All In The Family With Praill’s Greenhouse
The fourth generation is now managing this Sarnia, Ontario, landmark. “Our key to success is quite simple. It’s about quality, but it’s also about keeping prices fair.”
By Dave Harrison
The Praill family of Sarnia has particularly deep roots in the flower industry.
The family-owned greenhouse operation – Praill’s Greenhouse – celebrated its 100th year in business in 2015, consistently following a tried and true recipe for success, according to Bruce Praill.
“Our key to success is quite simple,” he explains in the office of the Blackwell Road greenhouse. “It’s about quality, but it’s also about keeping prices fair.”
Bruce retired in the spring of last year after 47 years working with plants. The new owners are sons Sean, Chad and Ian who, just like their dad, all grew up in the business. “I talked to them many times and asked, ‘are you sure you want to get into this,’ ” Bruce says with a chuckle.
Bruce’s grandfather, Frank, purchased the farm in 1915. It then consisted of about 60 acres on a quiet county road. It had been a working farm with chickens, an apple orchard and some field crops.
The first greenhouse was 18’ by 30’.
Frank soon got into market gardening. Bruce recalls such crops as cucumbers, muskmelons, potatoes and tomatoes, and even some wheat. Some of the products were shipped via Canada Steamship Lines to Port Arthur and Fort William (now known as Thunder Bay).
The early greenhouses were used for flowers, and a retail shop was opened in 1925 in Sarnia. “No one would drive out to the farm,” says Bruce, “because we were too far out of town.”
The garden centre was built in 1945, and the flower shop operated through to the mid-1980s. “We just didn’t have the time to run that store along with the garden centre.”
THE CITY HAS GROWN OUT TOWARDS THEM
The location is ideal. Subdivisions are slowly growing out towards them, and the once quiet country road now receives a steady stream of traffic.
The early greenhouse crops were quite diversified, ranging from bedding plants to carnations, cut mums, potted mums, azaleas, hydrangeas, Easter lilies, sweet pea and cut snapdragon, among others.
Over the years, the product mix has been scaled back to reflect changes in the market. “This was a time when the big box stores and the grocery stores were starting to sell more flowers, meaning reduced sales for flower shops.”
Trucks were increasingly coming to town with plants grown in other regions.
The family was more than up to the challenge. The product line evolved to meet market demand.
“We’re now so much more into containers. We still grow some bedding plants such as petunias and marigolds, though it’s decreasing every year.”
More nursery stock and perennials are now grown, along with premium-quality containers and hanging baskets.
The greenhouse has expanded over the years to 40,000 square feet. “It’s not big by industry standards,” notes Bruce, “but it does the job for us. We focus on the local market, and that keeps us pretty busy.”
Praill’s Greenhouse has many longtime customers, along with a popular plant sale fundraising program for area Boy Scouts and schools.
CHANGING LANDSCAPES IN SUBDIVISIONS
A drive through just about any subdivision will illustrate how plant usage has changed, says Bruce. People are tending to keep landscapes as maintenance-free as they can by using smaller trees, such as Japanese maples, and using a lot of stones and mulches.
“But even with less maintenance plants, people still enjoy gardening. They like to be working on their lawns and gardens, and outdoor entertaining is huge.”
Praill’s Greenhouse has a large assortment of patio products, such as hammocks and other furniture.
Huge Boston fern planters are among products the family is well known for – the bigger the better. The deep containers make it easier for customers to maintain the plants over the summer.
They’re also bringing in more tropical plants, such as mandevilla and hibiscus, to meet customer demand. “People are really into tropicals.”
Bruce recalls that gardeners showed considerable interest in vegetable gardening in the 1980s and 1990s. “Everyone wanted to grow their own food.” There were even community gardens where people had their own garden plots.
That trend has waned a little, as consumers can now visit pick-your-own farms to harvest fresh produce.
“There will always be a market for plants. You have to adapt and have what people need, and we’ve been very good at adapting.”
AUTOMATION HELPS KEEP THEM COMPETITIVE
Praill’s Greenhouse has just the right amount of automation to help them remain competitive, including environmental controls and alarms, for example. “I can remember having to do it all by hand, and coming to the greenhouse late at night to make adjustments if it turned too cold.”
It would be difficult to fully automate their watering “because we have such a variety of crops.”
One house has shade and energy curtains.
They use very little in the way of pesticides and are moving more into biologicals, and with good success.
The main advantage of being small is that when the big box stores close their seasonal garden centres, “our business picks up throughout the rest of the summer.”
Customers come from about a 40-kilometre radius, and they are quite loyal.
“We’ve definitely found our niche,” says Bruce. “It’s our focus on good quality plants and good service that makes us stand out.”
They’re now seeing more young customers, those in the 25 to 45 years of age bracket. “My sons are in that age bracket so they know what these customers want.”
FUTURE GROWTH TIED TO SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING
And what younger customers respond to best is social media marketing. “The boys are great at that. They still do some newspaper and radio advertising, but there’s no question they’re moving more and more into social media. We have to keep up with the market.”
He notes that it’s “almost unheard of” to have a business go into the fourth generation. They started succession planning early, and talked to a number of experts to get good advice. “It’s been a smooth transition.”
Not that Bruce is going anywhere. Yes, he now has more time to spend at the cottage, but he says it’s impossible to simply walk away from something you’ve done for 47 years.
“It’s not a nine to five job. It can tie you down and the hours can be quite long. It’s hard work and you have to like it. There’s great satisfaction in taking something from a plug to the finished product that you know your customers will enjoy.
“I know the boys can run it well, but it is great to drop in from time to time, just in case they have any questions. It’s a comfort zone for me to come in here.”
Will there be a fifth generation of Praills to carry on the family business years from now?
“Who knows,” Bruce says with a wide grin. “They’re quite young so it’s too soon to tell. But they do help out on weekends.”