Matt Sawyer knew he would eventually take over the family business. But when his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the timetable changed.
Matt’s father, Wayne Sawyer, was president and CEO of Bennett’s Creek Nursery, and a tough act to follow. He served as a past president of Southern Nursery Association, and served on multiple boards over the years with Virginia Nursery Landscape Association and the former American Nursery & Landscape Association. This publication named him its 2011 Grower of the Year.
Matt Sawyer had been prepared to take the reins. He has been actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the nursery for 14 years. He was the vice president of operations when his father died, and was particularly involved in the distribution center side of the business.
“My dad would have turned 60 last year in June,” Sawyer says. “He was going to be ready to start backing off more and more. That was the plan all along, but everything happened quicker than we had anticipated.”
Sawyer was comfortable in his niche of the business. He has a strong, capable grasp of the nuances of plant production and nursery operations. He has demonstrated a talent to develop new technology to make the nursery more efficient. But handling plants and handling people require two different skillsets.
“Mostly, what’s been new for me is the personnel issues; hiring and planning,” Sawyer says. “Dad always took care of that part. I’ve been learning along the way. It was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated. I always knew it was there, but wasn’t sure what depth you’d be getting involved in. I found that out pretty quick. That’s been the biggest learning curve for me.”
The Smithfield, Va.-based nursery encompasses 400 acres, 250 of which are in production. Bennett Creek’s growing and shipping headquarters is its Isle of Wight farm, several miles removed from the comparative bustle of Suffolk. Its Virginia Beach landscape distribution center houses several greenhouses and produces some annuals. Though the Suffolk location is now a landscape distribution center, it still houses Bennett’s Creek’s propagation facility. Sawyer says the nursery propagates about 750,000 liners per year, mostly woody shrubs.
The nursery sells to some independent retailers, but no big-box stores. Landscapers are Bennett’s Creek’s biggest customers, and the majority of plants are moved through the nursery’s own landscape distribution centers.
Sawyer says that business model minimizes the risk of the loss of one particular customer being detrimental to the company.
“A lot of what we do is based off trying to be organized for a group of customers that always aren’t,” Sawyer says. “That’s what keeps the distribution centers in business — being there when they come in last minute without a plan and pick from what we have in the yard.”
Bennett’s Creek does have many landscape customers that are organized and submit their orders ahead of time. Those customers are treasured, and the nursery rewards them with better pricing if they have plant material delivered straight to their job site.
We’re trying to staff for the next generation. a lot of people have been here 30 or more years and it’s time to do a generation change.”
“There’s less overhead when we ship it to the job,” Sawyer says. “We’re trying to have business models to suit different needs.”
Inventory and irrigation innovations
Keeping all of those customers happy is no small task. Inventory control is a major challenge for a grower that also manages several landscape distribution centers. Bennett’s Creek has tackled that particular challenge by developing its own mobile order entry system.
The old inventory system required a lot more time.
“When a person decides if a plant is ready for sale, they would have to make a note on the availability list, go inside and input those changes to the computer,” Sawyer says. “We want her to do it on the fly using an iPad. If you’re going to make that note, just do it once on a mobile device.”
Of course, a system like that doesn’t spring up overnight. The company is on its third iteration of its mobile order entry system. It started with expensive, waterproof, handheld PalmPilot-type tablets. The second attempt used an iPhone or similar newer, lighter-weight mobile device, running a remote desktop with a simplified interface.
The third, and current, iteration of the system is basically a webpage. Inventory managers can go to the web address on their device, log in and do all the necessary functions, from updating a plant’s status, ready dates, whether it’s in bloom, has a new flush or growth, berries, winter color — any feature that a customer considers before buying that plant. Sawyer’s team uses Microsoft Dynamics, a line of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software applications, as a leaping off point, with their own modifications to simplify the user interface.
“That’s been the easiest to use so far,” he says. “We didn’t go with a specific app you can find in an app store. It’s just a website with big buttons on it you can use with a touchscreen. We originally created that, and we keep modifying what we already have.”
Sawyer is very tech-savvy, and he’s put that knowledge to use improving processes all around the nursery. Last summer, he worked with Airtec to design a custom-built 30-foot boom sprayer. It provides GPS tracking to adjust flow rate based on speed variations, and a “positive charge” to help spray cling to the plants’ surfaces. A few years ago, he designed an automated irrigation monitoring system that allows employees to manage irrigation remotely. The Bennett’s Creek pumping facility was developed and built in-house to recycle the nursery’s irrigation water while minimizing pathogen and disease issues. Three computer-controlled pumps maintain pressure throughout the nursery. Because the system is variable-speed, Sawyer says it needed to have variable dosages of chlorine.
