Growing A Business, 39 Years and Counting

Posted on Nov 1, 2016
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Thirty-nine years ago today, all I wanted was a way to support myself. I was almost 20 and my dad had just kicked me out of the house because I didn’t get a job over the summer.

I got a part-time job while going to community college, working at an outdoor “plant stand” in the financial district of downtown San Diego. It turned into my own full-time business. Shortly after starting my gig working for “Plants on the Plaza,” the three owners decided it was too much hassle to make them any real money and they wanted to sell. Back home and at dinner that night, my Naval Captain father said, “Let’s buy it!”

The early days of Good Earth Plant Company. You can tell by my excellent mullet haircut it was the 1970s.

The early days of Good Earth Plant Company. You can tell by my excellent mullet haircut it was the 1970s.

On November 1, 1977 “The Good Earth” had its first day in business. The building was nothing more than a large garden gazebo with locking shutters for walls and required pulling out and setting up and then taking down the entire inventory, every day. There were no employees that first year, just me. I sold two-inch, four-inch and six-inch plants in hideous ceramic turtles, snails, frogs and owls and yes, even macramé hangers. (Hey, it was the 1970s). Because it was downtown amongst the high rises, a wind tunnel was created between the buildings that could wreak havoc with my displays.

Part of my original downtown business, "The Good Earth," when I still sold lots of flowers.

Part of my original downtown business, “The Good Earth,” when I still sold lots of flowers.

I always had a few cut flowers and vases, but many more plants. After the first year, The plant stand turned into a flower stand. Goodbye macramé, hello 1980s! I opened another flower shop in the lobby at 501 West Broadway. It lasted five years as I built up an indoor plant service and short term event plant rentals.

I expanded into the interior plant service industry in 1980, adding plant care for large office complexes and other businesses and homes. There was a time when I said we would “go no further north than Del Mar.” Then it was Encinitas … then Carlsbad. We now have projects throughout Los Angeles, Orange County out to Texas, Seattle, New York and Atlanta, and very soon Louisville.

I also worked on special events that needed one time plant and floral decorations.  Madonna started her “Virgin Tour” in San Diego and we supplied her artificial bridal bouquet prop. This led to my all-time favorite celebrity encounter at a live performance featuring comedienne Joan Rivers, which I’ve written about in my blog before.

My autographed Joan Rivers poster. Yes, I still have it 34 years later.

My autographed Joan Rivers poster. Yes, I still have it 36 years later.

The business prospered through the 1980s, and I eventually added two more retail locations. But after a decade and a half, working retail was wearing me out. I was also getting a little bored. Those of you who have ever worked a retail job know what I mean, right?

It was then I realized that I needed to make a decision. I could be the best plant man or the best flower man, but I could not be both. It was hard giving up the floral end of the business. It sustained me for many years and my knowledge, experience and connections were lost to the past. Amazingly, while my annual sales totals decreased, my net profit went up significantly. I never really looked back, and now any time I arrange flowers for someone, I can take my time and enjoy it!

So in 1994, I sold off all my shops to focus on just plantscaping. We found a central location in Kearny Mesa and we rented the small warehouse in the back. For the next nine years, this led to working with interior designers, project managers and property managers.

One of our first big contracts was with local legend Gina Champion Cain who at the time was managing La Jolla Village Square. We also forged a relationship with Tim Schultz of Pacific Cornerstone Architects and did several large projects with his team including a twenty-five foot waterfall in a lobby.

Then, one fateful day, I decided to attend an architectural convention that came to San Diego in mid-2003, just out of curiosity. That’s where I first saw a cut sheet of a green-roof module tray. I didn’t understand it. But I was intrigued. The seeds of another venture were first planted.

The remains of the Mumford home after the Cedar Fire.

The remains of the Mumford home after the Cedar Fire.

Those seeds were literally forged by fire. On my birthday in October 2003, San Diego County’s Cedar Fire hit us. It burned down the beautiful custom home I designed and built with my former wife in the Muth Valley area near the Barona Indian Reservation. Twenty miles inland with an ocean view. It was a devastating blow. I lost everything I’d worked so hard for, or at least it seemed so at the time. I had two little kids and had to start rebuilding from scratch.

