Donald Blew is a winner of the 2020 Horticultural Industries Leadership Awards. These awards are given to leaders in the greenhouse and nursery markets for their positive impacts, leadership and drive to improve the industry.

As the eldest of three siblings, Donald Blew has always had an innate knack for leadership and responsibility. That hasn’t changed much, given his presidential status at Centerton Nursery in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Like many operations, management has been in the family for multiple generations and in Donald’s case, he leads the third.

Generational growth

Nearly 50 years ago, Centerton only consisted of 9 acres of land that were purchased by Donald’s grandparents, Ray and Marlene. That property was home to fewer than a dozen small greenhouses that held a few azaleas and rhododendrons, along with a 10- by 10-foot hut, otherwise known as the office. In 1977, Donald’s father Denny joined the company after graduating college. Now in its fifth decade of business, the nursery is operated by Donald and his two younger siblings, Robert (Bob) and Amy.

Currently, Centerton sits on 3 million square feet under plastic and has around 190 greenhouses that were drawn and built by Donald himself. The nursery now grows broadleaf evergreens, flowering shrubs, perennials and a full line of edibles (vegetables and herbs) — more than the few azaleas and rhododendrons it once had — and sells 10 specially crafted brands, along with many others.

The Blew brothers also co-own BlewLine Nursery, a bareroot daylily and shrub hub that was founded by their grandfather in the early 1990s to mitigate the unreliability of finding bareroot perennials. In 2006, they purchased the property with Bob serving as president and Donald as vice president and expanded the offerings to more than 100 varieties of bareroot shrubs. In 2016, they began selling through the Star Roses & Plants brand.

Organically driven

While working at two nurseries may sound like a heavy workload, it’s virtually all Donald knows.

“I grew up on one end of the nursery, so I had a really big playground,” Donald says. “I even keep a picture here on my desk of me at 3 years old, loading a truck with my dad. That was always what I wanted to do — come back and run the nursery.”

After high school, both Bob and Amy went to college to pursue other careers. Amy majored in communications at Loyola Marymount University and Bob majored in agriculture business at Penn State University. And while Donald studied agriculture business as well, he attended Delaware Valley University with specific plans of applying his knowledge to the nursery. This wasn’t by choice but was a requirement by Donald’s grandfather who determined it a prerequisite to running the business. His grandfather had to practically “force him” to go, but it was Daniel Seik, an independent salesman for Centerton and decades-long friend of the Blew family, who suggested the major.

“I recommended it to him because with working alongside his grandfather and dad, he was already familiar with plant identification. He probably even knew more about the plants than his professors,” Daniel says. “But school gave him the background of business.”

Daniel says he’s known Donald since he was about 12, and although his siblings grew up on the nursery as well, Donald had an intuitive attraction for the business. Some natural qualities he has, according to Daniel, are “common sense” and the ability to “solve problems and figure things out,” much like his grandfather. He also says Donald was “curious” and “always designing things.”

“Even though he doesn’t have an engineering degree, he’s definitely an engineer,” says Amy Ordog, who is five years younger than Donald.

When he began their Stone Cottage Farm — a line dedicated to lavender — Donald built the facility and designed rolling benches just from looking at other places. He also designed their potting machines, water boom, water tunnel, trimming machines and greenhouses, and has replicated concepts he’s seen from his trips to Europe. Amy says every time they attend a trade show, they ask Donald to replicate something and he’ll respond with, “Yep, I’ll get it done!”

The Blew family: Bob, left, Rod Miller (their uncle who handles irrigation), Jill Blew (their aunt who handles shipping), Ray Blew (founder), Amy and Donald in front of the house Donald built for a customer appreciation day to promote their groundcover line: BlewBlanket Groundcovers.

From employees to family

Amy also describes Donald as “humble” and “hands-on,” and uses his interaction with their employees as an example.

“He knows every single person who works here — all 120 of them — and that makes me proud because there are other companies who don’t know who’s working for them,” she says. “He knows everybody’s first and last name and is the one who actually hands out checks.”

He also implemented a generous employee production bonus where employees receive a bonus for their daily accomplishments, on top of their hourly wages. But the biggest bonus he gives is in the employees’ evaluation three times a year.

“It’s just another way to say, ‘Hey, we’re all working together,’” Donald says. “It’s about the company and if the company does good, we all do good.”

Centerton also has a low employee turnover rate and treats everyone like family. Not only is the nursery run by a generation of siblings, it’s also operated by about 30 employees who were originally hired by Ray decades ago. Donald even said the original secretary his grandfather hired worked for 38 years before retiring just a few years ago.

A future of promise

Both Bob and Amy say they are proud to be Donald’s siblings and work alongside him while continuing the legacy their grandfather began. Daniel says Donald is the “ideal” person to lead the family operation, and work in the horticulture business.

“I think he’s the kind of people we need in the industry,” Daniel says. “He’s the kind of person who will try stuff and share his knowledge with others. He actually encourages people to share their knowledge for the greater good of the industry. He’s honest, hardworking, has a good heart, is a very good teacher and I think with the combination of everything, he’ll be a very good leader in the industry for a number of years.”

As for Donald and his plans for the future, he wants the nursery to continue evolving as it has every year.

“I think we’re set up right. Each year we say, ‘This is our best year ever,’ until we do better the next year. We’re on the younger side; we’re hungry. We’re ready to make moves and put the time in,” Donald says. “We’ve got a really good team of people here on board with us and they look forward to our next chapter too, and that’s really what it’s about for us.”