Successful Operator Profile: A Diversified Destination

October 17, 2012
Written by
Being off the beaten path has helped establish Marlin Orchards & Garden Centre as a destination for plant aficionados, newbie gardeners, and families that have worked up an appetite during a scenic drive in South Glengarry, Ont.

MarlinFall  
A large selection of pumpkins and other produce gives customers a reason to come back late into the fall.

 
This second-generation family business got its start as a hobby orchard in 1964. For the first few years, Ann and Bill Marlin were employed full time outside their small orchard, tending to the trees after work and selling their apples from a roadside stand at the edge of the property. In the mid-70s, they decided it was time for a change and jumped into the business of growing things full time, expanding the orchard and founding a garden centre. After another decade of hard work, the Marlins retired selling the business to their daughter, Diane Lunan, and her husband, George, in 1989. Through it all, the Marlin story has been one of growth, and of family.

All three of Diane and George’s children – Kris, Alexandra and Hannah – are now involved in the business full time. During peak season, the family accounts for half of the store’s 10-person staff. But whether or not you’re born into the bloodline, at Marlin, everyone is family. “Even if you’re not a member of the immediate Lunan family, people come in and it’s warm here,” Diane Lunan explains. “Everyone knows us; it’s kind of got that old country feel.”

MarlinExterior  
Marlin Orchards & Garden Centre is truly a destination, attracting customers from nearby Cornwall, Ont., and from as far away as Ottawa, Kingston and Montreal.
 
The store’s location certainly helps contribute to that country feel. A 500-foot laneway leads to the garden centre from Highway 2, which runs along the St. Lawrence River. From the moment customers turn off the highway, it’s a far cry from the box store experience. “People get out of the car and, of course, there are no buildings or concrete anywhere around,” says Lunan. “They do feel a sense of relaxation; they see the sun shining and hear the birds singing and all that kind of neat stuff.” Customers are free to explore the seven-acre garden centre and orchard at their leisure, browsing the quality plants and produce that allow them to take a bit of that country feel home.

Customers are what Lunan calls “typical garden centre shoppers.” Women ranging in age from their late 20s through to late 70s make up a large portion of the store’s clientele. Young families are also an important customer component; many are headed by mothers and fathers whose own parents used to bring them to Marlin. Staff are also working hard to win the loyalty of new residents. “There are a lot of retirees that are new to the area and they’re not just going into apartments; they’re going into homes,” Lunan says. “A whole new range of gardeners is available to us.”  Marlin reaches out to those new customers through traditional advertising routes such as ads on local radio stations and in community newspapers, as well as through social media.

Invitations to give gardening talks to local horticultural societies and other community groups are also great opportunities to connect with new customers. “We do a lot of the Spring 101, wake up to your gardens, and then we do quite a lot of ‘what to do with your garden in the fall.’ It’s kind of basic, but that’s what people want,” Lunan says.

At its core, Marlin is a garden centre committed to growing quality. In total, 45,000 square feet of greenhouse space is devoted to growing all of the store’s annuals. About 30 per cent of Marlin’s perennials are also grown in the greenhouses – a figure the Lunans hope to increase now that they have additional space for retail production. “We have some good local growers – we buy from Ontario, Quebec, Oregon and Michigan – but it’s nice to be able to have control over what you’re selling to your customers,” Lunan says.

At a Glance
Company name:
Marlin Orchards & Garden Centre
Location:
South Glengarry, Ont.
Owners:
George and Diane Lunan
Years in business:
48
Website:
www.marlinorchards.com
Come fall, when traffic tends to be dwindling at many garden centres, Marlin still offers plenty to keep customers coming back. The orchard produces more than 30 varieties of apples, as well as plums, pears, pumpkins, squash and gourds pollinated by bees from the Lunan family’s small apiary, and sold on site. This makes the rhythm of Marlin’s business cycle different from that at many other garden centres, but the Lunans have something of a tradition of marching to the beat of their own drum. “We tend to work backwards from most places. We were agriculture – that’s always been a major part for us – and then we got into horticulture, whereas a lot of garden centres are horticulture going into agriculture.” That, according to Lunan, has also helped build the business by giving non-gardeners a reason to make the drive to Marlin.

Another big draw outside the regular gardening season is an annual pottery show, founded by Ann Marlin 25 years ago. For three days each Thanksgiving weekend, more than two-dozen potters from as far away as Kingston and Montreal make the trip to the garden centre to display their wheel-thrown and handmade work.

MarlinBees  
With so many plants to pollinate, there’s plenty of work to keep the Lunan family’s small apiary buzzing.

 
Throughout the year, other local artisans are also invited to set up shop and show off their stuff at the garden centre. “From a community point of view, we always have local people that we’re offering high traffic areas to for a day or a weekend so that they can just have exposure to different clients and hopefully make their businesses work,” Lunan says. “Often gardeners appreciate the crafts and nature of artistic things, so it’s a nice opportunity for us.”

Being a diversified business has been good for the bottom line, but through it all, Marlin has stayed true to its roots. The philosophy is simple: grow the best fruit and plants possible and create a happy environment for staff and shoppers.

To that end, the Lunan family is constantly undertaking new projects. Buying up greenhouses from people who have either retired or gone out of business has allowed the Lunans to tackle a number of renovations and increase their total greenhouse space. New tree varieties have been introduced in the orchard, and the Lunans are shifting to a higher density method of growing their fruit trees in order to increase output. The big project for next season will involve a makeover to how nursery stock is displayed, allowing customers to shop on rainy days without actually shopping in the rain.

Because most of the work is done by the Lunans and their staff, projects may not always move as quickly as they would like, but there’s an upside too. “We might be moving at a slower pace than some, but we’ve minimized any form of risk because we finance everything ourselves and we do all the work ourselves,” says Lunan. “We’re independent of so many things that might draw other businesses down.”

On the whole, Lunan thinks the business’s family ties and small size are a key component to Marlin’s success. “I think we can never forget to stay true to the core of being a garden centre: the information, the expertise, the quality.”

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