October 3, 2019

The value of being different

INTERVIEW BY ROD McDONALD

John Schroeder is the founder and former owner of perennial grower Valleybrook Gardens. He started the company in 1980, while still a student. He began on five acres of land his father owned in Abbotsford, B.C., where he hand-built a wooden arched greenhouse purchased with a credit card. His first-year sales amounted to $5,000, but he soon increased those numbers. In his third year, sales were at $55,000, and by the time he sold Valleybrook in 2019, the company was in the top tier of horticultural businesses in Canada.

After purchasing the original five acres from his father, he added another five acres and then 15 more after that. He was known for his production-increasing expansions, opening facilities in Ontario and Maryland. 
 
Schroeder was also known as an innovator from the beginning. He shook up the old boys of the trade who didn’t embrace change. John was one of the first to purchase an on-demand water heater to care for his seedlings. He was one of the first to purchase a computer to run his business in 1982, years ahead of most. 

In the ’90s, Schroeder received The Young Farmer Award, at which time he pointed out changes in the industry. He noted that while he then owned 39 computers, he owned only one tractor. That was a shift worth noting.
He was also one of the first to embrace transferring photos of plants from the field to customers’ computers, so his quality could be visualized. While this is commonplace today, John was on the cutting edge of new technology at the time. Being innovative seemed to be a good way to start the interview:

Q. Why have you always been on the cutting edge of new technology and innovative approaches to marketing perennials?
A. I have always been bored by the old methods of doing things, and fascinated with the new. Some ask why and I ask why not? In essence, challenging myself is a major part of my personality. 

John Schroeder

 

Q. Have your innovative methods always been accepted by others?
A. Absolutely not. There have been those who have understood what I am doing and then there are those who have not. When I started my in-house marketing campaign, branding my plants as Heritage Perennials and growing them in blue pots, I had push-back from established growers. They could not understand, if my company was named Valleybrook, why I would have a marketing brand called Heritage. One fellow went so far as to complain that I was not really a plantsman as much as I was a marketer. In reality, I am both. 

Q. In your business career, what are some of the things that you did right and what did you do wrong?
A. There are never just one or two things that you do right, but if I were to choose just one, I would use the word differentiation. I tried to do things differently from others, to set myself apart, and it worked. Over the years, I tried many things that did not work, but I don’t view that as doing something wrong. I had to try things to see if they would assist the company. Some ideas I kept, and others I had to abandon. The one thing I delayed was building a loading dock. I never built one, and it was one thing I wished I had done — and so do the new owners. 

Q. You are known for leading horticultural tours to foreign countries. Is that something you are still involved with, and why is it so important to you?
A. I love travel, I have been to 90 countries, and I love plants. The tours combine both those passions and I get to share those passions with like-minded people. This October, we are going to Africa. 

Q. What advice would you give to someone starting out?
A. This is a difficult trade and you need to either love it or else have a great idea that will allow you to be successful. It would help, if you are starting out, to work for a successful company for a year or two to see if this is really for you. 

If you have a mentor to recommend, please write to editor@landscapetrades.com.
  
     

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