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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 6 years ago

Sunny days

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Operators of a $5.5 million plant nursery learned a valuable lesson in the downturn: Downsizing is OK — in everything but customer service.
by: Anita Todd Contributing Writer

For nearly 30 years, brothers Craig and Scott Roth and their staff at Sunshine Growers have combined sweat equity, trial and error and good business practices to outlast competition in a crowded industry.

The result: a wholesale plant nursery that deftly survived the recession and had $5.5 million in sales last year. “Sales are starting to come back after seven years,” Craig Roth says. “I think we've turned the corner.”

Sunshine has an enviable customer list filled with familiar household names such as Publix, Walmart and Costco. Those chains sell Sunshine's unique potted flowers, vegetables and plants.

Since purchasing the business in 1986, the Roths have relied on niche products like poinsettias and mums, selling them by the hundreds of thousands. But when the recession hit in 2008, the company re-evaluated its business plan. It diversified from flowering creations to more practical offerings. Customers were still spending money, but on more sensible purchases like vegetables.

The brothers also downsized their business by selling their third location in Plant City. Now they have 52 acres in two locations: Lakeland, where there are offices and a nursery, and Fort Meade, which houses its outdoor division. The company has 45 employees.

“We got away from some of the products we were used to — like mums, mini potted roses and lilies at Easter. Other things have taken their place like 1- and 3-gallon potted vegetables,” Roth says.

They also sell large potted Heartbreaker Tomato plants year-round with fruit ready to pick and eat off the vines. Ornamental peppers presented with marigolds — said to ward off insects — around the base of the plant is another popular seller, along with combo planters, small majestic palms and hanging plants.

Before the recession, the company only made deliveries in Florida and Georgia. These days its trucks travel all the way up the East Coast.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are about 3,000 wholesale plant nurseries doing business in the state. Numbers like that would seem to generate a great deal of competition for Sunshine. But stability, say the Roths, is a useful weapon.

“In this business, a lot of people come and go. We go the extra mile to provide good customer service,” Craig Roth says. “We try to be consistent and faithful to our customers. If we make a mistake, we admit it and make it right.”

Policies such as that have been in place since the two brothers, teenagers at the time, bought the nursery in 1986. While in high school, they started a lawn service, so a running a plant nursery seemed like a logical next step. It took them five years to make a profit, but during that time Roth says they perfected their crops.

Although the company has since diversified from most of those crops, they kept the staple of their original ones.

Poinsettias remain one of the favorites among their clients, for instance, with sales of approximately 250,000 annually. A tough flower to grow, the company is still discovering new ways to present the traditional holiday plant. One successful variation last year, for Publix, was white poinsettias sprayed with festive peach and orange glitter.

“We have the mantra 'whatever it takes,'” Craig Roth says. “We are not here to make a quick sale. We are here for the long haul.”

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