Meet Connie Hom for the first time and you will quickly learn that she is passionate about plants and has an infectious “can do” attitude. Given those two facts, it’s no surprise that in the past 20 years Hom has built her interior landscaping company from scratch into an award-winning, $2.45 million business. Her 36 full-time and four part-time employees serve clients from Maryland to Florida.
Seeing what’s possible and making it happen is at the center of Hom’s definition of leadership. Her favorite role model for leadership is Thomas Jefferson.
“The thing that was so great about Thomas Jefferson was that he was able to rally people around a vision,” Hom says. “Leaders do that. The Lewis and Clark expedition was an awesome accomplishment and it began with Jefferson’s foresight and passion for America. He loved this country. Of course, it’s popular today to point out that he was far from a perfect individual, but students of Jefferson know that his first draft of the Declaration of Independence would have abolished slavery even though he had slaves.
|ABOUT CONNIE HOM|
LOCATION: Buckingham, Va.
“I quote Jefferson. On my desk I have a paperweight with one of his quotes – ‘I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.’ Another one of his sayings I like is, “Delay is preferable to error.’ Jefferson loved poetry, plants and gardens. I do too.”
Hom’s vision for Buckingham Greenery began in October 1982 when she and her former husband, George, decided to relocate from the New Jersey to Buckingham, Va. They enjoyed Virginia when visiting their family’s farm in Buckingham for vacations and family get-togethers. So, when Hom’s marketing position with New Jersey Bell Telephone was affected as a part of federal deregulation to break up AT&T, the couple decided to move to Virginia and combine their love of plants with business.
In New Jersey, Hom and her husband had started a small interior plants business for word-of-mouth clients. While the business was a side venture to their corporate jobs, it had grown large enough to require a 25-by-50-foot greenhouse.
“I’ve always loved plants,” Hom says. “Even in college my roommate, Patty, and I were known as the girls who had a dorm room full of plants. When I first got married our apartment had a beautiful sunroom and not far from us there was a plant wholesaler. So plants became a part of our furniture. It was a hobby – we had some friends who were architects, so eventually some of them hired us to help with the interior designs. I did a little marketing while George did the installations.”
The experience convinced Hom that she could do what she loved for a living. Before launching Buckingham Greenery, however, she researched the market around Buckingham, wrote a business plan and then visited with a local banker in Virginia to gain start-up funding. The banker turned down the loan request, but said the business idea was “nice” and he wished Hom luck. The banker’s sentiments were not unusual at the time. While there were established interior landscape companies in the nation, Hom says the idea of creating and maintaining interior green spaces was not recognized as a viable stand-alone business in most areas.
Despite the banker’s reaction, Hom says she never doubted the business would work. Here and her husband’s families believed in the company. “To them I was a bit of a dreamer, but they also knew that I had made something out of everything I had done.” Hom also knew that there were successful, dedicated interior companies out there, such as John Mini’s business in New York.
Hom’s next step was to contact the Yellow Pages to place an advertisement for the new company. She turned the local Yellow Pages office into the company’s first account by selling them on the need for plants for their reception area. When she heard the Lynchburg, Va., General Hospital was being renovated she convinced them to hire Buckingham Greenery to design, install and maintain live plants in the lobby area.
“The gentleman who hired us for the hospital project really went out on a limb,” Hom says. “We were totally new in the area yet we still convinced him to hire us.”
Hom says she really wanted to have a good design to showcase the company’s expertise. The hospital has been a client of Buckingham Greenery now for 22 years. “As a start-up company we definitely needed the hospital as a client, but we decided against showing photos of what we had done in New York or using references from that area,” Hom says. “Virginia is a different market than New York and you have to know your marketplace. Plus, we had never done a job as large as the hospital before, so we decided to just sell ourselves, our expertise and our passion. I’m all about a positive attitude and believe that if you express your passion and your expertise, then it will happen.”
|CONNIE HOM ON GRASSROOTS...|
Q. What does the term grassroots mean to you?
One issue in grassroots activity is that we have not done enough research about the benefits of plants or promoted the facts that we already know. Plants and landscape design gets some public attention, but we don’t talk enough about the psychological and physiological benefits of plants. In terms of economics, everyone knows that food is essential but we have not learned enough about the economic benefits of non-food plants.
Q. Describe a situation where you felt you had to defend the industry and how it impacted you in your career.
Q. Who is the person you admire most for taking a stand on an issue and why?
Q. What is the one thing you do to ensure that employees are reflecting a positive and professional image on your company when they are out in the field?
Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to help defend the industry against future negative perceptions?