“It will turn one pump on slowly and if it can’t keep up with demand, the next one will come on, then the third will come on,” he says. “They have flowmeters attached to them and they change the chlorine flows to sanitize the water.”
Bennett’s Creek ensures water quality by checking chlorine levels at the irrigation nozzle.
“Chlorine will bind up to any organic matter and oxidize it and kill it,” Sawyer says. “And if you have no free chlorine at the sprinkler, that means the chlorine got used up in the line before it got there. You need to tweak your chlorine enough that you’re getting 2 parts per million at the sprinkler, then you know you have enough to kill everything it comes in contact with and have just a little left over when it exits.”
Sometimes it’s necessary to ask someone with fresh eyes to help find problems and solutions. Last winter, Sawyer brought FlowVision, a Lean business and supply chain consulting group, in for an evaluation. He’d seen how the group had improved the shipping process at Flowerwood Nursery, and wanted to apply those methods to his own business. The initial workshop introduced 40 key employees and members of the leadership team to the Lean concepts and terminology. It was important to Sawyer that everyone understand that the goal was to work smarter, not necessarily eliminate jobs.
One way the shipping department is embracing Lean is the nursery’s transition to the use of rolling racks, which it will purchase, not lease. Most of Bennett’s Creek’s current trucks are still shelved, but that will change, Sawyer says.
“If you crunch the numbers, by the time you lease for two and a half years, you could have bought them,” he says.
Sawyer anticipates that by holding on to its own racks throughout the entire process — rolling them off the truck, unloading them at the customer’s facility, and loading them back onto the truck — the nursery will minimize losses of the expensive racks. Once the transition to rolling racks is near completion, Sawyer plans to build a paved loading dock to ease their movement. He sees cost savings with the option of leasing a trailer and just rolling the racks right into it versus building the shelving and support for wooden shelves.
“We see that as becoming a requirement because it’s harder to find drivers that want to manually unload trucks of plants and get all the drops done in one day,” he says. “The racks will speed that process up.”
Another spot that was ripe for Lean efficiency was the order pulling process.
“We learned we waste a lot of time driving back and forth to the dock,” he said.
Before, the nursery required a person trained to be able to select plants, then that person was tied up cleaning, tagging, and driving when selecting the plants is the higher-skilled job. Sawyer was having trouble finding enough people with the skills for that job, let alone the time to train them.
“FlowVision helped us realize that if we break down the work and take the most skilled part of the work and have the people who know how to do it do nothing but that, then we have enough people to cover what we need to do.”
Once shipping was sorted, the potting operation was the next target. Sawyer worked with FlowVision to improve the process to keep motion at a minimum.
Competition and collaboration
The story of Bennett’s Creek is entwined with its neighboring nursery, Lancaster Farms. The two wholesale nurseries grew up on opposite corners of the same intersection in Suffolk, Va., although both growers have added farm operations outside Suffolk as the area became more developed and land prices increased. The competition is healthy and has pushed the nurseries to be better. Despite competing for customers, the companies are more friendly rivals than bitter enemies. Its growers often share ideas, like the use of posts and cables to reduce blow-over for tree production. While most of Bennett Creek’s tree production is pot-in-pot, its 25-gallon trees are too big for the socket pot in the ground.
“This is right out of the Lancaster Farms playbook,” Sawyer says. “I really liked their system. We used to spend a lot of time standing these things up.”
Sawyer started using the system at one of Bennett Creek’s landscape distribution centers for B&B trees of all sizes as a proving ground. It worked so well that in winter 2015-2016, he installed 500 posts and several thousand feet of cable at the Isle of Wight farm. The added stability helps the tree grow straight up, prevents it from falling over, which reduces labor costs and the chance of a damaged tree.
As part of his new responsibilities, Sawyer has become a student of hiring trends in the horticulture industry. He’s noticed a shift in new graduates’ preferred specialization.
“Five or six years ago, everybody wanted to go through the contractor program for hort,” he says. “Now it’s actually flipped in our favor.”
The increased interest in growing is a boon for all nurseries, but Bennett’s Creek has two big reasons to be excited about an influx of graduates. First, a workforce that skews older.
“We’re trying to staff for the next generation,” Sawyer says. “A lot of people have been here 30 or more years and it’s time to do a generation change. It’s going to take a number of years to train people. We’re in that transition now.”
Second, the nursery’s business is on the upswing. Even with all of the production efficiency improvements, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Sawyer says Bennett’s Creek is filling positions that were left empty during the downturn. The nursery is nearing pre-recession staffing levels.
“We’ve been running lean and mean and had everybody stretched thin and doing multiple roles in the job,” he says. “Now we’re getting things back where they should be.”