February 4, 2020
Swing for the fences

Swing for the fences


Rod McDonaldWhen the fastballs of life were thrown my way, I swung, and sometimes I hit and sometimes I missed. Just because I missed did not mean I quit swinging. The best hitters in baseball have batting averages of between 30 and 40 per cent (.300 to .400 in baseball parlance) which means, bare with my math lesson, that they missed 60 to 70 per cent of their times at bat.

When a top hitter comes to the plate, there is frenzied anticipation from the crowd as they await the outcome of the duel between the pitcher and the hitter. In a metaphoric way, people are always interested in what we are going to do next, as well.

We, of course, do not have millions watching our every swing on television, but we do have our audiences, who arrive at our garden centres, landscape yards and greenhouses, wanting to see what is new and exciting. They want more than the “same old, same old.”

I have oft referenced the greenhouses and garden centres from the fifties to the eighties where things rarely changed. There they were, offering up packs of bedding plants, grown in mud. The plant varieties rarely changed. When asked, the owner/operator would respond, “Customers want what they had last year, because it grew well for them.” Perhaps there was some degree of truth to that statement, at the time. Things have changed. 

Customers did purchase the “same old, same old” because they didn’t have a choice. Once things began to change and there were options, customers responded. They might have purchased familiar varieties, but they were also willing to try something new in a somewhat experimental fashion. All that was required was some leadership from us, the trade, to show what was possible. Those who provided leadership were rewarded: those that did not, suffered.

Over the years, I have had several members of our green trades complain of how their sales have slipped, and their businesses are not what they once were. One family ruled the greenhouse business, for several years, in my city and then their sales declined. Their decline continued until they disappeared. They blamed their demise on the fact that “customers are no longer loyal.” That was an actual quote from the family. In reality, their customers were no longer loyal to them, once they had greater options. The days of offering little customer service, along with a take it or leave it attitude, doomed a business that once was the best hitter (again the baseball analogy) in our area. They had the goose that laid the golden egg and then the goose died from neglect.

Many years ago, I attended a seminar on greenhouse management. The speaker was a grower/manager of an extremely large and successful operation. He began his talk by saying “I am here today because I am more experienced than most of you. That is a nice way of saying that I have made many more mistakes than you have. Many more mistakes.” I love that opening. He acknowledged the true meaning of experience. Sometimes we do everything right and sometimes, even with our best intentions, things do not work out the way we planned. The adage of “we can plan the event, but we cannot plan the outcome’ resonates, again and again.

Having said that, while we can never fully plan the outcome, we can simply align things so that we increase the chance for success. Every batter knows there are certain pitches they struggle to hit. Good hitters leave those pitches alone and wait for the ones they can hit. Mediocre hitters swing away, thinking that this time, things will be different. They can’t hit a high fastball, but they can’t leave it alone to paraphrase a line from A League of Their Own.

Bill Van Belle, co-founder of Van Belle Nurseries, in Abbotsford, B.C., told me a wonderful story of people seeking a sure thing, a guaranteed hit. Many years ago, there were a number of investors who purchased acreages to live on. They had the land and more often than not, they wanted to grow a nursery crop, for tax reasons. One problem: they had no experience. But this trade of ours has to be easy, right? Just stick a cutting in the ground and in five years time, harvest and sell the mature plant for a profit. Nothing could be simpler?

These new landowners would phone Bill, asking what they should plant that would be a good money maker, five and 10 years down the road. Bill had a stock answer that would crack me up, “I don’t have a crystal ball into the future. I can’t tell you what will make you money and what will cost you. Here is my question: If I did have a crystal ball, and I knew what would make me the most profit, why would I tell you, or anyone else?”

There are no crystal balls, but you can take your best guess and as with all guesses, sometimes you are right and sometimes you curse. Forty years ago, a nurseryman predicted that a new variety of forsythia would be the next best thing. He grew many, many plants. The forsythia never took off and he was stuck with these, albeit well grown, plants. Eventually, he made a joke of it. He would tell customers “With every $1,000 order, I will throw in 10 free forsythias. 20, if you ask me, nicely.”

In my own career, I had some real winners as well as some poor at bats. My friends in Ontario, 25 years ago, told me how black lava rock and black mulch were the rage, down east, so I jumped onto the bandwagon. I ordered many pallets of product and waited for the stuff to sell itself. It sat, and it sat, and it sat. No sense sitting on slow inventory so I reduced the price by thirty per cent. No sales. Then 50 per cent. No sales. Finally, I reduced the product by 80 per cent, something I had never done before. I was desperate. It finally sold, but no one ever came back asking for more. Certain products will do well in specific regions and not so well in others. My mistake was to assume that if it did well in Ontario, it would do well in Regina.

When a baseball hitter goes into a slump, and is striking out more often than usual, his confidence declines. Sometimes, they are trying too hard to finally get that hit, swinging away when they should be taking the pitch for a ball. When the good pitch comes, they have to overcome their fears to take a chance, and swing.

When we don’t hit a home run, we shouldn’t stop swinging. We have become successful by adjusting to the next pitch and taking our chances. We swing as if the ball will be flying 415 feet into centre field.

We take our chances on that new variety of fuchsia, Million Bells or whatever is coming on the market. Our customers are coming to us for the good stuff, as I have oft written, but they are also coming to us for what is new and exciting. To stay on the road to success, all we have to do is to give it to them. Keep swinging for the bleachers.
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.