February 1, 2021

Treat triumph and disaster just the same


Rod McDonald AS A BOY OF 12, I discovered a bit of poetry that has remained with me all these years. The poem was Rudyard Kipling’s well-known If. The poem made a strong impression on my young mind, telling me to stay the course, even during tough times. I recently returned to the poem and noted the line that is so applicable for today: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

We have no certainties as to where and when the Covid-19 pandemic will diminish. We have no guarantees as to how our businesses will get through these times. What we do have is ourselves, in the leadership role, guiding our enterprises through these times. Strong leadership is required, and we are well-suited for this task. I admire Winston Churchill who, when faced with World War Two, referred to it as being “sterner times,” not “darker times.” He had a way with words.

Above all else we are risk takers. We do not flinch. We carry on, with our confidence, knowing that things will work out. If we did not possess these character strengths, we would not be doing what it is that we do. We would be getting jobs where we are not required to gamble on the coming spring. We would seek out safety, instead of searching for opportunity — however, that is not who we are.

Many years ago, I was at a community meeting close to my garden centre on a Tuesday evening. Before the meeting began, the local bank manager sat down beside me. He said, “I just drove by your place and I noticed the stacks of peat moss. How many bales do you have there?” I told him I had unloaded three semis, at 750 bales a load, and that meant there were now 2,250 bales on my premises.

“How are you going to sell all of that peat moss?” he asked. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I had that much in stock.”

I told him, “It is a good thing the garden centre is my business and not yours. It is also a good thing that you are in the banking business, because obviously, you are risk-averse.” He challenged me on that comment. I told him banks are not risk takers. They ensure they are fully-secured, with collateral to back each and every loan. “You turn down anyone applying for a loan who does not provide collateral or who doesn’t have a good job. You do not take chances. I do.”

I did not apologize. What I said was true, although my diplomacy skills were lacking. The banks want our assets before issuing a loan, and they ensure our properties are secured in their favour. Where is the risk in that methodology? If we ran our garden centres the way the banks run their business, we would only order what had already been paid for in advance.    

That’s not how we do business. We order in products and grow our greenhouse crops in advance of sales. We try to minimize our risk by making decisions based on what sold well in previous years, but we don’t have a crystal ball. I have said on many occasions that if I had a crystal ball, I would be at the horse races, betting on the sure winners. Instead, all of us take a risk when we open our doors, without knowing how the season will develop. If we did not plan for a good season ahead, if we did not have faith in ourselves and our services, we would soon be finished.

Many years ago, Bill Van Belle, the founder, along with his wife Grace, of Van Belle Nurseries, was talking to me about risk. Bill said, “We not only have to prepare for this coming year in the nursery business, but we also have to take our best guess as to what will be popular in five and 10 years’ time. We have to decide what to plant today, that we will sell years down the road.” The nursery part of our trade is definitely not for the risk-averse.

I remember a time in the early 1990s when mugho pines were in short supply. You bought what you could when you could find them. No surprise that many growers planted out lots of mugho pines (and I mean lots) to meet future demand. The risk did not pay off; in five years’ time, the market was flooded. Prices dropped and growers would even sweeten the deal by delivering an upgraded size for the same price. Sometimes we win and sometimes our best plans do not work out. That is the nature of risk.

In my years in the trade, I had two Mays that were rained out and my sales were, initially, at all-time lows for that spring. Not a happy time, but there was a silver lining to that cloud, as those Junes did not disappoint. I learned there is an itch that needs to be scratched, and while the timing varies from year to year, the itch is always there.

This past season was a good one for most in the trade. At the local, family-run greenhouse where I work part time, there were no sales in June. Everything had been sold in May and the greenhouse closed down May 25. Greenhouses across North America were sold out, as garden centres looked to buy more plants.

Burnaby Lake Greenhouses in Surrey, B.C., is one of Canada’s largest greenhouses. They sell as far east as Manitoba by the semi load. I was talking with our sales rep at Burnaby Lake and I commented that in 30 years of ordering from them, I had never seen the availability sheet so limited. My sales rep said sales were so strong that the avail sheets were often outdated before they were released. They had to place limits on certain items so one person did not buy everything.

The strong sales carried into the Christmas season. At the family-run greenhouse, sales were three times greater in November than they were in December. Customers bought so much product, including Christmas trees, that there was not a lot left to sell in December. I told the family I had never, ever, had that happen at my own place. My December sales were always three to four times greater than those of November, not the other way around. I heard from friends in Winnipeg they had sold all of their Christmas trees by the first week of December. Nothing left except the odd branch.

This 2021 season will be, above all else, an interesting one. Based on the past year, I am optimistic that sales will be good. Then again, I don’t think we have much of a choice except to prepare for a good season. We are the risk takers. We do not seek out the safe road. If we don’t like something, we change it. That is who we are. Enjoy the ride on your 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.