On a blustery mid-November day on Long Island, wholesale nursery Ivy Acres is awash in the fragrant greens of balsam, noble and Fraser firs. As far as the eye can see, row upon row of brilliant red poinsettias perch on nursery shelves or hang from ceiling hooks, shimmering like wintry mirage. Sweet-scented wreaths fill dozens of tables, where workers dip bunches of ruby red berries and shiny balls in vats of melted glue before fastening the decorations to boughs. Miniature boxwood shrubs, trimmed and shaped like Christmas trees, are potted and festooned with ribbons.
The day’s rawness is working in Ivy Acres’ favor, keeping carts of lush holiday greens and wreaths cool before they are shipped. With inventory exceeding the nursery’s refrigerated space, Vice President of Marketing and Merchandising Peggy Van de Wetering ’93 couldn’t be more pleased with the bite in the air.
If this were the North Pole and not the Baiting Hollow, N.Y., headquarters of her family’s business, then Van de Wetering would surely be head elf, for she’s been thinking nonstop about the holiday season and planning for its arrival since the end of last year’s holiday season.
During the months preceding November, in addition to normal nursery operations, Van de Wetering must navigate her preholiday checklist at Ivy Acres — from determining how the nursery will provide Home Depot’s Black Friday Doorbuster sale and tracking the height of the poinsettias that began growing in June, to teaching nursery workers how to assemble the door swags she designed and catching a flight to China to connect with suppliers at the Canton Import and Export Fair.
Even the weather can’t be overlooked. While most holiday weather-watchers want to know about airline delays or icy roads, Van de Wetering needs to keep an eye on storms heading to Canada. She recalls a storm in 2013 over the Bering Sea that shut down northern Canada’s cottage industry in wreath-making. Deep snow meant the machinery used to cut Balsam brush couldn’t operate, leaving villagers without enough supplies to make wreaths. Of the 100,000 wreaths Ivy Acres had booked for production, the nursery received only 12,000. Van de Wetering worked with her broker and went south in search of product. “That meant there were more Fraser wreaths than balsam that year,” said Van de Wetering, “because the mountains of North Carolina could supply Fraser.”
Growing the Family Business
Through it all, Van de Wetering thrives on the pace and scope of her work at Ivy Acres. Her father, Jack, and her late uncle, Peter, started the family business in the early 1960s when the brothers began growing tomatoes and other vegetables. When they realized there was more profit in bedding plants, they changed course.
Ivy Acres added a second location in the mid-1980s as well as a nursing-plug facility that grows seedlings for transplant. By 1986, the brothers had split the operations, with Jack overseeing Ivy Acres and Peter starting Van de Wetering Greenhouses to continue producing plugs and other plant material. Though her uncle died in 2013, Van de Wetering said the two businesses continue to work together. The torch has since been passed to her and her brother, Kurt, though their father still comes in from time to time.
While the holiday season is always a time of increased activity, Ivy Acres hums year-round. The wholesale nursery has grown to include two more facilities in New Jersey and a rose-growing operation in Pennsylvania. In season, Ivy Acres employs about 700 people at its five facilities and merchandisers.
Ivy Acres has also nurtured a special relationship with Home Depot and has supplied its stores in Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and the greater Westchester County area of New York since 1993. Ivy Acres not only meets Home Depot’s need for holiday greens and plants, but it also furnishes a full complement of vegetables and flowers to the stores. Ivy Acres also provides product for select BJ’s Wholesale Club locations and K-Mart stores, and it works with other growers to supply plants they may not have the capacity to produce. “We happen to do a good job with a particular kind of rose that a lot of people want, so other growers come to us for that variety,” said Van de Wetering. “We have a competitor out there that is very good at growing hydrangeas and azaleas, so we buy those plants from them.”
A Living, Breathing Case Study
Van de Wetering believes her decision to come to Colby-Sawyer and pursue a business degree provided her with a solid foundation for tackling the nursery’s concerns. Prior to attending Colby-Sawyer, she spent a year at Michigan State University pursuing a two-year plant industry program, but Michigan State started to feel too big. After looking at several small New England schools, she knew Colby-Sawyer was a good fit. Van de Wetering says, without hesitation, that she’s applied what she learned at Colby-Sawyer to her work; in fact, she did so while still in college, often using Ivy Acres as a living, breathing case study.
“I always thought I’d come back and work at Ivy Acres,” Van de Wetering said, ”so I used the nursery as the example for nearly everything I did, whether it was a project writing a business plan or something else.”
While Peggy was at Colby-Sawyer, Ivy Acres was outgrowing its identity as a young, small company. Her father found that managing a larger operation and keeping the lines of communication open was getting to be a challenge, but then Van de Wetering took a business behavior class taught by Bob Stock, husband of then-Colby-Sawyer President Peggy Stock. Van de Wetering was sure the professor could help the nursery overcome its growing pains. “I remember telling my dad we were missing something Professor Stock was talking about, and that he needed to meet my professor,” she said.
From that first meeting, a relationship blossomed that has included many visits by Professor Stock over the years. During that time, he helped the nursery establish effective formats to encourage open communication among a growing team of managers and workers. “We still talk with him,” Van de Wetering said.
“This is It”
Van de Wetering’s real-world education prepared her for working alongside her father, and now, with her brother, as well as company president Dave Foltz, who came aboard in 2011. She hasn’t looked back since deciding to join the family business. Asked what she loves about her work, Van de Wetering replied, “Oh my goodness, the ability to be creative, and that [the work] is a moving target; there’s a lot of excitement within that.”
“I get up every day, and I’m happy,” she said. “For me, this is it.”