The Cadillac of plants

The Cadillac of plants

Features - Interview

A lot of thought goes into the flowers and shrubs you put in the ground. The founder of one of the biggest plant propagators sits down with <i>Lawn & Landscape</i> to discuss the future of the industry.

October 20, 2011
Chuck Bowen
Industry News

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with green industry suppliers on their businesses and how they impact landscape contractors.

John Rader is sitting on a bench a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean. It's the middle of June, and he's taking a break from a media blitz at the Hotel del Coronado, just off the coast of San Diego.

The hotel is part of a pilot project for his company's Signature Gardens. All the plants here came from his greenhouses.

A few decades ago, when he was a boy, his family lived here on the island. He used to come to this very beach as fighter planes from the nearby naval base returned from practice flights, running along the sand to try and jump into their shadows.

Rader runs EuroAmerican Propagators, one of the largest and most well-known greenhouses in the world. He got into the plant business with the help of Bob Weidner, when he bought the liner portion of Weidner's greenhouse business in 1992 with partner Garry Grüber.

Their company is a founding member of the Proven Winners plant brand and sits at the beginning of the long – and sometimes complicated – process that takes plants from seedling to finished product.

"I would have never thought as an eighth-grade kid out there in the beach snorkeling and body surfing and whatever, just hanging out with my friends, that the pinnacle of what the Hotel del is, that I would actually be participating in something that is associated with it," Rader says. "That is just beyond my dreams. Beyond what I thought I was capable of."

Lawn & Landscape sat down with Rader at the Hotel del this summer to talk about how he got here – starting EuroAmerican Propagators, forming the Proven Winners plant brand and helping to bring to market some of the industry's most innovative plants.

You mentioned the six months that you worked with Bob Weidner, as some of the more important that you had. What did you learned from him during that time that you still use today.

I think it's a big picture vision. What things are possible? That's the underlying message of the whole thing. I mean, he wasn't just doing that because it would be a nice thing to do. He knew it would succeed. I got that belief system from him. That's the biggest thing.

When he interviewed for the job, he was telling me all about the new plant vision that he had, with color and everything. And I said, quite ignorantly, "Well, will we ever run out of new plants?" And he just kind of smiled, this smirk on his face. And he said, "There's millions of plants out there." [Laughs]

And that's all he said. I got the message.

So were you drawn as a younger man to that kind of vision, that anything-is-possible mentality?

Well, when I walked up to the retail store that he put together and saw the color and all the stuff that was going on, and all the happy people in the garden center, I thought to myself, "Disneyland. This is like Disneyland." [Laughter]

I could see another side other than just a breeder mentality already there. I think that's the thing that I was trying to avoid is to get too locked into wearing a lab coat – or just becoming a farmer. There's nothing wrong with a farmer, but I wanted to be a farmer that wore many hats.

Tell me more about your process for marketing and how it ties into plant development.

The marketing helps to sell the value. And then to be able to sell that value, that brings funds back into marketing. So it's a cycle.

So you're not selling a commodity anymore, like corn.

Right. I think that's one of the problems. Sometimes in our industry, growers that grow beauty just think they're growing so much corn or so many tomatoes. They don't realize that you don't just grow beauty. You guys are growing things that make people feel good about themselves. It's a lot bigger than just produce.

When I talk with contractors, they'll often look at Proven Winners and say, "Yeah, it looks great, but it costs me three times as much." How do you respond to that?

I love that one. [Laughter] I think a lot of contractors, a lot of installers, they go for the cheap seed stuff. And I can see why. They have to pay so much for it. They really get some margin on it and still sell cheap.

But the problem is that you're having to change those out so quickly, because so many seed varieties, once they go into flower and they have their big color show, because they are true annuals, they go to seed. And then they stop flowering.

And OK, are you gonna deadhead them? Or you've got to switch out the bed. And usually the seed types are much slower growing than the Proven Winners types that you're propagating vegetatively. So you got longevity. There's less switch outs. You have better performance. And you'll use less plants in an area because they grow so fast. And they fill in.

What new varieties can landscapers expect in the next five years?

I think plants will be focused to their regional use. I think we're gonna see a lot of that going on. We've got to fine-tune what works where. And you need to identify what's a Proven Winner in the deep South? What's a Proven Winner up in the Northern climates?

And they all have different criteria, you know? For example, when you get in the South, their spring starts in February. So they need a plant that blooms early and a lot of the plants that might be really good in the Northern climate, they don't bloom early enough in the South. So, I think we're gonna see more regional plants.

Looking ahead to 2012, what are some of the hot colors of plants that you see taking the country by storm?

I think that'll have to be the blues, they will always be popular. I do think that anything with very bright colors will be popular, because it lifts people's spirits.

And I think we're in a time right now where people need to have their spirits lifted.

Do you have a production regime geared specifically to the new class of customers?

Yeah. And that's where I think the succulents come in. I think that's one of the biggest advances. Because you get so much variety and color and texture with succulents. They're just so cool.

And they're very versatile. They can come in the house. They can be outside. And I think one of the best things is that people do a lot of travelling for business these days. And this is a plant that you can leave, and it's really happy that you left it. Because you've stopped watering it. In fact, some succulents have their best color show when they're a little bit water deprived.

And then I think that people want perennials. I think perennials are gonna increase in their value. Because people want something that they don't have to replant every single year. Something that comes back every year.

And this is gonna be important. Here in Southern California, a perennial would be considered an annual where you are.

Like I told you, scaevola is an annual in Ohio, but here it's a perennial. And arctotis. My favorite plant. That one's definitely a perennial here.

