Christine Jennifer

When Suncrest Nurseries’ founder, Stan Iverson, tragically passed in 2014, the future of the operation was uncertain. With long-time horticulture director Nevin Smith preparing for retirement around the same time, Suncrest faced major leadership changes.

To navigate the transition smoothly, the board brought in a business consultant named Christine Jennifer. Jennifer’s family was uniquely aware of the business, as her family owns some shares of the nursery. She was also a former customer who had purchased plants from Suncrest while running a small landscaping business while she was in between consulting gigs. Using her business acumen and horticulture background to take a fresh look at the operation, Jennifer quickly identified opportunities for Suncrest to reorganize, diversify, expand and evolve into the next era of leadership.

Suncrest soon invited Jennifer to step in as interim president to lead the company’s transformation, making the position permanent by fall of 2014. Since then, Jennifer has navigated several significant shifts to position Suncrest for continued growth.

“It’s been exciting to look at how we can manage our resources and organize this company in a way that’s as efficient as possible,” she says, “so we can change and flex with the times.”

Suncrest features a wide variety of plants, including native varieties.
Geese occupy the small farm at Suncrest Nurseries.

Taking control of inventory

Suncrest started in 1989 when Iverson purchased the remnants of a 100-year-old nursery near the foothills of the Pajaro Valley. He continued the growing tradition there as he doubled the size of the nursery to offer more than 3,000 varieties. Suncrest became widely known for its vast plant diversity, spanning a broad selection of California natives, flowering shrubs, perennials, vines, grasses, bamboos and ferns.

Analyzing this massive inventory was a daunting challenge that Jennifer had to conquer. Early on, she spent time shadowing employees in various roles to understand different aspects of the operation — which spans nearly 100 acres across several parcels, including 70 acres of irrigated outdoor production space and about 5 acres of greenhouses and covered structures.

“There’s a lot of effort, time and costs that go into growing plants. A single plant might get touched by 13 different employees before it leaves,” Jennifer says. “I did a lot of analysis to understand what it truly costs to grow the plants we grow, to make sure we’re protecting our margins.”

To make sense of all the data surrounding Suncrest’s production, Jennifer implemented new inventory management software to track labor, sales, materials, turnaround times and more. The software provides “better control of our inventory,” she says, because “we have more data with which to make better decisions.”

Although it took a couple years to catalog every plant in the new database, the process helped Suncrest assess which plants sold consistently and which ones just depleted precious greenhouse resources. Based on this comprehensive data, Suncrest downsized its inventory from 3,500 varieties to about 800, based on factors like “cost, time to grow and likelihood of sale,” Jennifer says. Meanwhile, she increased the prices of certain varieties to keep profit margins in check.

“It’s a lot of work to analyze this data,” she says, “but we have to keep up with the increase in labor and material costs, and look at actually improving our margins so we can have the longevity and stability to maintain the business.”

Suncrest Nurseries sits on nearly 100 acres , including 70 acres of outdoor production and 5 acres under cover.

Planning production more precisely

During her inventory analysis, Jennifer realized just how long certain plant material sat around before selling — if it sold at all. She knew there had to be a better way to improve turnaround time, minimize waste, and maximize limited resources.

“We were doing a lot of speculative production based on historical knowledge and faith in our customers, but that’s not a precise plan,” she says. “One of the ways to improve turnaround is to grow with more precision, which means growing what you know for sure you’re going to sell. So, our sales approach has changed to focus more on making orders rather than taking orders.”

That need for more sales certainty sparked the idea to launch a contract grow program that allows customers to pre-order specific varieties that are produced precisely to their specifications and schedules. A 50% deposit secures the customer’s order and helps Suncrest plan.

“It’s a concierge service where you get what you want, when you want it,” Jennifer says. “The contract grow program allows us to do more planned production with less guesswork, which is intrinsically more efficient because there’s less risk and less waste.”

The program creates a partnership between Suncrest and its customers, making production planning a collaborative process. If customers want to buy plants that have been cut from Suncrest’s inventory, they can simply request a custom contract grow arrangement to get the plant back in production.

Suncrest has landed contracts to grow plants for museums, stadiums and wineries along the West Coast — including some “quirky and wild varieties” custom grown for Star Wars Land at Disneyland Resort.

Since launching two years ago, the contract grow program has grown to comprise over 12% of Suncrest’s annual revenue, with more potential ahead.

James Szadek, Suncrest business development manager
Suncrest Nurseries offers more than 3,000 varieties from natives to shrubs, vines, grasses, perennials and ferns.
During the COVID outbreak, workers stay safe with masks.

Diversifying the customer base

As Suncrest’s sales approach evolved from “taking orders” to “making orders,” Jennifer found opportunities to diversify the nursery’s customer base — which had been primarily wholesale since the business started.

“Up until five years ago, 90% of our business came from wholesale brokers,” Jennifer says. “Now, about 65 to 70% of our business is retail.”

She noticed that retail buyers often pre-order plant material as they plan seasonal merchandising, whereas wholesale brokers tend to order less predictably from availability lists. “Larger retailers know more precisely what they need and when they need it,” Jennifer says. “As we moved our production planning to be less speculative and more focused on the plans of our customers, we’ve organically grown in the direction of retail.”

