Greenhouse Canada

Business Management
Growing in the Green: Mapping out the future

August 26, 2013
By Melhem Sawaya


How many of you believe in leprechauns, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus?

How many of you believe in leprechauns, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus? Then let me ask how many of you believe in New Year’s resolutions?

Every grower should develop a “Crop Cookbook.”  We have a template online to download.



About half of New Year’s resolutions don’t get past Jan. 10 and by Jan. 30 another 45 per cent of the resolutions have gone by the wayside. We then fall back into our busy lives and into comfortable old habits. Maybe only five per cent of the resolutions are adopted as a way of life rather than an event.

Smart planning means looking into the future to figure out what is needed to make our health, job and relationships better.

New Year’s resolutions are reactionary actions to a state we don’t like. These actions have been building up for months and even years, thus resulting in wishful thinking that we are going to reverse these actions in a matter of days, which is impossible.

That is why New Year’s resolutions fail. By no means am I implying that New Year’s resolutions are bad. They are positive but our expectation of the resolution is not realistic. We put ourselves under pressure of deadlines and goals that are unrealistic and thus we drop our resolutions and go back to our old ways.

A greenhouse operation makes its New Year’s resolutions at the end of June, immediately after the spring rush and after coping with many stresses. If the procedure were pre-planned or changed, things would run smoother and unnecessary costs would be avoided.

Here is a checklist that might help in reviewing your operation procedures and goals. I find it is much easier if I set short-term and long-term goals.

These are the everyday functions of the greenhouse for the next year and, by reviewing them yearly and ahead of time, it becomes much easier to manage the list and to achieve the goals on your long-term list.

 Facility: There are many factors you can improve on in your facility where the payback can be seen within one year, and is a benefit every year following. Some of the projects can be done in-house during the off-season. This avoids paying someone to do these improvements for you. Better to spend your extra time improving the facilities rather than growing extra crops you don’t know if you can sell.

Sales projections: I am sure by now you only grow what is sold or at least spoken for, and not what fits in the greenhouse. Even worse is deciding that you want to grow an extra 10 per cent not knowing if it fits in the greenhouse or if there are sales for it or what impact it would have on the profit margin rather than the dollar sale.

Costing: It is very nice to get many major orders, but if the margin for profit is not there or is minimal, then the millions of dollars in total sales is an exercise in futility.

We should never be tempted with dollar sales unless there is a good margin for profit. If you don’t calculate the cost of your product then no intelligent decisions can be made and the year-end statement could be very disappointing. Don’t forget to consider that you could also be missing out on increasing your profit margin.     

Production: This is the process that links the sales projection and the feasibility of achieving a premium product at the selling date at a profitable margin. This definitely cannot be done as we go – PLANNING is a MUST. Most of the planning process can be simplified by using a spreadsheet that you can print and sort for different factors.

You can find one such the crop cookbook at This will enable you to calculate all the ingredients what are needed to grow your crops. It will also help calculate if your growing area is large enough to accommodate your production without having to move your crops more than once or, ideally, never.          

It takes into account factors like growing crops in poor lighting conditions due to dense hanging baskets creating a canopy. What you gain in growing on top you lose on inferior quality or by not making the sales date. 

Do you ever wonder why your 4” New Guineas are not flowering on time? Well if the plants look healthy and do not flower, look what is above them. Lack of solar energy will delay many cultivars.

Anytime there is overproduction scheduled for a limited growing area, the margin of profit is less, quality suffers, blood pressures go up, and it is the best recipe to lose a buyer.

Remember it is hard enough to get sales for quality products. There are definitely no sales for inferior products.

Organization: We can do all the planning we want, but if we don’t do tasks on time it is a waste of effort. If the plants are not ordered on time we might not be able to get the varieties we require. This goes for the planting media, containers, tags, chemicals, and most important, the required number of employees to get the job done on time.

Then follow your cookbook for growing schedules and adjust according to the plant advancement, but make sure the adjustment is recorded so next season you will minimize the adjustment.

Communication: The smallest greenhouse operation needs more than one person to operate it and most operations are dealing with from 20 to 200 employees. Many operations are running with five to 10 per cent of the labour force they need for the spring, so planning and trying to execute every step on time will fall apart if there is no organizational communication in place.

The more labour coordination and supervision you have in place, the more efficient employees will be and it will also promote a pleasant work environment

Building relations: I worked in an operation where the labour size numbered between 50 and 60 during slow times, and jumped to 250 to 300 in peak seasons, so the time for building relations was very short.

However, it is amazing how fast healthy relations are built when the environment is favourable and top management provides every catalyst to help.

I now visit many greenhouse operations and they vary in size from 20,000 square feet to 40 acres. I have found that size is not a factor in building a pleasant environment. Setting the tone for the operation is the general manager or president. They can create a pleasant environment by communicating regularly with the staff and listening to their constructive comments.

Building constructive relations is very important in every aspect of life and not just at work. They are important in immediate family relationships and extended ones. The cliché that you should leave your personal business at home is wishful thinking and must have been written by a person who doesn’t have immediate family and does not care about his extended family. It is very important to build relations in both the immediate family and extended family – especially when so many greenhouse operations are 90 per cent run by family members.

Long-term planning takes the input of every individual in the greenhouse operation. Most of the time, long-term planning without the input of the people doing the actual work is not realistic. By involving everyone, the chances of everyone being on board are much better.

If a second generation is involved or will soon become involved, it’s important their opinion is taken into consideration. But if their heart, passion and eagerness are not in the business, they should look for something else. Sooner or later the business will become so painful to them that, before you know it, the whole company is on a downhill slide.

With planning for expansion, many details can fall through the cracks unless there is a person or people in place to cover the different and new tasks that are generated by the expansion.

And be sure to enlarge the customer base before any structural expansion. Rent a greenhouse to accommodate the increased business first, and if this growth is permanent, then expansion is justified.

Do you know your customers well enough that you can plan accordingly? Do you know what their plans are? Many of the large chains have plans to minimize the number of their vendors. Are you are one of vendors the customer is keeping or are you the one that is going to be dropped?

In my calculations only five per cent of current growers will be supplying 90 per cent of the volume in less than five years. Where do you fit? Are you one of the five per cent or are you going to be one of the 95 per cent that will be supplying the remaining 10 per cent?

Healthy customer relations is the key to a healthy business. In one of my next articles I will share with you some ideas about customer relations.

And, last but not least, is taking action to take care of yourself. In addition to personal relationships, there are few things that we don’t like to think of namely wills, retirement and eternity. I know many of you are much younger than I am but these all matter. The right time to deal with them is now.

Taking care of these things now will definitely allow you to live this life more fully. It will make you more appreciative and thankful for all that you have! ■

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome at, or by visiting or .

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