It wouldn't overwinter in Ohio. And you've got other great plants that need the cold weather that you guys have that are perennials that come back year after year. And they get better lookin' and stronger every year.

When you think about EuroAmerican and its business, what are some of the key issues that you're dealing with? What keeps you up at night?

New products. I think being able to continuously come out with new products and find a way to facilitate getting them to the market. I think that's an important thing. What we've learned is that as we introduce new products, we can have the new plant.

But we have so many product offerings, how do we give it the amount of focus and attention, spotlight it adequately so that the growers try it?

As we develop all these millions of plants that Bob Weidner referred to, how do we get the word out to everybody? And there's a lot of messages out there. I mean, now that a lot of people have gotten into the same kind of plants that we started out with, there's a lot of confusing messages.

The other one is finding economical ways to get our plants to people still. When we first started off this business back in the Bob Widener days, everything went out airfreight. It all went airfreight. 9-11 changed everything.

And so all of a sudden, we had to look at other avenues because the biggest avenue was trucking. But we're in San Diego, and trucking a plant to Ohio can sometimes be challenging.

So it needs to be like a direct haul. Get there in a day and a half, kind of a thing. [Laughs] You have to fill that truck cause that product is gonna come with it, because you can't just go there for a hundred-tray order.

Gone are those good old days when we just stuck it on Delta. [Laughs] That's how it was, you know? The truck backed up to our door, took our plants to the airport.

Now we've got trucks, OK, this one's going the southern route. This one's going the northern route. This one's going up to the Northwest. Totally different now.

What are you doing over the next three to five years for the landscape customer that you haven't done in the past? And why?

One thing is the 70-millimeter Ellepot. That's addressing a need that landscapers have where there isn't as much plastic for them to haul away from a job site.

When we asked, one of the biggest things landscapers said they wanted was to decrease the amount of trash they have to haul away from the site.

So labels, plastic branded containers, that kind of thing – they don't want to deal with that stuff, you know? Because once they have it, what do they do with it?

So I think that's one of the initiatives that we addressed right off the bat was let's find a package where they don't have as much waste.

You can get as many as 25 70-millimeeter Ellepots in one flat. You only have one label. One label. That's the only plastic. And then the flat itself is recyclable. They can use it again, they can bring it back, that kind of thing.

The other one is that we're trying to close the gap. We identified this huge gap between landscape architects, installers and contractors. Big gaps. So we're trying to get them all together and use the brand as the unifier for all of them, so they recognize, hey great plants for the landscape. The brand Proven Winners.

So we've worked real hard at doing that. Using the brand to unify the different segments. Because it's a very fragmented industry. You have municipalities that do their own thing. And then you've got contractors, the installers, the maintenance people, the architects.

I remember when we were doing our surveys, one architect said, "I've never seen landscape plant or drawn a landscape plan with color. It's always been the trees, the shrub, the skeleton plants." And the color was just sort of left to the whim of whoever was installing it or whoever the customer was that owned the property that they have the project of.

So let's tell them what to put in here for color![Laughs] And let's talk their language and say, "OK, you don't have to plant as many. You don't have to sweep out as often and replant. These grow fast." So we're trying to address, treat color. It's just a gap.

Hotel del Coronado is the site of a pilot project between EuroAmerican Propagators and The Brickman Co.

When you say gap, you mean a gap between architect and the contractor? Or the architect and the designer?

The grower. The grower and the contractor. The gap is showing them how many good plants that we have that really ought to be in the landscape. So this Signature Garden thing is a pretty good example of what we're doing, that we never did before, working with Brickman, one of the biggest landscape contractors and companies in the U.S.

And working with them on projects, which makes their client feel really good about them. And then it makes Brickman feel really good about our brand.

That's the gap. There's really no guidance given by color people to landscapers as to what would work where. And what the opportunities are to make them look good in the eyes of their customers.

So that's what we're doing. That's where we're closing the gap, teaching them about plant materials that they didn't know anything about before.

Is there anything else that we didn't talk about that's important for our readers?

In a lot of respects, Proven Winners right now is at a really opportune point, cause right now so much of the industry is only worrying about going inexpensive, going cheap. Cheapening their inputs.

They're not branding. And so it's a huge opportunity for us to build the brand even stronger and to create the value message. We've got to diverge ourselves from what the industry seems to be wanting to do. And a perfect example of it is a category called premium color. In the old days, premium color was Proven Winners.

Now, there's so many other suppliers that have similar items that are premium color. Now that category of premium color has become genericized. It's just become the kitchen sink of all these different genetics. So Proven Winners now has this great opportunity to be distinct even from premium color.

Because you see price even falling on premium color. Proven Winners, by using the value of the brand and then always trying to stay ahead on the genetics, can distance itself and become its own category. So there's Proven Winners, and then there's premium color.

My wife worked for 23 years for Nordstrom. And Nordstrom sells khaki pants for men. Well, they sell the JW Nordstrom brand of khakis. They're good value at a good price. And then they also sell Hugo Boss. And they get more for those. Because they were branded.

And I think that that can happen in our industry regardless. That's the premium color. And the other color can be the in-store brand. They can even have the brand and container that's for the premium color stuff, their in-house stuff. But then have a Proven Winner section, with the higher price point, just like it's the Hugo Boss of plants.

The Cadillac of plants.



So I think right now this is a great time to do it. Because everybody's rushing and throwing everything into premium color and turning it into a generic category.

So now Proven Winners is one step ahead, that's become our own category.

We don't want to just be premium color.

We wanna be super premium. [Laughs] Extreme premium.


The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape magazine. He can be reached at