not to change the business but to use technology to meet the business's needs." His priority, he quickly discovered, was to streamline order entry and inventory control -- functions that had grown far beyond the company's current capabilities. "Bob and I had quite a few arguments," Jim recalls. "I knew we needed to computerize, but I just wasn't willing to accept that we could do it." With Pospischil's analysis, however, Jim finally had to admit that computerization looked like the only solution to his most pressing problems. The company had reached its productivity limit -- four order takers could write no more than 200 invoices a day. Period.

Two and a half months -- and $135,000 -- later Pospischil was ready to introduce a wary Bissett Nursery to its IBM System 36, complete with customized software and a source code. "The women who were going to use it first -- the order-entry employees -- were very apprehensive," recalls Pospischil. "I told them, 'This is a tool. It's like a shovel." One at a time, the order takers went to the nursery's software vendor to learn data entry. Initially, Pospischil set up the computer in a mobile trailer and sent employees out there to practice by entering the previous day's manual log.

On St. Patrick's Day, 1986, at 8 a.m., Bissett Nursery "went live." And as Jim Bissett watched anxiously, he saw his worst fears confirmed. At 8:30 a.m., a glitch shut the system down. Customer lines backed up. Jim panicked. "We'll start writing orders manually," he insisted, convinced that his initial apprehension was justified. "But I was wrong, thank God," he now says. Within 15 minutes the problem was fixed, and the lines shortened immediately. Even so, Jim was still distrustful -- he insisted that all company records be backed up manually for one more year. "It was more out of fear and ignorance than anything else," he admits.

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"Our first year was rough," says Pospischil. "There were a lot of long nights and a lot of questions." Jimmy and Jim had relied on instinct to guide their strategic planning. So when they first began analyzing the computer's reports, it was like putting on a first pair of glasses after years of nearsightedness. The new system revealed customer demographics, products sold, and total sales -- reports that Jim admits "totally amazed" him.

"For the first time, I had information on what sold and what didn't," he says. "So I began buying specifically for the needs of the customer, not just on impulse." He learned, for example, that the nursery's live-Christmas-tree market was declining, leaving the company with useless stock at the end of the year. So at the end of 1987 Bissett bought trees based on the previous year's sales and sent promotional fliers to the customers who had bought trees in 1986. "For the first time, we sold all our stock that year," says Jim. "The computer doesn't fix the problems for you," Jimmy explains, "but it lets you know where the problems are."

And what the Bissetts were discovering is that such knowledge gives power -- both to them and to their customers. In an instant a customer could, for example, get a complete list of his or her previous purchases -- a strategic edge for small contractors like Paul Slabowski, owner of Green Terrain Landscaping, in Medford, N.Y., and a Bissett customer for 15 years. "Just this past week I asked them to tell me how much salt I used last year," says Slabowski. "Now I can buy in bulk and get a better price." Bissett was also in a position to pass along market trends, informing garden centers, for instance, that annual and perennial sales had, respectively, doubled and tripled in the past three years, and alerting small contractors that growing concern over water conservation was prompting increased demand for drought-tolerant plants. The Bissetts were discovering that their access to current information was enabling them to define their markets in a way that engenders loyalty and dependence. The results have been dramatic. Since 1982 the company's customer base has burgeoned from 600 to 7,500, while its staff has grown from 50 to just 120.

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Of course, that marketing effort was costing plenty. Bissett was spending about $130,000 a year on catalogs and advertising. About $80,000 of that paid for production. To reduce production costs and enhance the timeliness of Bissett's promotional materials, Pospischil secured the go-ahead to purchase desktop-publishing hardware and software for about $40,000. "With the first catalog, we saved enough to pay for the system," says Pospischil.

As they assessed Bissett's position in the marketplace, Jim, Jimmy, and Bob recognized that all their high-tech purchases had been informed with the same sense of purpose. Bissett Nursery had evolved as a valuable resource to its customers. And that is why, in 1989, when a California-based software company tried to dazzle Bob and Jimmy with an imaging system that produced computer-generated pictures of landscaped properties, they listened politely but hesitated. "Great technology, great product," they thought. "Not for our business, though." But the presentation stayed with them, and over the next year they spoke frequently of how imaging might fit into their business.

