The owners of Pine View Farm near Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, say they were one of the first greenhouse operations in Atlantic Canada to take the concept of ‘just in time production’ and apply it to a living product.
Chris Brown Sr. and his wife Mary founded the business and remain as shareholders, but Brown’s son and his wife Karen now operate Pine View. The company has grown considerably from its beginnings 25 years ago, expanding from one 600' greenhouse to 54,000' of growing space. The facility is thriving in its retail area, serving customers primarily aged 30 to 60, as well as wholesaling to hundreds of clients.
The Browns are strong believers in customer service and say it is what sets independent retailers apart from the large vendors. They hire up to 30 key staff during peak season, teach product knowledge and provide all customers with a complete product list and basic information in the form of a catalog (45,000 copies annually).
“We have been complimented on our staff as to how helpful and knowledgeable they are. My view is if we aren’t, why come here? If there is no service, the customer might as well go to Walmart where they provide little or no service for less,” says Brown.
Staff members are highly visible in their red shirts. There is a playground for families and a delivery service for large or heavy items. Large display gardens and ‘living labels’ (plants grown in larger containers) are on site.
The Pine View Gardeners Club is an innovative approach to marketing. A database is kept of over 8,000 retail customers. The in-house designed program allows the business to reward customers by giving them redeemable points based on their purchases.
Brown says they use flyers to blanket local market areas, then use the names and addresses from the customer database to direct mail to individuals not covered by the bulk distribution. “This split approach allows us to reduce mailing costs and keep our distribution focused. Each area we deliver to is researched as to the age of the housing, proportion of rental/owned, etc., before we send in our flyer,” he says.
In order to protect the margins on regularly featured items, only enough products are specifically grown for a feature. The best example of this is their 99-cent Mother’s Day Special.
To keep Pine View Farm’s name in front of the public throughout the season, and to support the above features, they use newsprint.
“We try to make sure that the general appearance of each ad is similar but that the content changes,” says Brown. Radio ads were dropped to give priority to colour ads during peak periods. “This is a visual industry and the rule of thumb is colour sells. So why not colour ads?” says Brown.
In the winter, Pine View Farm opens their retail for poinsettias but rely on selling through Gow’s Home Hardware in Bridgewater as well as to nonprofit groups that sell poinsettias as a fund raising project.
The Browns demonstrate the same wise business strategies in their wholesale division. In 1999 they entered into a license agreement with Norseco Seed from Laval Quebec, the first greenhouse in Nova Scotia to do so. The agreement allows them to propagate a wide range of material they were not legally allowed to do before.
The plug and cutting greenhouses are state of the art. The environment is computer controlled with heated concrete floors. Rainwater is collected for watering and irrigation booms handle part of its distribution. Other technological advancements include germination
chambers, a highly sophisticated seeder and the design and development of a database to control production records for over 2,000 crops in four possible container sizes, as well as consolidating shipping and invoicing.
“It has been gratifying to see local greenhouse growers, many who would have considered us as competitors, grow to trust us and become loyal customers. We have done this by moving away from wholesaling finished bedding and not copying the things that make them unique in their markets. This has been key in seeing the wholesale part of our business grow,” says Brown.
In 2003, Pine View Farm began growing cuttings (12,000) for Veseys mail order catalog.
This year they were awarded a root and sell agreement from Fischer USA and will be producing for Norseco, Ball Seed and JVK. The license is one of four supplied in Canada.
“All our production is grown to order. Another database handles the orders as they come in, prints out the seeding and other production lists, pick lists and invoices. This year will see this database go to the next level with scan at pack to remove much of the paper work between shipping and invoicing,” says Brown. Pine View Farm’s customer base now runs from Quebec to St. Pierre and includes over 300 customers in Atlantic Canada.
Capable management has its rewards. In 1998, Pine View Farm won the Entrepreneur of the Year from the Nova Scotia Chamber of Commerce. In 2000 and 2001, Pine View Farm was selected as honourees for the Atlantic Region Outstanding Young Farmers. In 2001, they won the right to represent the Atlantic region at the National Outstanding Young Farmers competition in Quebec. In 2003, the Bridgewater Chamber of Commerce was awarded the Lunenburg County Chamber of Commerce award for innovation.
The business plays a strong role in the community with $5,000 annually provided to various groups, particularly to schools and other youth groups. Volunteer efforts include being involved in the 4-H program, coaching soccer, serving with a volunteer fire department and a seat on the board of directors of the Lunenburg County Federation of Agriculture. Karen serves as President of Greenhouse Nova Scotia and Chris is on the Federation of Agricultures Alternative Energy Committee and on the board of Hort East. They both serve on the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture’s Council of Leaders and the Outstanding Young Farmers Organizing Committee. Nationally, Chris serves on the Production Council for Flowers Canada. Karen serves on the national board for the Outstanding Young Farmers and is chair of the 2005 national event to be held in Halifax in 2005.
|At a Glance:
Pine View Farm
Chris and Karen Brown
Bridgewater, Nova Scotia
Number of Years in Business:
“Service survives. If you don’t have service and ensure that it gets to the customer then you will continue to lose business on price. Know as much as possible about your customers. Then you grow what they want and your advertising becomes much more focused. There is no such thing as a truly original idea.
Pretty much everything is a modification of someone else’s idea. If you copy your neighbour you are following. If you copy someone from another part of the planet, modify it to suit you or even take the idea from another industry, people think you are innovative.
“When you start a business you should sit down and produce a five year plan. I don’t think that our first five-year plan could have included the diverse business that we have grown into today. Each part of the business now has its own vision of where it wants to be in five years, and that plan may change by the end of next year depending on how things change around us.”