Photography by Kate Thompson

Even with all the recent momentum around women and minorities in horticulture, we’re still admittedly a ways away from true equity among all this wonderful industry’s many stakeholders.

And yet, in order for more access to power for these groups, it helps to amplify some of the operations that have embraced true diversity in the boardroom.

You might remember The Growers Exchange (TGEX) from my colleague Kate Spirgen’s cover profile of the operation (Online Exclusive, June 2020). Based in Sandston, Virginia, the e-commerce-only greenhouse operation owned by Briscoe White made for a great profile of an operation that was leveraging a new sales channel to increase its relevancy among plant buyers, and the timing was perfect, as more and more wholesale greenhouses began exploring the e-commerce angle.

While that profile dug deeply into the how and why of White and co.’s online pivot, there’s another worthy angle that is worth exploring with the East Coast plant shipper.

“If you are looking for an article about young greenhouse managers, especially female greenhouse managers, TGEX team would be a shining example,” White wrote to me in an email back in August. “If you’re wondering who in the hell is going to run greenhouses in the next generation, we have some [idea] here.”

Well, White, challenge gladly accepted.

The Growers Exchange’s young, all-female management team discusses advancing the industry through more inclusive hiring practices, how to approach the plant pricing conundrum, and much more.
TGEX is seeing high demand for novel and unusual plants and herbs.

The now (wo)managers

For much of TGEX’s history, White has been tremendously involved in day-to-day operations at the $1 million dollar-plus in annual sales “plant factory,” as he called it back in our previous story on the operation.

Today, however, he has been able to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the production grind. And that’s all due to, according to the owner and founder, the steady stewardship of the front office duo of Operations Manager Jessica Smith and Horticulture Manager Shannon Convery.

While the two couldn’t come from more disparate backgrounds — Smith has a background in operations and in early e-commerce ventures around the Richmond, Virginia area, and Convery got her start as a section grower at a “big commercial grower” — they’ve been able to combine forces and safely steer TGEX through what’s been a turbulent last 18 months.

“Overall, the past 18 months, we did really well, actually,” Smith shares. “Sales were up, everyone was at home, and we provided a service that allowed people to keep growing and gave them piece of mind.”

“From the greenhouse perspective, I think it was admittedly kind of insane, ya know,” Convery adds. “We did the best that we could. Going into it, we kind of knew things would be insane, and since we were already just doing e-commerce strictly, we knew this was a big opportunity for us to sell a lot of plants.”

There were a few hiccups along the way that the dynamic duo had to overcome. Things mostly related to the strain COVID-19 put on everything supply chain-related.

“We had some seed shortages, and plastic stuff was hard to get for a while there, so we had to make some changes on the fly and use cuttings, things like that,” Smith explains. “You do whatever it takes to get around some of those issues and keep supplying your customers.”

After a 2020 where the greenhouse blow past its profit projections by 25%, the duo saw an opportunity to reward those who helped them manage through such a turbulent time.

“We were able to raise wages significantly and make sure we’re paying what we feel is a true living wage to our people,” Smith says. “And we started doing monthly bonuses for the employees to just show our appreciation for them just showing up day-in and day-out, wearing masks during the hot and humid summer, that kind of stuff.”

The Growers Exchange is proof that companies thrive when all kinds of people are included at the top.

More seats at the table

It’s time to address the elephant in the room. While we’re perhaps doing better than we’ve ever done on accepting nontraditional demographics into the boardrooms of horticultural businesses, the TGEX management duo feels there’s still a lot to be accomplished.

“I just had this conversation with my partner a couple months ago, and like we were saying, especially with the new cannabis boom [in hort], it’s all middle-aged white men,” Convery says. “Not only are women not getting these jobs, but it’s also non-white males that can’t get their foot in the door. If you go into any greenhouse in this country, I guarantee you’ll see a good number of women working in that greenhouse.”

Convery would like to see the industry someday get to the point where promotions and appointments are doled out purely based on individual merit and proficiency.

“We have to get to the point where we’re hiring people based on experience and how much growing knowledge they have, and whether that package comes in a man or a woman, a Hispanic woman or a Black man, it shouldn’t matter,” she argues. “I get in the greenhouse, and I start working with my people and talking with them and it’s like, ‘Man, why aren’t these people running the show and calling the shots?’”

An open mind and willingness to be different at the top of the organizational structure is what struck Smith about upper management’s hiring philosophy.

“[I] was hired literally just to do data entry and as I worked with them, I tried to learn [about horticulture],” she recalls. “I am not a green thumb, so this was all new to me when I started 10 years ago. Briscoe and Kenan [the owners] were those types of people that supported every crazy suggestion I came up with. I’d hope people in this industry have mentors that will listen. I had so many ideas and some of them were insane and they supported me, which allowed me to learn more. People need to just take a second and listen to their people.”

