by Sally Colby
Wayne Sawyer had a taste of the nursery business when he was in high school, and it didn’t take long before he realized that it was what he wanted to do. Today, Sawyer is president and CEO of Bennett’s Creek Nursery, headquartered in Suffolk, VA. Sawyer explains how Bennett’s Creek evolved.
“Art Lancaster started Lancaster Farms in the early 1950s, and sold the business in 1969,” said Sawyer. “He started Bennett’s Creek in 1974, and sold it to his nephew John Lancaster and me in 1994.”
Bennett’s Creek started on 32 acres, with additional tracts added as land was available. The nursery was growing primarily for Coleman Nursery, a retail garden center in Portsmouth, VA. After about seven years, Sawyer saw an opportunity to get into raising plants for the wholesale market. Today, Bennett’s Creek includes 400 acres; 250 of which are used for container grown material.
With landscaping season nearly here, employees who work in the Bennett’s Creek potting facility are busy. Two potting machines – a carousel and an in-line – help with the task. “At this time of year, we’re doing a lot of potting,” said Sawyer. “We’re stepping up gallons into three gallons and three gallons into sevens and fifteens. Our bareroot roses, trees and a lot of perennials are coming in.”
When it comes to selecting plants to offer, Sawyer says the company’s buyer is continually shopping throughout the industry, seeking new and unique varieties. “Being a grower of patented varieties, we know what’s on the horizon and what’s being pushed in the marketplace,” said Sawyer. “We talk with sales reps and attend trade shows to stay ahead of the curve.”
Sawyer has seen a distinct trend toward homeowners who want to use edibles such as blueberries, raspberries, grapes and figs in landscapes, so Bennett’s Creek offers those plants. There’s also growing interest in native species. “We have more people ask for natives, but it still isn’t a big line for us,” he said. “We’re looking into growing more natives because we’re hearing that natives are more and more spec’d on jobs. We have a lot of grasses and some native materials that we can get as bareroot to furnish landscapers, and we’re growing some natives.” Sawyer added that when Bennett’s Creek was involved with landscaping a roadside project, the eye-opener for him was the new BMPs (best management practices). “The standard used to be that they’d have retention ponds to hold water,” he said. “Now they’re making them shallow and planting them like bogs so the water filters out when it runs through. They’re using native shrubbery and groundcovers to act as filters in the bog areas.”
Maintaining accurate inventory and customer purchase history is critical to providing good service. Computerized records help track customers’ purchases and also help with planning the next growing season. “The one that surprised us the most was the Vodka Begonia,” said Sawyer. “A lot of the other begonias and pansies are also real popular.” Sawyer says when it comes to dealing with popular species and varieties, his biggest challenge is maintaining the numbers necessary to fill customers’ orders.
Sawyer says one major change he’s seen over the years is the dynamic for ordering plants. While large retailers and landscaping companies traditionally order in advance, smaller landscapers tend to order after they get the job and then from job to job. “It used to be that landscape companies would order plants and pull plants from holding yards,” said Sawyer. “We’re seeing more and more people coming to the distribution centers and picking plants up as they need them.”
When it comes to customer service, Sawyer believes it’s important to listen to customers and understand their needs. “We try to meet their expectations,” he said. “The day they wanted it delivered, the time, and the plant material described to them looks like what they expect. It’s important to deliver on time, and deliver what the customer ordered.”
In addition to full-time and seasonal employees, Bennett’s Creek employs high school and college students in the summer, and encourages students from Virginia Tech horticulture to work and learn there. Sawyer’s son Matt is vice president of operations and has been instrumental in developing technology for Bennett’s Creek. One of his most recent projects was the design of an automated irrigation monitoring system that will allow employees to manage irrigation remotely.
The company website is an important part of the business, and allows customers to view available plants and live inventory. “Some customers place orders at night and arrive for pick up in the morning,” said Sawyer. “The website is a tool that we have to have, but a lot of people still want to talk with someone.”
Sawyer says customers like having the option of being able to discuss details about plants with sales personnel, and he makes sure that each customer will always have that option. There is no automated phone answering system at Bennett’s Creek – Sawyer believes customers like to have a human voice at the other end without having to push a series of buttons. “We’re seeing that people love personal service, so that’s what we’re trying to give them,” said Sawyer. “We want to automate and make things simpler, but we don’t want to get away from the personal touch.”
In addition to the website, Bennett’s Creek maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. These venues are especially helpful for keeping close contact with customers who are social media savvy.
Despite growing the business to include additional land and distribution centers, Sawyer insists on maintaining personal customer service. “The one thing that Mr. Lancaster always taught me is that the new customer will take more time, a little more hand-holding to get them through the process,” said Sawyer, recalling his early days in the industry. “We never know if that person will be one of our biggest customers in the future, so we have to help people who are trying to get started in the business and cultivate them. Hopefully, they’ll stick with us throughout their career.”
Visit Bennett’s Creek Nursery online at www.bcnursery.com.
by Sally Colby