There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting. Buddha’s words seem to speak directly to BLOOM! Garden Center and Elemental Design in Dexter, Mich., a creative nursery and design/build enterprise launched by Traven Pelletier this year.
Pelletier is a sculptor, an environmental artist, an entrepreneur. And in spring 2013, he became a nursery owner – an endeavor that allowed him to physically split his business, Elemental Design, from the parent Lotus Gardenworks, where he had been partner for a decade.
BLOOM! and Elemental Design is a convergence of Pelletier’s experience running a successful design/build division at Lotus, and his passion for exploring nature and developing artistic expressions in the landscape. The garden center is, in a way, a home base and front for the operation – a niche boutique-like store where interesting plants mingle with garden art. (Conference space and scrolling video/photos of Pelletier’s work plant a design/build seed in customers’ minds.)
BLOOM! is a platform for Pelletier’s creative works – a practical one that actually earns an income (though he shares that the first year in business was downright “hellish” at times.)
Before moving into the landscaping field 14 years ago, Pelletier, originally from Cape Cod, was trying to make it a fulltime environmental artist, producing installations for galleries and the sort. “The work I did then was not even saleable,” he says. “You’d put a ton of work into something that would be in a gallery for a month and take it down. I got stipends and some funding, but it was really not a way to make a living.”
Growing a brand. Pelletier migrated to Ann Arbor, Mich., to be closer to a Buddhist community where he would attend retreats. “The move to the Midwest was basically on my spiritual path,” he says. One member of the community was seeking a business partner for his venture, Lotus Gardenscapes. Pelletier joined that firm in 2000 and then became 50 percent partner, eventually heading up the design/build division.
“When we started, we were one guy in a truck – one crew, half maintenance and half installation, with no equipment other than that truck and trailer,” Pelletier says. “The first year we did $179,000, and by 2003, we were doing in the $300,000s.”
That’s when the firm created two separate divisions, with distinct company names under the Lotus brand. Pelletier headed up Elemental Design – and in 2012, after spending two years amicably splitting the business so the partners could pursue their own interests – Pelletier took that Elemental Design brand, a customer list of about 750, and opened up shop in a nursery he acquired (with help) from a mom-and-pop operator.
This first year so far, the nursery has made a meager $150,000 in sales (the business is about $1 million, majority design/build with a modest horticultural maintenance division.)
“The garden center business is new to me,” Pelletier says. There were lots of pains this first year. For one, Pelletier underestimated the work involved in setting up a point-of-sale (POS) system. And he wishes he had asked the previous owners to advise on annuals purchasing – or tapped them for advice, in general. He did redirect their website to the new (and dynamic) BLOOM! site.
Pelletier, an avid visual marketer, invested heavily in building the brand. Actually, he spent roughly $37,000 this year on marketing alone, including the phone book (“Some people still look there.”), roadside signage and a web presence.
“I made sure everyone I was working with knew what was going on, and I have a professional network that helped spread the word,” Pelletier says, adding that in spite of this, he had a “dire financial year.” He planned on using the revenues from spring design/build business to fund initial investments in the nursery overhaul – he renovated a dank barn into an attractive interior with bluestone floors and an upstairs art gallery. “Anyone who came in here who had been inside previously was like, ‘Whoah.”
Also, Pelletier stocked inventory that would appeal to the high end. He has since learned that the typical purchase is $100 or less. “We are reorienting that to have more product that is appealing in that range,” he says.
This first year has been a series of trial-and-error, which Pelletier expected, to some degree. Even securing the nursery site in the first place was an early challenge. “Basically, the funding fell through,” Pelletier says, relating how the property did not appraise and the owners couldn’t lower the price. Pelletier didn’t have the cash to front and the bank wouldn’t finance it.
“Our meditation community has an agricultural project called White Lotus Farms, and they wanted a farm cart on this site, so they basically bought he property outright and leased it back to me,” Pelletier says of the outpouring of support he received to start BLOOM!
This property allowed Pelletier a fresh start for Elemental Design. “It suits me,” he says of the renovated 19th Century barn. He plans to create some sculptural pieces this winter to sell in the nursery. “I like having my own place, I like having a storefront. I like being able to do more display.”
Applied art. BLOOM! is a platform for selling Pelletier’s artistic landscape designs. Clients seek out his inspired work, and he has found that there is a population wanting to invest in sculptural outdoor projects.
Still, Pelletier’s project load varies from a basic $1,000 plant installation job to patios for a few thousand. The average installation job is $10,000 to $15,000, but Pelletier has secured several significant projects in the last year that are helping drive the success of the business. “Now that we have this level of clientele, I can sell my art with my landscaping projects,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the last several years, Pelletier began applying for industry awards through the Michigan Landscape Nursery Association. “Getting the design/build awards helps with recognition, and then we can promote that,” says Pelletier, always considering the marketing bent.
“Entrepreneurship is a creative act in itself,” he points out.
And this is the route Pelletier chose – rather than academia, where he could have taught art or design. “I’m a doer,” he says simply, relating how he grew up helping his father in the family beach erosion control business. “We planted beach grass and put up fencing and giant staircases over the dune. I grew up doing a highly specialized form of landscape construction/horticulture.”
Today, Pelletier maintains this connection with art and the land while fulfilling a desire to market his work to a larger audience – consumers who desire specialty landscapes of all types and sizes. “We overinvested in the nursery this year, but the contracting has grown by 15 to 20 percent,” he says, focusing on the growth potential.
“I’m excited for us to have a really awesome second year and make it into profitability,” he continues. And of steering a startup, he adds, with a laugh, “I’m just really happy we made it through.”
Though more seriously, he recognizes that the commitment and support from the community has made this dream possible. “The support from the community has been miraculous,” he says. “The store feels dynamic and alive.”