Hom’s market research showed that the area was going to grow in population. Her core strategy was not to try to take over any existing interior accounts from area companies. “We wanted new accounts that we had designed and created to show what we could do,” she says. “When you take over someone else’s work it takes awhile to show your horticultural knowledge and expertise. In fact, it takes 3 to 6 months before you see a difference in live plant material – it doesn’t happen overnight. So our strategy in the beginning was to take on new installations.”
A major break came when the company met the manager of the JCPenney’s store in Roanoke, Va. The area JCPenney’s stores were slated for a renovation at the time and that included replacing artificial plants in the entry areas with live ones and adding live plants in other areas of the stores.
“JCPenney’s was one of the businesses that had discovered the value of live plants,” she says. “We were hired to design the green areas for one store and we installed it on time and on budget. Our design then served as the prototype for 10 additional stores in the area. We ended up doing the installation and maintenance for all 11 stores. JCPenney’s was our first major account.”
Work for JCPenney led to the company’s first hire, the wife of one of the JCPenney’s employees Hom got to know from her work for them. “I realized we were going to make it as a business once we hired our first employee. When workload gets to the point where you need to hire people you see your business in a different light.”
The work for JCPenney’s, and referrals from clients such as the hospital, led to more work for financial, health care and retail clients.
In 1986, Henry Faison, a regional developer, hired Buckingham Greenery to handle The James Center, an office complex in Richmond, Va. The center involved two 20-story-high towers. While an architect did the interior design, the company handled the purchase, installation and maintenance of the plants. “The complex had a huge atrium which allowed us to plant 18 20-foot-tall Ficus benjamina trees,” Hom says. “We finished the job on schedule. It was a beautiful entryway, yet when it was finished the owner thought the lobby was too crowded, so he made us cut down three of the trees.”
Hom says the complex is still a client of Buckingham Greenery.
Company work on the James Center led to a long-term partnership between Buckingham Greenery and the company, Faison Associates. Because Buckingham Greenery demonstrated that they could deliver a quality product with no hassle, Faison Associates began hiring them for work for office complexes, mall developments and larger projects as far away as Florida.
“Our business principles are to show that we know what we are doing, we follow through and we do what we say we are going to do,” Hom says. “The great thing about Henry Faison is that he loves plants and sees their potential in interior spaces. Together, we have created a win-win business relationship.”
Today, Buckingham Greenery has a diversified portfolio that includes malls, corporate, atriums, health care, hospitality and more. As a full-service interior landscaping company it offers design, specification, installation, horticultural service management, holiday decorating and special event services. The only exterior service is containerized gardens and plantings around building entryways.
LEARNING LEADERSHIP. While attitude is everything to Hom, she believes environment plays a big role in shaping a positive life attitude. In her own case, she says her late father and her mother had a huge role in passing along a can-do approach to life.
Hom’s father was born in Pittsburgh to Chinese immigrants. He was sent to China by his parents to attend high school. In World War II he served as a tailgunner in Europe and after being shot down was a prisoner of war in Germany. When Hom was younger, her father owned a vegetable farm near Free Hold, N.J. with his brothers. Later, he sold his interest in the farm to work for a heating contractor.
“My dad had an excellent work ethic. He never missed work, and when he became a heating contractor he would never say ‘No’ to anyone who was having a heating problem. I remember that he often would go out in the middle of the night to help a customer in need. He also always made sure we went on a family vacation every summer. Those are very memorable times. And we had a nice house in the country, which is why I really love living in the country so much.”
Hom’s mother, Teresa, was a working mom, which was not that common in the 1950s. While she only had a high school diploma, Hom’s mother had trained at a state science laboratory and was employed as a researcher at Worthington Labs to do DNA testing and enzymatic research.
“My mother has been the single biggest influence in my life,” Hom says. “She has always been a great role model. She’s so positive and has such a can-do attitude. And because she worked full-time when I was young I just assumed it was normal for a woman to have a career. My dad never saw my dream of a successful company fulfilled, he died in my second year of business, but after he died my mom became a PLANET groupie. She wanted to travel and started going on trips with me. Some people in the industry now know her as ‘Mom Hom.’”
Having two working parents meant that Hom and her two older sisters and one younger brother had regular duties after school. “We all had our chores to do right after school,” Hom explains. “And we all helped with dinner, which was served when my dad got home from work. After dinner we would play with the neighbors and do our homework.”
On Saturday mornings there were weekend chores to do. After getting the work out of the way, Hom and her younger brother liked to go buy comic books, which she still enjoys. Their parents encouraged them to be active, so they were involved in school clubs and sports.
Hom’s mother was raised Catholic and raised the family accordingly. When a Catholic high school was built 20 miles away, it provided unique opportunities for Hom. “It was a brand new high school and they had decided to start it with just one class,” she says. “So, my class was the very first freshman class and there were no upperclassmen. We were then in turn the first sophomores, juniors and seniors. What this meant was that everyone in my class was in leadership positions for everything – sports, glee club, drama club and everything else. I was a cheerleader for all four years. The experience affected our entire class.”
