November 29, 2013

Gossip and mythology


My column was missing from the last edition of Landscape Trades and as your editor explained, it was for a good reason. I received a kidney transplant on July 16 and I have been in recovery since that date. I am strong enough to complete the column for this edition. I want to thank those of you who took the time to email your well wishes and prayers. My journey with renal failure has been a long one, diagnosed twelve years ago and on dialysis for the last six. Not what I had planned for my later years.

This edition, I am addressing the issue of gossip and mythology, something that prevails in this trade of ours. Many years ago, in the early Eighties, I was sitting with a group of people at a trade show banquet in the historic Banff Springs Hotel. The topic was Wade Hartwell, who owned Golden Acres, a Calgary garden centre. The consensus of the gossip was that he was not near as successful as he claimed to be. I listened. I didn’t have a dog in this fight so I did not have an opinion, one way or the other. Wade walks into the banquet hall, larger than life, and almost every sales rep in the room jumped up and rushed over to shake his hand. Interesting, I thought. What I heard was that he was not all that successful, yet what I saw were many sales people courting his favour.  An old adage says, “Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” This applied to what I was experiencing. Perhaps, those who were gossiping, were envious and wished to deny his success?

When I hear gossip, and I do, I often go directly to the source to ask for his side. Most people have been quite delighted that I took the time to listen to what they had to say regarding the gossip that circulated within the trade about them.

One of my favourite stories also happened back in the Eighties. I was friends with Bob and Dee Lauder who owned Valley Sod Farm, close to Regina. One January morning, I received a phone call from their largest competitor. He was breathless, telling me that, “Their equipment is up for sale and they have fled the country!” My, my, what a juicy piece of news. Two phone calls later and I discovered their sod delivery truck was for sale, as they had purchased a larger truck — and as to having fled the country, they were in Barbados, on a winter vacation. Gossip and reality are not the same thing, but you already knew that, right?

Here is what I can tell you: The more successful you become, the more people will gossip about you. That is a fact and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. People seldom find it worthwhile to gossip regarding a third-place finisher or someone who does not rise close to the top in anyone’s score card.

When starting out my career in the late Seventies, few in the trade took me seriously. I was doing strange things such as selling perennials with tags and information sheets, something that was not done at the time. I was buying up bedding plants at the end of May, fully believing that there was a much later market waiting to be exploited throughout June and into July. At the time, every greenhouse and garden centre put bedding plants on sale for half price on June 1st. I objected to the practice, and today, not a single retailer in my area continues with that fire sale. My doing things differently led to the gossip that I did not know what I was doing. In reality, I saw an opening for a much improved way of doing business, and I went for it. More often than not: Success belongs to those who take chances and do things

A rep from one of the largest nurseries in our province told me that there was no point in staying open past June 15, as all tree and shrub sales were finished by that date. And that garden centres would never, ever replace the nursery as a primary source of plant sales. Fortunately for me, I didn’t listen. I followed my own path based upon customer observation and not what had always been done. Those operators who always do what they have always done, have to expect that they will always get what they always got and sometimes, a little less.

“Success has many fathers, whereas failure has but one.” If you try something new and it does not work out the way you had hoped it would, there will be no shortage of people saying, “I tried to tell him not to do it, but he wouldn’t listen.” But, if the idea does work, watch as people come out of the woodwork to claim it for theirs.

We have a very special building in Regina that was constructed in 1963. It was built for the Saskatchewan Power Corporation. The building has a curve and it is several feet longer than the land it occupies. It was on the leading edge of architecture when built, and still admired for its style and function.

The architect was Joe Pettick, who was a long time customer of mine. Over the years, I heard many people lay claim to being the genius behind this architectural gem. One of my friends is also an architect and he said it best. “Anyone who walked through Joe’s office at the time has laid claim to being the inspiration for the building.” I love that statement. It confirms that success has many fathers.

One day, I was having coffee with Mr. Pettick at his downtown office. He was in his eighties. I asked him about all the different people who claimed credit for the building. He laughed and said, “I have heard those stories, too. Here is what I tell people. There is plaque in the lobby of the building. It reads that I am the architect. There are no other names. That is good enough for me.” He knew the truth and was secure of his place in history.

Sometimes, family members or friends will carry on what I call urban myths regarding the importance of someone they know. One afternoon at my garden centre, a woman approach me and introduced herself as being the niece of a woman. I said, “it is clear to me that you think that I know your aunt, but I don’t think I do.” She was taken aback. She said, “But it was my aunt who helped get you started. You always turned to her for advice.” She was adamant. I asked where the aunt lived and there was still no connection.

I know who helped to get me started and I have always been careful to include them in my gratitude. I have never pretended that I did everything by myself. But I still didn’t know who her aunt was. She left my place hurt and confused. I suspect that her aunt was watching television and my gardening show was on. She told her family that she had helped get me going. Nice story, but it wasn’t true. The problem is that the family believed her and now the myth had become a reality, at least for them.

Myths are hard to dispel, once a family member starts to repeat them. My father was born and raised in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. He told us many stories of growing up there. One was of listening to the waves lap against the shore and how they helped him to fall asleep at night; and the other was the five mile walk to school, uphill, both ways, every day. In 2001, I visited Glace Bay. My grandfather’s house that he built in 1904 is still occupied by my dad’s family. Here are two of the things I learned about our family mythology. The house is at least a thousand feet from the shore, so if my dad could hear the waves lapping, he was Superman. The second reality I discovered was that my grandfather’s house was the second house from the school. My dad could have gotten up at five to nine and still been on time. Every family has mythology and they make for good stories, but they are often not true.

To finish, when I tour Edmonton, visiting greenhouses and garden centres, invariably the gossip is about Hole’s, the leading garden centre in the Edmonton area. I always tell the gossiper the same thing, “You should get down on your knees every night and thank the Lord there is a Hole’s in your neighbourhood.” Hole’s has never given its stock away, always keeping their prices up. Other garden centres can set their prices a bit lower than Hole’s and still make decent money. If Hole’s was to lower its prices, then the other garden centres would have to drop theirs by even more, and profitability could slip away. It is to everyone’s benefit to have a first-rate garden centre in their area that does not discount.

Keep that in mind as you stay on the road to success.

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.