So I decided to at least learn something from it. I had built a sustainable home before I knew what one was and I explored my options for rebuilding. I recalled my discovery several months before about the potential of green roofs to add to what I already knew – and one benefit being protection from wild fires.

It gave me a new way of thinking about what I could do in my own industry and business. After all, green roofs (and later living walls) were simply new ways of putting plants in containers. A green roof is just a large shallow pot. And something we had been doing at Good Earth Plant Company for 25 years at that point.

‘Gee, no one is doing green roofs here. What do I do?’ I thought.

The Good Earth Plant Company green roof seven years ago and today.

The Good Earth Plant Company green roof nine years ago and in 2014.

In March 2007, I did the necessary engineering and put on a new roof with three inches of soil and several hundred plants on the office building in Kearny Mesa I had just purchased. It is the first permitted green roof on an occupied commercial building in San Diego. Little did I know what rose from the ashes was a whole new business model.

I never got the therapeutic value of re-building our home. Unfortunately Mary decided it was a good time for a divorce. The only blessing to this double whammy of loss was a new and wonderful relationship with my children and I was able to turn my attention on my new business venture in a field that didn’t even exist in San Diego at that point.

In March 2008, we launched GreenScaped Buildings, which created the Good Earth Family of companies, specializing in green roofs, living walls, bio-filtration and moss walls.

Fast forward to today. I’ve installed 30-foot palm trees that were lifted into place with huge cranes, living walls 60 feet high on the side of shopping malls and hotels, and green roofs several stories up on a hospital and at a university.

Talk about growing your business!

Fallen Star Image 08

Fallen Star at UCSD is one of my all-time projects.

Today in 2016, I can look back on award-winning client projects including green roofs for the University of California, Sharp Memorial Hospital and Miramar College; living walls for Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Fashion Valley Mall, Loews Santa Monica Hotel, SDG&E’s Energy Innovation Center, the Irvine Company, Kaiser Permanente, and soon the Hotel Del Coronado; and edible walls for restaurants including celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza in Hollywood and Newport Beach, and Seasons 52 in Century City, California. We count Qualcomm, Sempra, San Diego Zoo, Salk Institute and Google among our many varied plantscaping clients.

My original green roof at the Good Earth headquarters is still thriving. Thanks to the two beehives on the roof, I’m now an urban beekeeper, a popular new movement in the U.S. My facility also houses a “living laboratory,” testing new growing systems and products from around the world to ensure the success of our clients’ projects in the arid Southern California climate and throughout the nation.

Visitors tour the lab and learn about the latest interior and exterior living wall systems, growing media, rainwater harvesting systems, urban farming and aquaponics from around the world.

Three generations of Mumfords: (L to R) daughter Allie, Mom, and yours truly. Happy Mother's Day!

Three generations of Mumfords: (L to R) daughter Allie, Mom, and yours truly.

With 39 years into the business, now my passion has turned to the kind of world I will be leaving for my two children who are (nearly!) all grown up. What will our urban spaces look like? How can we live in a way that reconnects us to nature and reduce the harm we’ve caused to the earth over the last 150 years?

I am convinced the answer lies in a more thoughtful proactive integration of nature into our living and working spaces through the new study of biophilic design. Scientific research continues to find the simple addition of plants can improve productivity and reduce workplace absenteeism. Views of nature from a hospital room speed the healing process and reduce both pain medication and complaints. We spend more at retail malls, at hotels and for real estate when nature is present. Walking in the woods and parks lowers stress and stress-related illness. Green roofs and living walls reduce heating and cooling costs for homes and businesses, process storm water and add biodiversity to the built environment.

Wow, what a long trip from then to now!

Wow, what a long trip from then to now!

Our passion for plants continues to grow at Good Earth Plant Company 39 years after I first started. I am excited to see what the next year and even the next decade brings. Thank you to all of my clients, friends and employees past and present, and everyone who has joined me for any part of this journey so far. Wait till you see what is next…