September 28, 2017
Wade Hartwell
Wade Hartwell

Business plan: More and better


Wade Hartwell is one of those people you meet who is larger than life. Those people who attract your attention, whether it’s at a convention, in a meeting or one-on-one. Wade, the cofounder and original operator of Golden Acre garden centre in Calgary, Alta., is one of those people — and has been since entering our trade in 1964. Wade was quite adamant to let readers to know he owed his success to the great people he worked with, “From the managers to the carry-out kids. They were all part of a winning team.”

How did you get started in the trade?

My dad, Hildon Hartwell, was reading a magazine; an article said garden centres would be the next big thing in retail. I worked for General Electric at the time. My dad and I went on a whirlwind tour of garden centres. We visited 67 in two weeks. We got as far as Toronto to the east and Denver to the south. Our first-year sales were $137,000. [Note: Close to $1.5 million today.

What have you observed about the trade?

No matter how successful the operation, or its size, the split is always 60 per cent in the 12-week period between April 15 and the last week of June. The rest of the year accounts for 40 per cent. That has remained constant.

You were known as a risk taker, someone who did things differently. What were some of those things?

I was the first one to start bringing up truckloads of bedding plants and evergreens from California. I found growers who grew great plants, and different varieties than what we had seen in Calgary. I negotiated some good deals and those imports supplemented what we grew ourselves. I managed to bring in beautiful plants at a decent price, and I passed those prices on to my customers. I retained good margins and still moved incredible volumes. When I was in full swing, I would bring in 175 semi-trailers a season. 

I was also the first one to offer planters, ready to go, in a variety of sizes and price ranges. I imported ceramic planters from China and Vietnam and planted them. I had everything from tiny little planters to great big ones that needed delivery. Today, everyone is doing this, but at the time, I was the first. 

I found a plastic pot manufacturer with production problems. I agreed to take production over-runs in black, a colour not often seen in the day, at a much reduced price. I sold black planter pots, in many sizes, at a great price, but I still made good margins. 

What made you the success that you are known for?

I bought in volume and I sold in volume. I created a garden centre that was difficult to duplicate. I did surveys every year, to find out why people shopped at my stores. My surveyors would ask 20 questions; quality, service, knowledge and selection were always the top four reasons to shop at my store. I sold both plants and hardgoods that were not available at other places.

Hans de Jongh, the owner of Paridon Horticultural in Delta, B.C., had this to say about Wade — and it is accurate.  
I would phone Wade for an appointment and he would never say no. A booking would usually take a whole day, because he would go over his sales reports line by line and we would have numerous interruptions. I met every salesman from our industry in his office. Taking risks on inventory was normal for Wade. High volume at reasonable pricing was his motto. He would often pass on his savings to his customers.
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