Green Circle Growers: Growing Extraordinary Plants for Extraordinary People

Green Circle Growers (Green Circle) is one of the largest floral greenhouse operations in the Midwest. John van Wingerden, who founded the company with his brother and their grandfather in 1968, still owns the family business, which is based in Oberlin, Ohio, and produces bedding plants, blooming potted plants, plus plugs and liners. John’s son, David van Wingerden, started at Green Circle managing production and is now running Green Circle’s sister company, the brokerage Express Seed Company (Express).

The van Wingerden family has been in the greenhouse business for decades. “My father’s family is involved in the greenhouse industry all over the country, whether it’s in growing or warehouse construction,” says David. “I have aunts, uncles and cousins scattered all over. We’re actually in direct competition in the Cleveland market with relatives. We joke that it’s like the plant mafia.”

David, like his father, grew up in the industry. His leadership at Express supports the parent company by maintaining a more efficient supply chain. “Express got started in 1982,” he explains. “We wanted to buy seeds by count and not weight as it gets rid of any need for conversion. We spoke with our supplier and asked why we couldn’t purchase by count like it’s done in Europe. They said ‘no’ and now we’re in competition with that supplier, but we are also one of their largest customers.”

Express exemplifies the cost-effective vertical integration model Green Circle has as its base initiatives and endeavors. “It’s all about synergy of the sales, marketing and production,” says David. “It’s not necessarily about just a cheaper price, but [rather] finding better solutions and a better value.”

Nourishing New Ideas

Green Circle continually strives to be a state-of-the-art production leader. The company’s client base includes domestic and international mass merchandisers, home improvement centers, supermarkets, wholesale clubs and independent garden centers. A sales-driven company focused on consumer satisfaction, Green Circle’s team uses more than 450 charts trends and implements technology to assure the company can supply what the market demands. The company’s cutting-edge, eco-conscious biomass-heated facility and its thoughtful growing arrangements use environmental controls to increase efficiency, reduce water shed and negate disease spread. Because business is very freight-sensitive, Green Circle concentrates on supplying specific segments during optimum periods, splitting attention between supplying ready-to-plant items to retailers and supplying younger plants to other greenhouses replenishing stock.

However, Green Circle’s prime season, spring, is relatively short. “There’s only a six- to eight-week period where we can sell spring goods,” explains David. “That’s the time of year we’re actually able to be profitable. We protect our overhead year-round with mums, poinsettias and orchids, but those few weeks are when we have to make money.”

The company’s spring offering includes a variety of outdoor plants including hostas, daffodils, ferns, pansies, hibiscus and more colorful blooms for gardens. The indoor selection offers succulents like aloe, palms and Christmas cactus, as well as flowering plants and ivy. Holiday specialties like Easter lilies and winter poinsettias are available in season.

Green Circle has found a valuable additional market, however, in non-seasonal items such as bonsai trees and in supplying what is the No. 1 value in potted plants. The team devised an original system for keeping delicate orchids carefully distributed and perfectly hydrated, resulting in lowered costs and simplified care, thus increased customer satisfaction. Using heating elements and insulated packaging, Green Circle’s orchids arrive to 48 states and Canada in high-quality condition.

Marketed under the “Just Add Ice Orchids” slogan, and through the JustAddIceOrchids.com website, these orchids are planted in a bark soil and owners are advised to add three ice cubes once per week to keep the plants perfectly watered. The cubes take time to melt so the plants have time to absorb water. The cube system also offers a steady form of measurement without pulling out a liquid measure.

Maintaining the Market

The United States is a challenging market for the greenhouse industry. “Here, we only touch about 25 percent of the populace,” explains David. “That’s a lot different from the European market, where you have a penetration of about 70 percent. We feel that anything that moves customers to buy more of our product is great, however, so why not team up and boost the industry together? So we’ve developed a lot of really solid partnerships.”

The industry is very segmented, and David sees the interconnectedness of the business on a daily basis. “You have Home Depot, Walmart, or the other big-box guys trying to take over, but there’s still a solid independent contingent,” he explains. “Still, when the big-box store sneezes, it makes a big impact. They seem to choose a few select suppliers and it can have serious consequences for those who are left outside of that circle, if they don’t change their business model.”

To combat these market fluctuations, Green Circle prioritizes working together with production partners and retail clients. “We’re all about the basics and understanding how things grow,” says David. “There’s no secret sauce, it’s all about basic disciplines. It’s no different from the fundamentals in sports.”

The key for success, David explains, is flexibility. “We’ve changed the face of our business and how our guys react to it,” he states simply. “There are a lot of businesses that didn’t change with the times. They have more employees and fewer turns in the greenhouse. If folks changed with the industry, they’re doing well.” Still, keeping up with the industry can be a challenge.

The growers’ market is tied in with several other aspects of the economy. When the housing market goes down, so do plant sales. “People don’t buy as many trees and shrubs,” elaborates David. “We were impacted by the economic crisis. I had thought our business was recession-proof, but the demand shrunk while the supply didn’t.”

Again, the team’s flexibility and its wealth of strategic partnerships came into play. Specifically, the orchids segment of the business took off. Working with partners in Europe, Green Circle created a product that was more affordable than ever, opening up a corner of the market that hadn’t existed before. “We’re always looking for more products we can adapt with the approach we took with the orchids,” David says.

After 45 years, Green Circle is still thriving, and even growing. The company team’s ability to adapt has been invaluable, adding to the longevity of the van Wingerden family business and to the success of its business partners. With products such as the Just Add Ice Orchids, Green Circle is connecting directly to the consumer, guiding both future habits and production. Green Circle Growers is a unique business, applying innovation to an industry that seems simple and introducing a fresh approach to the greenhouse industry.