Successful Operator Profile: Going the Distance

March 22, 2011
Written by
Russ Bruce loves what he does. It’s what led him into the nursery business and it’s what keeps him happy serving his customers year after year.

Bruce and his wife, Trudy, run Cedar Rim Nursery, a popular garden centre and nursery in Langley, B.C. It is a family business, started in 1978 by Bruce and his parents as a hobby and a means of summer employment. He and Trudy, whose parents also owned a popular Langley garden centre, bought out both of their parents in 1987 and have since run the garden centre and nursery. Over the years, it’s become a much larger operation – a one-stop shop – where landscapers and gardeners are treated to between 6,000 and 8,000 varieties of rare specimen trees, perennials, shrubs and annuals, and such complementary products as specialized fertilizers, soils, pots, insecticides and fungicides.

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Cedar Rim Nursery, of Langley, B.C., is a one-stop shop where landscapers and gardeners are treated to between 6,000 and 8,000 varieties of rare specimen trees, perennials, shrubs and annuals, and such complementary products as specialized fertilizers, soils, pots, insecticides and fungicides.
 

Ten of the site’s 30 acres are devoted to retail sales. The nursery operation comprises about 20,000 square feet of heated greenhouses for annuals and about two acres of coldframes plus another eight acres for outdoor material. The wholesale operation involves some 100 acres in total.

As “Purveyers of Unique Horticultural Specimens,” Cedar Rim is known for its wide selection of products, and for going to great lengths to meet requests from customers by sourcing plants and trees from its own nursery and rare items from across Canada and the United States. It grows about 70 per cent of what it sells, and, because the business has access to a huge inventory of plants, it can get them to customers right away. What it does not stock, it can find in short order. A customer can landscape a yard in about a week.

Building relationships
Ironically, despite its wide selection of plants, Bruce marvels that he occasionally feels as if they don’t to have anything people want. Armed with Internet knowledge, which is not always pertinent or accurate, Cedar Rim’s increasingly tech-savvy customers often come to the centre with obscure requests.

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This is where the centre’s outstanding customer service comes in. Staff are interested not only in what customers want, but also in what is best for them. People may know exactly what they are after, but often they need guidance, explains Bruce. Sometimes gardeners will request plants not suited to the climate of southern British Columbia. They may need to be steered to a comparable plant that will perform better in B.C.’s relatively damp, long growing season.

Staff are interested in building relationships. “We know our customers have made a concerted effort to come to us; it is not convenience that brings them in, so we have to offer them something special,” says Christina Charles, the centre’s manager in charge of perennials, annuals and hard goods. “Our customer service goes beyond polite greetings and helpful garden advice: we tend to develop relationships with our customers, knowing many of them by name and focusing on their specific plant interests and needs.” This genuine interest, she suggests, keeps customers coming back and recommending the garden centre to their friends.

To offer something extra to these regular customers, the centre initiated a loyalty program a few years ago. It offers customers incentives, such as weekly discounts, sneak previews of new items and advance notice of sales. “We had this large customer base, and felt we were in danger of losing some to big-box stores or other competitors simply because the market has become more saturated and pricing extremely competitive,” says Charles. The Garden Club now has about 3,000 members it reaches via twice yearly mailouts, and weekly or biweekly e-mails. It has proven to be Cedar Rim’s most effective and least expensive advertising tool.

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The centre focuses on the 45 to 50-plus age group. Bruce says baby boomers have driven the business over the years, from their first purchases as young adults building homes and starting families to their retirement and interest in gardening for leisure. Athough this group is the centre’s mainstay, Cedar Rim makes a special effort to target 25- to 35-year-olds, shoppers who are keenly interested in hands-on gardening, and particularly in growing food crops such as vegetables and fruit trees. Recalling high interest in food crops in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he wonders if this is a cyclical trend.

Hands-on training
Staff is kept hopping with gardeners of all ages during the centre’s peak season from March to mid-August, when Cedar Rim employs about 50 people, many of them full time, during that busy period. When business is slower, the centre maintains 12 to 14 employees. The company pays a little more than the going rate to hold on to quality workers.

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 “Our brand has become our incredible plant selection, artful displays and great customer service,” says Christina Charles, Cedar Rim’s manager in charge of perennials, annuals and hard goods. “We tend to develop relationships with our customers, knowing many of them by name and focusing on their specific plant interests and needs.
 
According to Charles, the company tries to provide in-depth safety orientation and training, and reinforce the importance of safety with regular meetings and ongoing monitoring. Employees are encouraged to pursue further horticultural or safety education and are financially compensated for course costs. “Our in-nursery training is hands on, with the guidance of our experienced supervisors, she says. “We find the most effective method of training for customer service is the practice of job shadowing. It can be daunting at first for our new employees to find their way around the nursery. It takes some time for all new employees to become accustomed to the sheer size and diversity of our plant selection, and becoming comfortably familiar with all this is an education in itself.”

‘Silent salesmen’
When time is short and staff are busy, great signage sometimes picks up the slack. “Signs are your silent salesmen,” remarks Bruce. They provide concise information about species traits and requirements that serves both customers and staff. “Colour laser printouts are a must,” he continues, and the affordability of colour printing these days makes it easier to offer attractive signage. Staff create the signs, posterboards and labels in house through the Horticopia online customization program, which gives them more control and consistency in the brand they present to customers. They use laser-printed UPC labels and codes, but expect to switch to radio-frequency identification, or RFID, eventually.

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 Cedar Rim carries a line of garden fountains, among them classic wall fountains, oriental-style water pots and whimsical wooden water barrels, and offers an extensive line of pond necessities and accessories.
 
Cedar Rim has found it useful to designate one staff member to take the lead on creating eye-catching signage, updating its website and Facebook page, and working with media outlets to create advertisements. The nursery makes use of traditional media, such as local newspapers and radio, and burgeoning social media, such as its website and Facebook, to promote its products and educate its customers. Taking advantage of the web has become much more urgent over the last few years, particularly in the last year and a half. The website, www.cedarrim.com, offers users several resources: articles tell readers “How to Landscape for a Quick House Sale”; guides describe everything from azaleas to tropical plants; and links to local landscapers help match up Cedar Rim’s nursery customers (the landscapers) with its retail shoppers who, increasingly, prefer to have the help of professional gardeners. From the website, users can link to the Cedar Rim Facebook page and its YouTube instructional videos.

‘A lot of fun’
When asked about plans for the future, Bruce says he would like to offer more workshops and events. His overall goal is to keep running a healthy business, serving customers, and mostly having a lot of fun.

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When time is short and staff are busy, great signage picks up the slack, by serving as the centre’s “silent salesmen,” providing concise information about species traits and requirements.
 
“There’s been a lot of work and a lot of frustrating days, but it’s been a privilege for us to do this work alongside our children.” Amanda, Kelsey, Jason and Kyle have all shown interest in gardening and pitched in at the garden centre, making it a true family operation, but Bruce is careful not to pressure them to follow in their parents’ footsteps. “The industry has been very good to me. If the kids take over, that’s just a bonus.”

Cedar Rim has been cited several times by the local newspaper, The Langley Advance, as Best of the Best in the nursery category, but, although it is nice to be recognized, Bruce says that’s not what motivates him. “You’re in business to make a profit and to take care of your people.

“Do what you like, and if you like what you do, you’re generally going to be successful.”

 At a Glance:

Company Name:
Cedar Rim Nursery
Location: Langley, B.C.
Owner: Russ and Trudy Bruce
Years in Operation: 32
Website: www.cedarrim.com

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