Back in Long Island's construction-boom days, Jim relates, "you didn't need to be a salesman -- you just had to show up. Now you need to be intelligent and articulate, and you have to have a presentation." Jimmy and Bob observed that if imaging could help contractors improve their presentations, it would give them a real edge on the competition. Pospischil says, "We had a feeling that this technology wasn't going to go away, and we thought that the people in the industry who need the technology should participate in developing it."

With every new technology investment, Bissett had trained employees not only to run the machines but also to master and exploit all their capabilities. Since the imaging system would be so completely new to all of them, finding and training the right person was crucial. "I wasn't going to buy the technology unless I had the right person to run it," says Jimmy. He approached Jim Vazzana, a landscape contractor who was going out of business. Vazzana had absolutely no computer experience, but Jimmy had long admired his keen eye for design. He was personable and a good salesman, and he understood Bissett's business. Moreover, he was easily sold on the potential value of imaging. "When I was a contractor, I'd bring clients around to all the jobs I had done," he says. "Then they'd get home, sit down at the kitchen table, and say, 'I like the gazebo, and I like the pond, but what will it look like at my house?" He relished the idea of being able to impress them with a picture.

Vazzana came on board as a computer-design consultant in October 1990, and a month later the $45,000 imaging system arrived, complete with software and a built-in database of photographs. But the more Vazzana experimented, the more disenchanted he became. "Most of the images had been scanned from books. The resolution and detail were really bad," he says. So the following spring he dusted off his 35-millimeter camera and hit the road, taking his own photos of flowers, trees, shrubs, rocks, waterfalls -- all the components of landscaping. He scanned them into the computer and eventually, replaced the old database.

Being first has its advantages and its disadvantages. It was tough to introduce contractors to this untested, expensive marketing tool. Imaging was pretty much unknown in the nursery business, and like Jay Ratto, many of Bissett's customers were suspicious and not inclined to spend $200 to $400 for a rendering. So Vazzana took matters into his own hands. He took his camera to sites of newly constructed homes, photographed them, and scanned them into the computer. Using his best design instincts, his database, and his stylus, he produced pictures of the houses in fully landscaped settings. "I'd grab a contractor, give him the rendering, and say, 'Here's the address -- go. If you get the job, come back and pay me," he recalls. For contractors, the proof was in the pudding: more than 95% of those who used Vazzana's pictures in their pitches landed jobs and came back to Bissett to buy at least some of their materials. As for his own "in your face" marketing, Vazzana says, "I still do that, and I'll always do that, until I've got everybody that walks through the gates as my clientele."

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Jimmy Bissett credits imaging, and the main computer system, with helping the company weather the tough recession years. "We were a very strong company going into the recession, and I feel we've stayed fairly strong," he says. Sales, which dropped 20% from 1989 to 1991, are on their way back up, though they have not yet reached their prerecession level. Nonetheless, the company never went into the red. Bissett's investments in new technologies helped the company grow by nearly 100%, with no appreciable increase in its already lean staff. Better control over inventory meant that precious dollars weren't sitting idly on the shelf, and that put the company in a strong cash position. But most important is that Bissett's intelligent application of electronic imaging has provided its customers with a potent marketing tool and tied them to Bissett more intimately than ever.

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Donna Fenn is a free-lance writer based in Pelham, N.Y.


Within the past year the folks at Bissett Nursery Corp. have realized that computer imaging might be more than just a marketing tool. "We feel we're the best landscape imagers in the United States right now," says chief financial officer Bob Pospischil. "We have the best database. Nobody comes close." Even though imaging systems are proliferating, the databases that come with them are, well, inferior, he says. So, he and the others at Bissett reason, if we're entrepreneurs, and we've got something no one else has, let's sell it. Bissett is engaged in patenting and packaging Jim Vazzana's database, breaking it down into one main general database and several regionally specific ones. In fact, Bissett's imaging expertise is now being applied to the development of a new home-improvement database that will enable contractors to show prospective customers exactly what that new kitchen or redecorated family room will look like. "We'll get someone else to distribute and market the databases, because that's outside our area of expertise," says Pospischil.

A skeptic might point out that fiddling with databases is, in fact, worlds away from selling rhododendrons. Not so, says Pospischil. He points out that many contractors do home-improvement work in the off-season, so Bissett is simply taking another opportunity to solidify the bonds with its clients. And owner Jim Bissett Jr., who now spends a good deal of his time raising thoroughbred horses, notes that most of contractors' business in the coming years will come from "re-dos," both in landscaping and in construction, and that imaging will have to play an integral role. "I'm a believer," he asserts.