People are key to exporting success, said 2008 Ag Exporter of the year

Publish Date: Thursday, April 29, 2010

"People make all the difference," said Evan Elenbaas, President of Walters Gardens. He was one of the speakers at the April meeting of the Global Business Club. 

Walters Gardens was Michigan Department of Agriculture's 2008 Agricultural Exporter of the Year. They might be the largest perennial nursery in the United States, but they work hard to maintain personal relationships with their customers.

"When people call our customer support, they speak directly to a live person. It makes a big difference," said Elenbaas, "When our customers call, they know they will get personal attention."

Walters Gardens was established in Zeeland, Michigan, in 1946, and today they employ 240 people. They grow and sell perennial liners, which are a kind of starter plant, to greenhouses, nurseries and other kinds of garden centers.

The wholesale perennial market is changing said Troy Shumaker, CFO of Walters Gardens. The rise of big box stores and the increasing number of countries exporting to the United States has hurt the domestic market, but they are seeing growth in the Canadian market.

"As a result of these factors, U.S. sales have decreased 25 percent, but at the same time Canadian exports have increased 58 percent," Shumaker said.

To make importing easier for their customers, they have two people who deal with all of their Canadian orders to make sure that everything goes smoothly. They help Canadian companies with the entire import process, making the logistics of purchasing from them much less complicated.

Walters Gardens invests heavily in plant testing to make sure their plants don't carry viruses and diseases. In addition to testing, they also invest in developing new plant varieties and improving current varieties. These efforts help to set them apart in the industry, Shumaker said.

The company has also launched two new award-winning websites, for green industry professionals and for home gardeners. These websites are also driving new orders domestically and internationally.

Their first online order was from Canada, Elenbaas said. Since the sites launched in August, $7.5 million in orders have been received. One thing that Elenbaas found interesting was that some people prefer to order online. He said that two-thirds of the orders received online are during normal business hours.

"We feel confident about the future," Elenbaas said. "We have new plant breeding work occurring, good customer service staff and strong relationships with growers across the country. We're excited about the plant business and we think we're poised for some solid growth."

The Global Business Club of Mid-Michigan meets six times a year to focus on global  issues important to mid-Michigan businesses. It is sponsored by Michigan State University's Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER), the Greater Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lansing Community College, Michigan State University College of Law, Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith, P.C., and the  Michigan Manufacturers Association.