Students were bused to the high school, but to make sure they could be active after school, Hom’s parents belonged to a group that would pick them and their friends up after extracurricular activities.
“My parents sacrificed time and money so my siblings and I could go to a parochial school,” Hom says. “That gave me opportunities and led me to believe that as an individual I can do whatever I want to do. As a child, I don’t recall any barriers because of race, gender or religion.”
ENTREPRENEURIAL INTEREST. Looking back, Hom says her parent’s work ethic and passion for what they were doing served as a model for having her own business. Like her older sisters, Hom attended a small, all women’s Catholic college. Since there were no men at the school, the women took all of the leadership positions. Hom majored in sociology and social work.
“I was going to save the world,” Hom says. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was a feminist, but I was going to save the world. I did an internship in Yonkers to help create a teen center for minorities. I also worked at the United Nations during the International Women’s Year. And I worked at a juvenile delinquent center and at nursing homes. All that exposed me to bureaucracy and politics.”
Instead of social work, Hom took a job with New Jersey Bell, who at the time had a program to attract women professionals. She joined the marketing department and handled special projects that involved finding ways that communications could help small businesses.
Hom was married by this time and taking classes toward an MBA. She and her husband’s love of plants led them to making it a side business. But both were becoming disillusioned with the corporate life. “We both worked in the corporate world and both with utility companies,” Hom says. “It quickly became just a job. Coming out of college I liked what I was doing, but saw that some of the people who had been doing this for 25 years had no passion or fire for what they were doing. They used to tell me that I was young and naive. I never wanted to get where they were.”
Connie Hom sees the investment of being involved in associations as being important for giving back to the industry and for her own education. “I get a lot of ideas from spending time benchmarking with industry people, and I enjoy the friendships that I have made,” she says.
Hom’s introduction into the association world began when she joined the Interior Plantscape Association (IPA), which then merged into ALCA. Her commitment was to be an active member of ALCA, not just as a member, so she became the co-chairperson then the chairperson of the ALCA Interior Council. Those positions gave her a voice on the association board of directors.
Hom has worked on the ALCA Education, Public Relations and Marketing committees. She participated in the Crystal Ball committee one year and has been a member ever since. She attended Student Career Days one year, which led to serving as the committee co-chairperson and then the chairperson for three years. She has also contributed to the Educational Foundation planning. Hom is also been active in the Plants at Work organization and the previous Plants for Clean Air Council.
Hom says being active within PLANET ensures that interior landscape contractors are represented within the association and that their special concerns are addressed. Beyond PLANET, Hom is active in her church, on the board of a local YMCA, and for the past five years has been a member of a CEO Council in Virginia where she meets with a group of nine owners of diverse businesses so they can learn from each other.
When AT&T was broken up by deregulation, Hom and her former husband decided to make a big change in their lives. “George had been taking an interior landscaping program at New York Botanical Gardens,” Hom says. “I was not an expert in horticulture. I loved plants and my business background told me there was opportunity. I viewed Buckingham as a home base yet I knew the surrounding area had growth potential.”
Hom says she had some book knowledge about interior landscaping, but did not know how to put it into practice. When her and George joined the Interior Plantscape Association prior to its merger with ALCA, they quickly gained a working knowledge of what was necessary and this allowed them to meet people who were already successful in interior landscaping from across the country. “The vision was to create a company that would be the best in its marketplace,” Hom says. “We wanted to be known for professionalism – to have a reputation for expertise with no hassle service. We strived to follow through and do what we said we were going to do.”
These core values still remain with the business today. “What I am most proud of is what we have all accomplished together,” Hom says. “I am proud to have a team that has passion for what we do, for being loyal and for individual growth. Our company has won many awards, including environmental and safety awards – we’ve had one year with no lost time accidents and no vehicle accidents. I am very proud of that. Individuals in our company have also won awards. Buckingham Greenery is recognized in the interior landscaping industry.”
Despite all of the success and growth, Hom says her love of plants and passion for life remains at the same level as when the company was first launched. “Leadership means different things to different people. I’ve tried to live my life and run my business based on Connie’s three “Ps” – purpose, passion and people. To me leadership is all about having a positive attitude. I think it means believing you can accomplish a venture and have some fun doing so. There will be ups and downs, of course, but leadership involves the ability to maintain the same attitude when things are bad as when they were good.”
Whenever Hom thinks about leadership, she looks at a picture hanging in the Buckingham Greenery office that symbolizes the company’s vision – a huge tree standing among a forest full of smaller trees. The quote beneath the picture by Pauline R. Kezer reads, “Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.”
To Hom, this means “you and your company have to always be stretching and growing – that’s what leaders do.”