Remembering an Entrepreneur We Loved
I met Horace Hagedorn, who died recently at the age of 89, when my firm was hired in 1988 to help him with advertising and strategy. The use of the word help is deliberate; Horace, I soon found, was unlikely to relinquish control over this area.
He loved advertising. His belief in it was religious -- both as a practitioner and as a direct beneficiary of it; he loved its craft and power. Horace was, in fact, working in advertising when he met Otto Stern, a refugee from Hitler's Germany who had arrived in America via Cuba and was running a mail-order nursery in Geneva, N.Y. Otto's plants were looking bedraggled after the U.S. Postal Service had its way with them, and in searching for an answer, the two of them happened upon the work of a horticulturist named O. Wesley Davidson. They hired Davidson to develop a water-soluble fertilizer. It was named Miracle-Gro by Horace's wife.
In 1951, the first Miracle-Gro ad ran in the New York Herald Tribune; Horace and Otto ponied up $2,000 each, and Horace wrote the ad. It was a full-page, long-copy sales engine, typical of the direct-mail ads of the era. And true to the postwar infatuation with science, it was action-packed with claims about laboratory tests and amazing results. The ad paid for itself 10 times over, and Miracle-Gro was off and growing.
Long before the chatter about the power of a brand, Horace turned nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into an emotional experience. Long before the notion of the virtual corporation, Horace outsourced manufacturing and focused on marketing and sales. I remember him telling me that he once instructed James Whitmore, his longtime spokesperson, to bite into a tomato picked from the vine during a commercial shoot. The director fought with him -- it would be "messy" -- but Horace recognized that it captured a hot summer moment (and truth) in a sensual way. This was his touchstone; Horace's advertising was never edgy, hip, or cool. He loved testimonials, side-by-side demonstrations, university tests, punchy claims -- the trusted techniques that worked as well as the classic trowel or spade.
I'll remember Horace as a true original, unhybridized, a bushelful of contradictions: stubborn but sentimental, steely and twinkly, old-school formal but startlingly earthy. For years he rebuffed the giant companies that came knocking on his door. But in 1995, a different kind of opportunity appeared: the Scotts company, a legendary brand itself that had fallen on hard times. Because of the value and profitability of Miracle-Gro and the poor performance of Scotts, Horace, who had bought out Stern, was able to engineer a merger that gave the Hagedorn family no cash -- they didn't need any -- but nearly 50% of the combined operation. Today Horace's son Jim is chairman and CEO of Scotts, which has annual revenue of more than $2 billion.
Horace became a full-fledged philanthropist after the deal. His focus was on causes relating to kids, families, and the environment. He was fond of saying: "You can't keep taking stuff out of the earth; you have to put something back."