Coming from two completely different backgrounds, Convery and Smith have proven themselves to be the ultimate dream team.

Some SOI takes

Our 2021 Greenhouse Management State of the Industry report (https://bit.ly/soi-2021) always contains some interesting nuggets of information to digest.

Nearly a quarter of those that filled out the survey (23% to be exact) plan on increasing production on tropicals and indoor foliage plants (AKA houseplants). Herbs also appear to be taking off with more greenhouse operations. Twenty-two percent of respondents will be increasing their activities in that segment, as well.

At TGEX, Smith and Convery said they are planning on more of “anything rare and unusual” for 2022.

“We’ve seen this kind of shift over to the weird and unique stuff, where we’re really kind of amped up currently on things like marshmallow root, St. John’s wort, unconventional stuff like that,” Convery explains. “For years, we were known for having wide of varieties of lavender, rosemary and thyme, but now the rare stuff is just really taking off.”

Being known for its herb production, TGEX also noticed a trend toward varieties that could be considered more “natural” or heirloom.

“It is exactly that — people want to go back to the old days of natural remedies — and they’re looking for things like echinacea and chamomile to help with all this anxiety in the world today,” she adds. “Our customers are very interested in medicinal herbs.”

Potted flowering plants (which includes dill, parsley, and other herbs) will also see a 20% bump in production for 2022 among the growers we surveyed.

“Dill and parsley were really hot back in 2020, but — get this — it wasn’t for culinary [uses],” Smith dishes. “Customers wanted them because they're host plants for swallowtail caterpillars!”

“We’re able to give them those rare and unusual finds that you can’t just pick up at the big-box stores,” Convery says.

As many growers have indicated in our SOI survey, The Growers Exchange foresees a strong and successful performance in 2022.

Talkin’ profits

Another fun aspect of the SOI is to see how growers feel the next 12 months will go from a profit standpoint.

One-fifth of growers indicated that they expect overall profits to increase either by 5-9% or by 15-19%, both of which would be considered good increases year over year. Another question asked whether profits would increase, remain the same or decrease. Only 10% of respondents indicated that they foresaw a market downturn on the horizon.

“That is THE question that everyone is looking at, and we are batting that around right now too,” Smith shares. “One of the best things about being so entrenched in this e-commerce world is that we have so [much] data to base those decisions off of.”

Convery adds: “We feel 2022 is going to be another big year for us; there’s no red flags that I am seeing right now, anyways.”

Pushed to make a prediction, the duo admit they could see a bit of a pullback. But nobody's planning on that actually happening.

“We might see a bit of a plateau [in 2022],” Smith cautions. “I only say that because we did 50% [more in sales] in 2020, and then we went 20% over that this year, so we have really done leaps and bounds beyond a normal year for the past two seasons. Right now, we are still projecting a 10-15% increase for 2022. In the past 10 years, we’ve never had a red year, we’ve always grown in some way, so it’s not something anyone here is worried about.”

Talkin’ prices

Four-fifths (80%) of our survey audience indicated they raised plant prices in 2021 (by anywhere from 1-19%) and many more growers are still grappling with how to offset spiraling production costs while keeping new gardeners around.

“Before COVID hit, we raised our prices at the end of the 2019 season, which, when everything hit the fan, allowed us to stay at those prices, so we did not have to raise [prices] to compensate for high demand,” Smith recalls. “As of right now, we do not want to be gouging our customers or raising prices just because everyone else is.”

On the grower side, Convery tasked her production staff with finding efficient workarounds to save money on the backend, before seriously considering across the board price increases during 2020 and 2021.

“[We started with] streamlining the shipping department, and we’re also using a new plant tag company, so that has decreased the amount of reships we have to do based on errors,” she explains. “So instead of raising prices, we found stuff to do in-house. Yes, we could raise prices, absolutely. And people would still buy from us. But let’s have a conscience. We want to be able to supply our customers and not have them say ‘Oh my gosh, I just spent $150 on plants at The Growers Exchange.’”

Be your own advocate

Asked their advice for young horticultural pros, Smith says to always be your 100% authentic self, and the rest will take care of itself.

“And don’t be afraid to speak your mind; that’s what I have learned, anyways,” she says. “Sometimes in this day and age, people will assume that if you’re a woman and you’re speaking up. In a male-dominated industry, sometimes your first instinct is ‘Oh I’ll just be quiet,’ but that doesn’t help anyone. I would tell any woman, just don’t be afraid [to speak up], and be you.”

“And if you want to learn more and move up in the industry,” Convery adds, “then approach the people you work for and let them know that you're interested in horticulture as a career and want to take on more responsibility. You are your own best advocate.”