One of only eight commercial caladium growers in the world, Terri Bates holds dear the business and life lessons passed down from her grandparents and parents. In chorus, she works feverishly to advance not just her business, but her competitors in the caladium market and the entire green industry.
Terri is a third-generation grower and co-owns Bates Sons & Daughters with her sister, Sheri. The pair operate the 100-acre caladium farm in Lake Placid, Florida, a business founded by their grandfather 77 years ago.
Her grandfather Emmett was working construction after World War II. He serendipitously attended a county extension meeting one evening, when someone in attendance suggested he try growing caladiums. He bought a $50 bucket of bulbs – a hefty sum for those days – only to find that half of them were rotten. But good fortune prevailed, and some of those bulbs helped launch the family farm. Her grandparents raised two sons – Fred, who stayed in the family business (her uncle) and Don, who pursued a career in science (her father).
In 1978, Terri’s grandfather asked Don to return home and help Fred run the family business, then called Bates and Sons. Fred was interested in expanding the business and a second person at the helm would have been quite beneficial. After much cogitating, Don agreed and moved his family back to Florida. Nearly a year later, Fred died in a car accident and Terri’s parents found themselves fully immersed in the business. But Don and his wife Dot embraced the challenge and raised their girls to treasure and respect the family business.
After college, the girls carved their own path that led them away from the family farm.
“Our parents never pushed us to come into the business, but it was an unspoken invitation that we were welcome anytime,” Terri recalls.
Terri studied horticulture at the University of Florida and after graduation worked for vegetable growing operation owned by a large corporation. She eventually became the only female crop supervisor at that location. She gained a lot of experience in this role, but she felt her talents would be a better fit elsewhere. When a position for a horticulture extension agent in Highlands County popped up, she jumped at the chance.
“My favorite part of the job was working with the farmers. My least favorite part was completing the mountains of paperwork,” she says.
But after about two years of extension work, she had a yearning to return to her Lake Placid home and the family business. She joined her sister, who was already working alongside their parents, and the family was whole again. The foursome went about their daily routines. They didn’t talk much about succession planning. Then one day in 1992, the sisters showed up for work and one word changed the course of the business.
“Dad had changed all the signs to Bates Sons & Daughters,” she says. “We had no idea he was going to do that.”
Don changed the company name and gave the girls more shares in the farm, but he wasn’t quite ready to step down as leader. It took about 27 years for him to completely hand over the business to Terri and Sheri.
At 85, Don still comes to work and, as Terri describes, “is a maniac on the forklift.”
“My parents don’t believe in retirement. But dad likes going out in the fields and running the trucks. I keep telling him, ‘I don’t need you for your labor, I need you for your brain,’ but he loves to get out there and work.”
The amount of caladium growers has dwindled since the sisters took over the business. It’s the not same market their dad experienced. To date, there are only eight commercial caladium farms in the world and seven are in Lake Placid, appropriately known as The Caladium Capital of the World. The eighth grower is in a neighboring county. ?
“In 2002 there were 21 caladium growers here. Then the state was hit with three hurricanes in 2004, one in 2005, and then came the recession and a major freeze, and another hurricane in 2017,” Terri explains. “Some couldn’t recover from that, there was some consolidation in the market, and some kids didn’t want to inherit the business.”
Honesty … the best policy?
Like most family businesses, Terri and Sheri experienced every job at the farm, absorbing valuable business and life lessons from mom and dad. Honesty was one of the most important traits the sisters learned from their parents.
“I’m brutally honest,” she says proudly. My customers will tell you this. Yeah, I may be brutally honest, but I’m honest, and so is my sister and so are my parents,.We pride ourselves on ethics. I would rather lose money and do the right thing.”
Putting honesty at the center of the customer relationship is critical, but in a family business, it’s equally important to be honest with your kinfolk. Terri and Sheri don’t mince words when it comes to running the business.
“Learning how to work in a family business is difficult, but how we make it work is everyone has specific jobs, and we don’t cross over,” Terri explains. “Sheri runs the warehouse and does a wonderful job of it. I’m not touching that. She also handles the money. I don’t touch that either. I handle the customers and a lot of the growing.”
Honesty is a trait that certainly served Terri and her customers well during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The first thing I did when greenhouses and nurseries started shutting down, I called every one of my customers and asked if they still wanted their orders, even if we had already potted their product. I wasn’t going to sell product to anyone who couldn’t sell it. I wasn’t going to force anyone to take product,” she explains. “We had some cancellations. One customer who cancelled asked me, ‘Are you going to ship to me next year?’ I said, ‘Of course. A pandemic isn’t your fault. We’re good.’”
Terri told her customers, “We’re in this together,” and she was completely sincere.
Service with a smile
She’s served on several boards of green industry associations and trade shows, volunteering her time for the Southeast Greenhouse Conference; the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA); OFA; and AmericanHort.