To support this natural trend toward retail pre-sales, Jennifer hired more outside sales reps to focus on these customers. As she evaluated new markets for retail sales potential, she saw opportunity in the Pacific Northwest, and in 2018, she hired a business development manager, James Szadek, to lead Suncrest’s expansion beyond California.

“Over the years, Suncrest had gardeners from the Pacific Northwest that would call down and inquire about plants. There were even some garden centers that would send down trucks,” says Szadek, who previously worked with Monrovia, which introduced him to plant retailers throughout the area. “We thought, with our diversified plant mix, we’d be able to add to the gardening community in the Pacific Northwest, where curious gardeners are always looking for new and different plants that are suited to that area.”

The biggest challenge selling across state lines was figuring out the shipping logistics. Instead of sending its own trucks up the coast, Suncrest uses common carriers, which consolidate freight for multiple companies to offer partial truckloads.

“You can grow beautiful plants, but then delivering them out of state in a timely fashion is a challenge, so you have to see how your product delivers and how it holds up in garden centers,” Szadek says. “Finding a good trucking company that understood our needs has helped us grow in the territory tremendously. It’s not just partnering with our customers, but with the people who help us get there.”

Fernando Hernandez, delivery driver, leans out of a Suncrest truck.
Employees tag potted plants in the greenhouse.
Suncrest's Eco-Conscious Beauty line features quart-sized edible medicinal, habitat and native plants.

Building a production team

Soon after Jennifer joined Suncrest, she hired a new production manager. But after about five years, he began phasing out of his role at the nursery to run his own farm. Instead of starting a new search to fill the position, Jennifer leaned on the team she had in place.

“There are so many experts at Suncrest who have knowledge of different production areas,” she realized. “It made sense to work as a team.”

Jennifer reassigned the production manager’s job functions to eight different supervisors. Anibal Gonzales picked up labor management responsibilities, Araceli Gonzales became production coordinator overseeing plant inventory, Leonel Morales took over propagation, and Zeto Figueroa and Pancho Velasquez head up production of general inventory and the contract grow program. Szadek and sales manager, Victor Quintero, also collaborate with the team, and Suncrest’s long-time horticulture director even came out of retirement to serve as senior advisor.

“We’re constantly looking at new opportunities ... and trying to do it as ecofriendly as possible.” — Christine Jennifer

While each manager has “a core area of purview,” Jennifer explains, everyone has a voice through shared decision-making. Constant communication is the key to keeping the whole team aligned as they focus on their respective areas.

“Just because someone supervises propagation doesn’t mean they are the only voice of propagation,” Jennifer says. “They all have a voice in what we’re doing, so a lot of communication happens throughout the week to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

The production management team meets regularly in what Jennifer calls “metronome meetings” to sync up their individual aspects of the overall production. “It helps to eliminate confusion, so everybody knows what’s going in in the nursery each week,” she says. “It keeps us accountable and engaged with each other.”

One of the reasons this team approach works is because everyone on the team has been working in horticulture — and some, at Suncrest specifically — for several decades, so they’re committed to a common goal of producing quality plants. “They have a deep respect for one another and a real loyalty to the company,” she says. “If people understand the whole beyond their own purview, it organically creates a team environment.”

Suncrest is always looking for ways to grow sustainably.
Araceli Gonzales, production coordinator supervisor, flags phormiums for production shifrting.
Zeto Figueroa, production supervisor, tests Suncrest's homemade soil mountains for their premium soil mix.

Inspiring a healthy community

While exploring new avenues of growth, Jennifer made a point to “clarify and reinstate Suncrest’s mission,” which is “growing life and beauty to inspire healthy community,” she says. That means continually “looking for ways to be greener, grow greener and cut back on waste.”

The nursery captures irrigation runoff for reuse, fuels its tractors with biodiesel fuel, and recycles plant material for composting. A couple years ago, Suncrest started making its own soil, with mixes tailored to promote plant health and reduce the use of additives. This greener approach gives growers more control over the soil, at a huge cost savings to the nursery.

Suncrest even has a small parcel of land that’s certified organic and biodynamic — which means that it meets the chemical-free requirements for organic certification, but takes additional steps to ensure biological diversity, soil fertility and holistic ecological health by emphasizing the use of composts and crop rotations. This parcel produces Suncrest’s Eco-Conscious Beauty line, which features quart-sized edible medicinal, habitat and native plants.

Though consumer interest in healthy edibles has been increasing for years, Jennifer says the recent pandemic underscored this demand. For several months, California only allowed nurseries to remain open for “production of edibles and essential production to maintain the value of our inventory,” she explains, which meant Suncrest had to quickly shift its focus away from ornamentals.

“We weren’t doing a lot of production (during COVID), but we did increase our production of edibles because people were interested in that,” Jennifer says. “It helped build sales during a strange time.”

After a slow March and April, Suncrest experienced its “best May on record” as the nursery responded to pent-up demand caused by COVID. Although restrictions have lifted and production has returned to normal, Suncrest plans to increase its biodynamic production to keep pace with the ongoing edibles trend.

“We’re constantly looking at new opportunities to stay current as the world’s changing,” Jennifer says, “and trying to do it as ecofriendly as possible.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine.

This year, Suncrest had its best May on record.