Neil Vanderkruk leaves legacy of high standards for his industry
Neil Vanderkruk spent a lifetime ensuring that both his business and industry he worked in were a success.
His influence over the years was felt in business, media and public relations, municipal contracts and Landscape Ontario.
He arrived in Canada from Holland in 1952 at the age of 15. "It was a rough boat trip, and three family members, including my mother were injured on the way over." The family with seven children finally left Halifax after a few weeks by train for Hamilton.
Shortly after arriving in Hamilton, John Connon hired Cornelius Vanderkruk. Four years later they were equal business partners in the company.
Neil went to work for a local farmer for two years, before taking a job at an egg processing business. "Working at the farm, I was laid off every fall, so I moved on to a place where it would be year-long."
He was soon in charge of sales. In 1962, Neil went to work for Connon Nurseries, which was now fully owned by his father.
The original owner, Major John Connon passed away in 1961 at the age of 89. He had established the Connon Floral Co. in Hamilton on Oct. 24, 1906. In 1912, the company’s name was changed to John Connon Company. From 1916 to 1918, John Connon served overseas in WWI with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, where he earned the rank of Major. The company moved to several different locations until it was relocated to its Waterdown location in 1931, where it continues to operate today. The company celebrated its centennial in 2006.
When Neil began at Connon Nurseries it was small, but new markets were beginning to open for the company. At the time, sales of plants had a very short season. "I knew we needed to expand that, so I talked with John Bradshaw, garden editor for The Toronto Star. We saw a dramatic increase in sales at the time of Expo '67 and increased media attention."
When sales increased, Connon Nurseries began experimenting with growing plants in containers. "We were pioneers in containerized plants," says Neil.
During this time, Neil took over sales and purchasing, while his brothers Art was in charge of plant production and Cor handled the retail end of the business and supplying local landscape contractors. "It was Art who pushed container growing, Says Neil.
Cornelius retired in 1974, and three years later passed away. The three brothers continued to build on the strong foundation that their father and Major Connon had built.
In 1986, the brothers decided to divide the company into three separate businesses (A.V.K. Nursery Holdings, C.B. Vanderkruk Holdings, and Neil Vanderkruk Holdings. All three today operate very successful businesses.
Today, Neil Vanderkruk Holdings (Connon Nurseries) is one of Canada's largest wholesale nurseries serving customers throughout Canada and several Northeastern U.S. states. With over 1,000 acres in production, the company employs more than 200 employees.
Case and Mark Vanderkruk operate the company today. “To date, five generations of our family have worked here,” says Neil. “Three of my grandsons are now employed here.”
Neil says that one of the reasons the company saw a huge spike in business was his involvement with Landscape Ontario. “We became very well-known right across Canada,” says Neil. “I never passed on an invitation to a speaking engagement, which resulted in our (Connon Nurseries) growing reputation right across the country.”
Another aspect to the company’s success was staff members. “We have always had good people working for us. Today there are many long-term people with us. That is a very important part of our success.”
One of the early driving forces behind Landscape Ontario, Neil served as the president of the association from 1988 to 1989, and has been a long-time member of the Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation. He is also an honorary life member of Landscape Ontario.
“Neil and Connon Nurseries are life-time contributors to the success of Landscape Ontario and the entire horticultural profession,” says Landscape Ontario executive director Tony DiGiovanni.
“A phone call in 1989 from Neil changed my life direction,” says DiGiovanni. “The phone call to work for LO came out of nowhere. At the time, I was a volunteer on the Promotion Committee of LO. Neil asked if I was interested in working as the Executive Director of Landscape Ontario. I told him I was not interested, because I loved my job at Humber College. He kept after me and I was flattered. When I told my Dean that I was approached, he told me to try the job risk free for a year because if I did not like it, I would only be a better teacher because of the industry connections. I still think of Neil as my boss to this day.”
DiGiovanni remembers travelling across Ontario with Neil in his large blue Cadillac. “It was amazing how much he cared about the industry and Landscape Ontario. Neil has heart. He was amazingly supportive of me as I tried out the new position. In many respects he had more faith in my ability than I had because I really did not know anything about the job of Executive Director. In fact, I did not know what Landscape Ontario was about.”
The long-time executive director says there are a number of memories that surface when he looks back at his time with Neil. “Once he asked for my home number. He then called my wife Maxine to let her know how much he appreciated my work and that it was important she try and balance the time I spent away from home. To him, family life was more important. Another time a cheque for $5,000 arrived from Neil. I asked him why. He simply wanted to support Landscape Ontario. One of my career highlights was being asked to be the master of ceremonies at the 100th anniversary of Connon Nurseries. What an honour and what a class act.”
Neil says the association was very lucky to have such excellent people, such as Horst Dickert and Casey van Maris, involved back when it began. He remembers working with members to convince municipalities to set standards. He says the City of Mississauga was one of the first and key to bringing others onboard.
He feels that maintenance is one of the areas that needs improvement. He would like to see better standards in pruning, planting and after-care of plants. “I am very proud that our industry has come such a long way. I encourage those in the industry now to keep improving our standards,” says Neil.
Those who have worked with Neil Vanderkruk well know he always had high standards. It’s a legacy that has and will be passed on to future generations.