In 1956, Bob Sawyer, fresh out of military service, began planting the seeds for what would grow into a thriving greenhouse business. With kids on the way, Sawyer and his wife, Shirley, began raising perennials, hoping to supplement the income of their growing family.
By 1974, the Sawyers had overcome the early struggles of a burgeoning business, and purchased the 90-acre farm that still houses the center of operations for Sawyer Nursery today.
In the beginning, Bob worked as a bricklayer while Shirley ran the nursery’s daily operations, employing high school students during the summers.“They actually worked back then,” Bob chuckles.
With an entirely outdoor operation, the Sawyers relied on other jobs during the winter months until they built their first greenhouse. With the added boom of year-round perennial growth, Bob and Shirley expanded the market from delivering to smaller garden centers to taking on the larger chain retailers.
Trimming the edges
As the Sawyers transitioned plants into greenhouses, they made another big change: cutting out the field-grown program. “It’s all greenhouse and outdoor container grown,” says Bob, “Strictly perennials.”
Narrowing its niche brought Sawyer Nursery to the top of the mass-market suppliers, making the rise to an industry-leading perennial producer an easy leap.
Bob and Shirley’s venture to support their growing family has bloomed into a thriving family business; the Sawyers’ sons are now actively involved in running the nursery with Scott, Craig and Bob comprising the board of directors. Scott handles the physical aspects of the business while Craig is the head grower.
“Everything is we,” Bob says proudly.
The present-day Michigan nursery houses the base of operations. It encompasses 140 acres, 30 of which have heated greenhouses. The Sawyer’s second location in Leesburg, Alabama, was added to take advantage of the warmer climate and to better service the southern market.
Matching the market
Bob knows the key to success is staying on top of the growing industry. To keep the nursery competitive, new varieties are added to the plant selection every year. “Spicing up the product line is always a constant effort,” he explains.
Sawyer Nursery added to its services by responding to its customer’s demands by providing larger container sizes, as well as a bigger variety of plug sizes. With plugs being shipped across the country, this small step helped Sawyer Nursery meet the demands of its market in a region where the spring season is cut short.
“Green is not just a color anymore,” sighs Bob, “customers want perennials regardless of what time of year it is. That took a real expertise in the growing area, to force plants out of season.” Keeping ahead of the season gives Sawyer Nursery an extra edge in the industry.
Sawyer Nursery employs workers to maintain products in final retail locations. Many retailers today employ scan-based sales. “We do not get paid until the cash goes into the register,” Bob explains. This added incentive drives Sawyer Nursery to work harder to maintain the high quality of plants that leave the nurseries.
For a tricky market like the floral industry, the economic downturn hit greenhouses hard.
“The economy didn’t do any of us any good,” Bob sighs.
The added struggles of bitter cold winters haven’t helped. “Weather is one of our biggest challenges,” explains Bob. Cold weather leads to rising costs beyond plant care, from natural gas to heat the greenhouses, to increased prices in trucking from the nursery to points of sale.
Luckily, Sawyer Nursery saw an excellent summer with sales above average. Nailing down its niche clearly helped the company focus on skills, and exceed customer expectations.
Looking ahead, Bob sees good things on the horizon for the nursery, as well as the industry as a whole. “I look forward to a gradual growth and more stable economy going forward,” Bob says. “Really, it’s what we all hope for.”
Although his role in the company has shifted from that during the founding years, Bob still heads over to the nursery every day for coffee. “My involvement is basically to go over and talk to the people I’ve known for all these years,” Bob says. But the pride in his company shines through in his voice.
From its humble beginnings as a sideline business to support their family, Bob and Shirley managed to create a successful greenhouse success story that not only has survived the economic downturn, but also narrowed its business to a successful perennial niche.
“I’m just a farmer raising plants,” Bob laughs.
But with a flourishing business like Sawyer Nursery, Bob’s modesty is overshadowed by the blooming success of his floral empire.