“I’ve been told my gift in the board room is to call out the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss,” she says with a feisty chuckle.
Terri is not afraid to speak her mind, yet it’s done with compassion and kindness, says Linda Reindl, director of education at FNGLA.
“It’s refreshing to work with someone who doesn’t beat around the bush,” Linda adds.
She puts the industry first, ahead of her own business, says Ben Bolusky, CEO at FNGLA.
“She puts things through an industry filter before she puts it through the Bates filter,” he explains.
Linda recalls when Terri was on the AmericanHort board she made sure the states were well represented on a national level.
During her tenure with the Southeast Greenhouse Conference, Terri met Bobby Barnitz, vice president of Bob’s Market and Greenhouses in Mason, West Virginia. Bobby is a mentor, customer and dear friend, Terri says.
“When I started getting involved in state, regional and national boards, Bobby took me under his wing,” she explains. “He encouraged me to make a difference.”
Bobby, who also served with Terri on the OFA board, says he’s experienced highs and lows in the industry alongside Terri, and no matter the circumstance, she is a person of integrity.
“You can always count on Terri. For her, it’s more about the relationships that are built than it is about the business,” he says.
Terri served on the inaugural AmericanHort board of directors in 2014, and two years later she became the new national association’s chairman of the board.
“She was instrumental in the combining of OFA and ANLA into the AmericanHort organization,” he says.
Her service to the industry extends to universities, including the University of Florida.
“Terri is very generous of her time and very willing to serve and support the industry,” says Zhanao Deng, professor of environmental horticulture and ornamental plant breeder at UFL’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. “She has served the industry locally, regionally and nationally in various capacities. These services take time and energy, and I really appreciate her willingness to do this and try her best for the industry.” Zhanao breeds caladiums at the research center, and he’s been collaborating with Terri for nearly 20 years. Her skill at growing and her instincts for recognizing superb plants has amazed him for years.
“Some of our caladium varieties have pretty leaves but they produce tiny bulbs in our hands [at the research center]. When these varieties are transferred to her field, the plants become even prettier and produce large bulbs, which are important for producing eye-catching plants in containers and in the landscape. I always admire her for this,” Zhanao says.
Terri gives some credit for growing quality caladiums to the locale.
“We grow on the shores on the shore of Lake Istokpoga, which has rich soil that’s very acidic,” she says.
Her knack for growing quality bulbs has made some of his caladium varieties commercially viable, and her eye for picking new caladiums is just as helpful, he adds.
“To produce new caladium varieties, we grow and screen tens of thousands of caladium plants from seeds and select the top hundreds for growers to evaluate. It’s hard to pick out of these new lines if their differences are subtle. When Terri comes to our caladium fields, she could pick out those unique or novel ones after a quick glance and, most importantly, those selected by her have a much greater success in commercial production,” Zhanao says.
Influences and inspiration
An active hurricane season is likely to influence some big changes in any industry. It forced Terri to evaluate part of her business model. When Irma made landfall in 2017, it wiped out some 30% of the farm’s crop for the 2018 season. And caladium growers produce only one crop each year. It’s a make-it-or-break-it scenario.
Instead of writing it off as a loss, she made a bold move and raised her prices to see what was left after the hurricane. It paid off.
“Prices in our market hadn’t budged for years and we were working very hard and having to turn away customers because we didn’t have enough product,” she says. “So, we took a risk and went up on price. And it went off without a hitch. There was no pushback and no arguments. It was clear our product was undervalued. We learned that if you don’t put value on your product, you’ll work yourself to death trying to sell it.
“For years, my generation had been all about competition and making sure we sell everything – just go, go, go. Now we’re stepping back and re-evaluating that. It’s a good shift. I think the younger generation has and will put value on what they produce and not have to work as hard and get a better profit margin.”
Terri’s had the good fortune of reaping inspiration from colleagues, especially from those who served on association boards alongside her.
“I know no one’s going to believe this, but I’ll be in situations where a lot of people are talking about business and I’ll keep my mouth shut and just listen,” she says. “I’ve been on different kinds of boards with some amazing business owners like Tom Demaline, Dale Deppe and Susie Raker.”
Events such as hurricanes, family emergencies, recessions and pandemics have the propensity to cause chaos and major changes to the status quo. But Terri does not shy away from change, nor does it cause her consternation.
“I actually like change. Life is constantly changing – nothing stays the same. I plan as best I can, but there’s only so much you can do,” she says.
Terri says she never considered another career outside of horticulture, yet it’s the people of the industry that she treasures the most.“I love my customers and colleagues, and I love seeing them at tradeshows,” she says. “I know their spouse’s name and their children’s name. I enjoy the plants, too, but you don’t get the caliber of people anywhere else as you do in this industry.”