What's the connection between the animated film "robots" and the thriving foliage operation Twin Oaks Growers International in San Marcos, Calif.? Twin Oaks co-owner and President Bas Denbraver explains that in the movie, an innovative and successful business robot preaches the sound advice behind the mantra, "See a need, fill a need." Denbraver has been living and succeeding by that ideal since entering the greenhouse business in the 1980's.
Denbraver and his wife, Medy, purchased Twin Oaks from his father-in-law Isaac Bos in 2001. Originally a one-acre operation when established in 1978, Twin Oaks has grown to 115,000 square feet of heated greenhouses with another acre of rented greenhouse space. It has also added outdoor facilities including one-quarter acre of shade houses and four acres of outdoor growing area.
In 2001, 100 percent of the crop was six-inch "regular" foliage, such as pothos, dieffenbachia and areca palm. Today, this is down to 45 percent of revenue. Denbraver has added a new "What's New In Foliage" line of premium foliage - sago, zamia, pachira, ficus, ginseng and others that account for another 45 percent of revenue. The remaining 10 percent is larger items like queen palm and Bird of Paradise that are grown outside. As a result of the product change, Twin Oaks' sales are up 60 percent since 2001.
What inspired the change in product? "The purchase of the business" Denbraver explains. "We took out a loan for the purchase of the operation and as a result we have a large overhead. Everyone and their brother grows foliage. We had to do something different to make the mortgage payments, so we switched to premium foliage." Denbraver saw a need - meeting the monthly mortgage payments - and filled it by reconfiguring the product mix to increase revenue.
"What's New In Foliage" is a way to set foliage apart from the commodity foliage items. "People are willing to pay for what's new," Denbraver says. "It's a way to break the cycle of price setting by the big box stores. You as the grower can set the price for new items."
A change in product mix wasn't the only reason behind a 60 percent increase in sales. Twin Oaks emphasizes customer satisfaction and that keeps customers returning for more. Not only does the operation grow the product, but it also boxes, palletizes, stages and consolidates orders. In-house printers give it the ability to print pot stickers at a moment's notice, providing a more direct grower-to-store service. Twin Oaks also offers value-added-products like moss, baskets and ceramics, and will even do custom growing on request.
Bob smith of Pacific Plant Growers in Lehi, Utah, has been a Twin Oaks customer for about 1 ½ years. "Previous to Twin Oaks, we had to go to five or six growers to get all of the product we needed," Smith says. "We go to Twin Oaks every two weeks to pick up pretty well everything we need now. It makes life so much easier when we know the product we ask for is going to be there for us." And the quality, Smith adds, is second to none.
Water conservation is a hot-button issue everywhere, especially in Southern California. Denbraver saw the operation's tailwater as a need to be filled - regulations on effluent were strict and becoming more so. "There were two options," Denbraver says. "Either filter the water and recycle it back into the nursery or use it in the landscape, possibly on a different crop." Ruling out a time-consuming, expensive filtration system, the operation opted to use its idle outdoor space for growing queen palms, a high-demand crop that can tolerate the waste water's high salts and possible diseases. Denbraver filled the need while boosting his premium product line.
The winter of 2001 hit Twin Oaks hard when its energy bill went from $10,000 to $30,000 in one month. "Here was definitely a need!" Denbraver says. Twin Oaks took advantage of incentives available from the local energy utility and installed a computerized climate control system, energy curtains and IR plastic on all the houses. Twin Oaks saved 30 to 40 percent in energy costs and the new installations paid for themselves within a year.
Denbraver and his staff research rebates, grants and funding programs available through different agencies and outlets. The energy conservation measures netted Twin Oaks a rebate from the local utility company. For the tailwater solution, Twin Oaks took advantage of a cost sharing program through the San Diego branch of the Natural resources Conservation Service (NRCS). "Bas was one of the early growers who got into the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)," says Jason Jackson of San Diego County NRCS. "He was progressive in his compliance."
"The money is available to make greenhouses more energy efficient and environmentally friendly," Denbraver says. He credits his involvement on the boards of the local Farm Bureau and the Energy Cooperative for keeping him in the loop on new and upcoming regulations and solutions. "All of the agencies are working very hard to make this information public. The people who do the research will benefit by getting the money to make those changes," he adds. Denbraver does his part to pass his knowledge along to other growers in the county by hosting various meetings and educational sessions offered through NRCS and other organizations. "Bas has been excellent in opening his facility for our meetings to show others how he's addressed compliance issues," Jackson says.
Another way Denbraver has gotten involved is through the Southern California Plant Tour Days (PTD), of which he is a founding member. He's very pleased with the results, nothing PTD has brown every year and brings togetherness to the Southern California industry. "The national chain stores have been coming in increasing numbers to Southern California for consistent quality and availability," he says. "These stores lay out their floor plans months in advance, and if they can't get the plant material because of an unexpected event like a hurricane, their plans are disrupted. This is the reason we see more and more serious buyers at PTD." Denbraver says the three-day trade show and touring event is still in its infancy and has the potential to be a TPIE of the West 10 years down the road. Twin Oaks Growers is a participating nursery in this year's Plant Tour Days, scheduled for Feb. 22-24. (Additional information is available at www.planttourdays.org.)
Denbraver has applied his motto to many areas: revenue, energy, water and growing the regional industry. "See a need, fill a need. There is so much truth to that saying," he says. "Open your eyes and your ears for ways to face the challenges that life throws at your when you're in the greenhouse business."