It’s been 14,600 days. 350,400 hours. Thousands of plants. Hundreds of employees. One hundred living walls. Two addresses. Two kids! One crazy ride.
I’ve known this day was coming, but it’s still nearly impossible for me to grasp, much less explain in a single blog post. Today, November 1, 2017, is officially my 40th anniversary in business as “Good Earth Plant Company.”
These are the times we can’t help but look back at the long, winding path bringing us to the present. Many of the steps were deliberate, others were serendipitous, and all were guided by the people along the way.
Thinking back to the summer of 1977, when I was attending Mesa Community College at the ripe old age of 20, life was pretty great – until my father, a Captain in the U.S. Navy at the time, told me I either needed to get a job, or move out. I put it off as long as I could by crashing at a friend’s house while his parents were on vacation, then living in my car (a mustard yellow 1972 Nova).
But reality was inevitable. I went to the Mesa College employment office every day. I moved pianos. I was a janitor. One day, the clerk who’d gotten to know me pretty well asked whether I’d be interested working at a plant shop downtown owned by his sister’s boyfriend. My grandfather always loved plants, so I thought it might not be so bad. After meeting with the owners, I had a key to the kiosk at 6th and B Streets in downtown San Diego. I got to move back home. Once again, life was pretty great.
Three months later, the owners decided to sell. Out of a job already, dang it! I lamented my situation to my dad over dinner. The craziest thing he’d ever said came out of his mouth: “Let’s buy it.” He had zero business experience and I didn’t have much more.
Nevertheless, he ponied up $3,500. We got the business license, we were 50-50 partners and Good Earth Plant Company was officially born.
It was mainly plants in the beginning, with a few flowers for sale. I realized I knew nothing about floral design, and attended a design class at San Diego City College. It was me, a lot of older women and two gay men (remember, this was the late 1970s and people were barely beginning to get out of those closets). I felt pretty out of place. But I stuck with it.
My business partner was stingy. I’d say, “Dad, we need a phone in the flower shop.” “What do you need a phone for? To talk to customers? Why do we need to make it easy for them?” Yes, this was what passed for customer service back then.
I had to learn a lot of things from experience. I didn’t even know you were supposed to clean roses, as I described in a previous blog post. But the wheels in my head were turning. As things progressed, I realized if I sold a plant, I’d see the customer again in a month. But if I sold flowers, they’d be back in a week for more flowers. Ding ding! I switched my sales from 90 percent plants and 10 percent flowers to 80 percent flowers and 20 percent plants. I hired my sister’s boyfriend as my first employee.
At the 6th and B location, Good Earth Plants was located on the bank plaza with no infrastructure, meaning I had no restroom, no sink, and no running water other than a garden hose outside.
One day, I walked into the bank on a customary restroom break and saw a sign that said “Business Loans.” Hey, I’m a business! I told the clerk and said I’d like a business loan. For how much? $10,000. Oh, the minimum amount is $40,000? All right, I’ll take $40,000. Then came the reality: being asked to fill out paperwork and provide proof of income and other financial data. What a surprise, why would the bank need this stuff? It was a slap in the face to realize I was considered a risk, and also to realize just how naïve I was. I was out of my league and turned with my tail between my legs and slinked off.
I’m thankful to my original financier, my dad. Two years after I’d been in business, I bought my dad out – for $1. I guess he considered the fact I was making a living and not mooching off him any more to be a good return on investment. I’m grateful to this day he helped me get started, and that he’s still around to see how far we’ve come.
During those years, I got to be good friends with Dane Schlemmer, who had the plant maintenance contract at the bank. Believe it or not, he’s still in business too! Dane used my garden hose to fill his watering buckets. I told him people who bought plants from me for their desks and offices in the bank were now asking me to take care of them. What a hassle! Dane said something that literally changed my life: “You know, people pay for that.” Say what, they do?
Serendipitously, another bank called me for a plant maintenance proposal. Dane kindly helped me put a proposal together. I didn’t get that job, but I got the next one, and the next one. Now I had two employees, a designer and my sister’s boyfriend. I was trying to do the plant maintenance along with running the shop with help from my employees. I had to temporarily stop going to college at night. I couldn’t get up early to pick up inventory, work all day, and have any brain cells left for classes. I figured I’d go back someday.
In the early days, there was something called the Yellow Pages. Remember? Your business needed to be in the Yellow Pages or you were doomed. There were only two categories for plant businesses: plant leasing and plant maintenance. I didn’t even know what plant leasing was, but I listed myself there.
The next thing I knew, I got a call for plants from the wonderful comedienne Joan Rivers. Now I was officially in the plant rental business. I started working for Avalon Attractions and Bill Silva Presents, decorating dressing rooms and the stages for San Diego’s two biggest concert promoters. I can barely remember all the acts we worked with, from John Denver to ZZ Top. Neil Diamond wanted all blue decorations. Madonna wanted me to create a bridal bouquet for her Virgin Tour. I also provided the décor for the San Diego Chargers skybox at the stadium. Owner Alex Spanos insisted on all white. For the Super Bowl, we provided two full semi-trucks full of plants: $50,000 worth.
