In the late 1920s, Rose and Grafton Mangum built a greenhouse at their Maryland home, an endeavor that grew into the booming enterprise that is now Bell Nursery. AFE recently visited Bell, the largest wholesale nursery grower in the mid-Atlantic based on production space, and got a taste for the company’s commitment to high-quality plants.
AFE supporters since 2000, Bell Nursery exclusively supplies more than 100 million retail ready plants annually to The Home Depot. Bell’s plants are found in 200 Home Depot stores in seven states and Washington D.C.
Cole Mangum, Bell’s vice president of production, said that while it may seem risky to send all of Bell’s annuals, perennials, poinsettias and more to one company, the nursery’s relationship with The Home Depot is secure.
“We’ve been working with The Home Depot for nearly 25 years,” he said. “They understand the value of ‘partnership’ and operate in a way that is positive versus adversarial. Mutual respect is real.”
At its headquarters in a distribution warehouse in Elkridge, Md., it quickly becomes clear that Bell is a company primarily focused on producing a high-quality product while also staying attuned to innovation. A few years ago, Bell decided it was time for its 600-plus full time employees and 900 seasonal employees to work smarter, not harder.
Using Technology to “Wow” Customers
Joe Perret, vice president of systems and technology, joined the Bell team nearly five years ago and developed revolutionary technologies for accurate product distribution. The tools enable Bell to know precisely what its 200 stores have on hand and what the product actually looks like.
“These tools are the linchpin of what we’re doing and drive our business every day,” Perret said. “We have an inventory target on every item in every store for every week of the year.”
Accuracy and consistency are invaluable. All stores have target quantities of each item, and, with the help of a daily sales report from Home Depot, Bell replenishes all orders to ensure stores consistently meet their targets.
A massive spreadsheet displays Bell’s inventory at any location on any day, so employees can clearly see if stores have the correct amount of product. Perret also implemented creative ways to measure qualitative standards, from color and freshness to blocking. In spring 2013, all of this data went mobile so employees can easily access it.
“It really gets back to determining what the customer’s perception is when they’re shopping,” Perret said. “We want to ‘wow’ them and make them feel like they’re the first person to shop at that display.”
And the tools are working. Years ago, 30 percent of what Bell sent to stores got dumped, and today that number is at just 15 percent.
Blossoming Internship Opportunities
Mangum is intrigued by the wealth of possible jobs that exist within horticulture, and showing those possibilities to young people is one reason Bell participated as a host employer for AFE’s Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program and hopes to host many more AFE interns in the future.
A personal report from AFE intern Mark Keeley of the University of Florida about his experiences at Bell Nursery is also available.
Since its stores are split among Bell’s distribution locations and greenhouses, there are lots of different geographic opportunities for interns.
“Maybe the interns get hooked on the growing side of things – and that’s great – but maybe they gravitate toward something else, like logistics or marketing,” he said. “There’s always room in the industry for hard workers to succeed and grow.”
Decking the Halls
That idea that there is always room for expansion is why Bell moved its headquarters to Elkridge in 2011 from a location in Burtonsville, Md. The move allowed Bell to expand from three loading docks to 20, making it possible for the company to receive and distribute products more easily. The Maryland facilities are replicated in Delaware, Virginia and Ohio as well to ensure fresh product ships to every retail location served.
The Burtonsville location also houses Bell’s sister company Premier Plantscapes, an interior and specialty exterior landscape service provider. From mid-September through December, Premier Plantscapes turns a warehouse into a holiday paradise, fondly known as the “Christmas barn,” that is on track to generate $2 million this season.
Every winter, Premier decorates street trees, commercial buildings and historic sites around Washington D.C. with wreaths, garlands, trees and more.
Every tree light, bow, decorative ball, etc. is hand placed, giving employees overtime opportunities around the holiday season and allowing Bell to keep more of its employees on throughout the winter.
“There’s a lot of growth in this side of the business. It’s really interesting,” Mangum said. “We like it because it lets us keep so much of the same workforce year-round.”
A Green Thumb
Whether Bell is assembling holiday wreaths or upgrading plants for higher retail values, everything is done with sustainability in mind.
In 2009, Bell became one of the first commercial growers in the country to earn Veriflora certification, the gold standard in the floriculture industry that guarantees products have been produced in an environmentally responsible way.
A few years ago, Bell started a recycling program influenced by The Home Depot, recycling everything from pots and trays to sleeves, boxes, tags and signs. They were able to recycle more than 300 tons of materials this year.
Mangum said focusing on sustainability is “just the right thing to do,” even if there is a slight cost associated with operating such a robust recycling program.
A four-tiered belief system along those lines runs through everything Bell does: (1) quality, (2) service, (3) innovation and (4) value.
“We never ever sacrifice quality and service for cost,” Mangum said. “That’s just not what we do at Bell.”
And for a company that grew from one simple greenhouse to a total growing space of 220 acres, it seems their belief system is working.
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