I remember a conversation with my mother at the five-year mark in business. We were driving on Interstate 805. She asked about my plans. Remember, I had dropped out of college. I said, “It’s been pretty fun for five years, I think I’ll do it another five.” At ten years, who was I kidding? I didn’t look back. What else could I possibly do that would be this much fun?
Thirty years later, it’s still true.
In the early days, my buddies harassed me a little. You’re selling flowers? They’d tell me how sissy that was (in much cruder and unfortunate terms). But I knew a little secret – girls LOVED flowers, so I was getting a lot of dates.
One important contribution to my life is the early education in diversity. It took a few years for me to realize working with flowers wasn’t generally a heterosexual male’s industry. I was an anomaly. Although it took a while, I realized I didn’t care. When I met my future wife at age 34, I also got to know her gay brother, soon my brother-in-law. He was my first gay friend.
Good Earth Plant Company received a big upgrade thanks to a decision by the bank Vice President Mark Sandstrom to remodel the entire plaza where my kiosk stood in the early 1980s. Now I had a cooler and a phone. But still no running water. It was my home until the mid 1990s, when I moved to Kearny Mesa and rented the property where my business sits today in 1994. In 2000, I also started renting the property in the back and put up a greenhouse. In 2002, I bought the property and a new era began.
As I reached 30 years in business, I’d also survived the loss of my beautiful custom home in the Muth Valley to the Cedar Fire in 2003, and the loss of my marriage as a result. Those things force you into a lot of soul searching, which I’ve written about along the way.
As I considered rebuilding (which I never ended up doing), I got excited learning about green roofs. There were very few in San Diego. I decided I needed to learn how to build on. After all, a green roof was just a big plant container, right? I crossed paths with Ulf Waldmann of Mission Valley Roofing. He was from Germany where green roof construction was far more common. He’d been waiting for a plant guy to show up. Right here!
Architect Robert Thiel got on board to make sure we did it right. We got Carlisle Products to sponsor the roof, and the San Diego Master Gardeners helped us plant it. In 2007, Good Earth Plant Company completed the first commercial green roof in San Diego.
My little project got a lot of media attention. That attention drew interest from celebrity chef and restaurant owner Mario Batali of Pizzeria Mozza fame, who heard about it. The Batali Group wanted to put a rooftop farm on its new Hollywood restaurant. I was asked to come take a look, and offer a proposal. It was the first time I ever charged a fee for a consultation.
I went up to the restaurant and climbed up on the roof. I realized the cost of upgrading the building made the idea impractical. The Batali Group would have to install a new roof which could bear the weight, create new access, and build a parapet (wall) around it. This is when I suggested building an edible wall instead, something I’d just learned about at a recent Green Roofs for Healthy Cities conference.
The Batali folks loved the idea. There was a perfect spot just to the right of the entrance along Melrose Avenue. It not only changed things for the restaurant and its colorful creator, it changed the course of what Good Earth Plant Company was doing, thanks to the recognition we received on a national level.
So one green roof and one living wall have now become 100 living walls across the United States, and a handful of green roofs. Our biggest projects cover hundreds of square feet at properties like the Loews Santa Monica hotel, Fashion Valley mall, and Thomas Jefferson School of Law. We get calls every day. At 40, we have never been busier.
I suppose there are some lessons. I’m not sure they are universal but I offer them for consideration.
· Sometimes you need to be pushed off the cliff to take that first big step.
· Be willing to walk through a door when someone opens one.
· You never know when someone will say something that can change your life, so you better be listening.
· When you find something to do for a living that’s fun, keep doing it.
· People are generous and willing to help you, if you’ll let them.
· Things will change, so you better be willing to change too.
This is the point where you know you have a whole lot of people to thank. And I’m going to miss naming some of you, but you’re not forgotten, only unacknowledged.
Beside all the many family and friends, I thank every single one of the hundreds of employees who have worked for me, especially the people working for me right at this minute. I even thank those I had to fire, because they all taught me something.
Businesswoman Gina Champion-Cain gave me a huge boost in 1993, when she was managing the La Jolla Village Square mall. She shared information about how to present effective proposals and it changed how I present to prospective clients to this day. She didn’t need to take time to help, but she did. Thank you, Gina.
My ex-wife Mary served as a source of confidence and support over many years, especially in the early 1990s during recession year when things were tough. I’m also grateful for her role in raising our two terrific kids, Ted and Allie. Neither of whom want to follow in Dad’s footsteps right now, and that’s OK.
On my 40th anniversary today, you might expect I’d be out celebrating. Nope! My new partners in a new venture and I are making a big client presentation which could yet again reinvent my business. This is how an entrepreneur who loves what he’s doing celebrates, and it seems the most fitting way to mark 40 years possible. Here’s to another 40!