There’s the business of running a business. Then there’s the business of advocating for your industry. Terri Cantwell, a caladium grower in Lake Placid, Florida, knows the importance of both.
Cantwell, co-owner of Bates Sons & Daughters, was born to the business, but like many who come to take the mantle of the family concern, she didn’t join the company without gaining experience elsewhere. She’s a fifth generation Floridian and third generation caladium farmer, and before she and her sister, Sheri Bates, took ownership of the company, she tried her hand in corporate farming and Extension work.
“I got a degree in horticulture from the University of Florida, and I’ll be honest with you: I did not, at first, go into the business. I didn’t think it was a good fit for me,” she explains. “So I went to work for a large farming corporation; I was their first female crop supervisor, which was really interesting. Then I had an opportunity with Highlands County, and I became the commercial and urban Extension agent.”
After a few years, she decided her real calling was with the family business, growing and selling caladiums in Lake Placid, known as the Caladium Capital of the World. Her father was pleased, although, Cantwell says, “There was never any pressure from him. He always supported me in my other jobs; he never pushed me. He just waited for me to come to him and say, ‘I think I’m ready to come into the business.’ “
Cantwell joined the company as head grower and harvesting manager in 1987, a year after her sister took the position of chief financial officer and warehouse manager. It was known then as Bates & Sons, but in 1990, Cantwell’s father, Don Bates, changed the name to Bates Sons & Daughters.
“We came in to work one day,” Cantwell says, “and my dad had changed everything. He changed the signage to Bates Sons & Daughters, he printed up new business cards, he completely changed the name. Isn’t that cool?”
The sisters were thrilled, but grandfather Emmett Bates, who founded the company in 1945, protested: “We have hats made every year that say Bates Sons & Daughters, but my grandfather would never wear the Bates Sons & Daughters hats, so we had to have one made every year that just says, Bates & Sons.”
Cantwell says that her route back to the family business made sense. “I never really left ag,” she explains. “I’ve always loved plants, and I just wasn’t sure. But I was able to bring some experience to the business, and that was helpful.”
Growing the business
Since taking the reins of the family company, sisters Sheri Bates and Terri Bates-Cantwell have managed to grow the business despite challenges from all sides.
“We lost 70 percent of our crop in 2004 to hurricanes; several caladium farms went out of business and the caladium industry has shrunk a lot in this area over the past 10 years,” Cantwell says. “Between that and the economy … . But my sister, who’s my full business partner, is like my grandfather and she doesn’t believe in having any debt. So we don’t owe on anything. Ever. So when the hurricanes came in, we didn’t have a crop or that much income coming in, but we didn’t have any bills to pay. No mortgages, no land payments. If she can’t pay cash for it, she’s pretty much not doing it. That’s real old-fashioned.” And it works.
In 1988, they started a separate, prefinished bulb business in order to take care of excess caladium bulbs; Capital Caladiums now is Bates Sons & Daughters’ biggest customer. “We pay full price for Bates, and then we pot it up and we sell it again. That’s working smart. And it’s worked out to be a really good business for us,” Cantwell claims.
The offshoot company helps Bates Sons & Daughters better understand the needs of their customers, which range from mid-sized caladium farms to retail outlets to landscape professionals, both domestically and abroad. “Having the potted business, the prefinished business, helps me know how our customers use them,” Cantwell explains. “Here’s how our customers grow them, so when I sell bulbs to a customer, and a customer calls me and they’re having trouble with a particular variety, well, I’ve already got 20,000 of them out there. I’ll know if there’s an issue. And I know what the issue is, and I know how to grow the pot, so I can help the customers grow their product.”
Bates Sons & Daughters manages to stay ahead of the competition by specializing in larger bulb sizes, and by offering new and unique varieties most other growers don’t carry. The company limits its crops to about 45 varieties on 100 acres, and many of the caladium selections come from a relationship with the University of Florida.
“We have a new varieties from the University of Florida that others growers don’t have, just because they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. It takes five years to test a caladium. So we’ve come up with some really nice varieties that nobody else has, only because they didn’t get tap that resource. They can go to the University of Florida, but they’re five years behind us.”
Finding the right niche, working smart and knowing your customers has helped Bates Sons & Daughters to grow, even in a time of economic challenges. Another key component to operating a healthy business is reaching out and working with colleagues.
Growing the industry
An important part of growing any business is helping to grow the industry. Cantwell is active in many industry associations and sits on the boards of several of them.
“We’re involved in the industry,” she states. “We try to stay really attuned to the industry and we volunteer a lot, and that helps people get to know us, too. We don’t push our product; that’s not why I’m on the board of directors, but at least people know who we are, and that has helped.”
She functions as head of the floriculture division for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, for which she handles the floriculture field days, among other committee tasks. And Cantwell is the current vice chair of the board of directors of AmericanHort, next in line to lead the national association. She will assume the chair’s position next July.
The organization is in its second year following the incorporation of the American Nursery and Landscape Association with OFA – The Association of Horticulture Professionals, and it’s in the process of finding a suitable replacement for Michael Geary, who recently resigned as President and CEO. With new leadership come new opportunities, and Cantwell is enthusiastic about what lies ahead.
“My personal, long-term goal for AmericanHort – and I believe I’ve got the support for this – I want it to be a true national association,” she explains. “For example, I want the Florida association to say, yes, we’re FNGLA, but we’re also AmericanHort, and AmericanHort is taking care of us on the national level.
“And I want more interaction between the states,” she continues, “because this industry has taken huge hits in the last 10 years. The people who are left are the survivors. They really are; we’ve come a long way. I think we really need to work together, because people are not using plants in their yards and putting money toward them nearly like they could. Why in Europe is it so important to people to take flowers home everyday, or have gardens in every single little place that they live, but in the United States, people have huge yards and all they have is grass? We’ve got to change that, and I think AmericanHort has the potential to do that.”
It’s a tall order – changing the mindset of consumers – but Cantwell is convinced that the strength and influence of a combined national association can lead the way.
“I think the stronger we get, the more people will start using plants in their yards,” she claims. “And the industry can stay strong together, if we can all work together. Personally, I sell to all the groups: I sell to retail garden centers, I sell to landscapers, I sell to nurserymen, I sell to mid-sized greenhouse growers … That’s why I was so much in favor of the merger. Because there’s so much overlap between the industries.”
The Lighthouse Program, one enterprise that’s already in place, holds a lot of promise, according to Cantwell.
At present, more than 13,000 individual businesses participate in the program through more than 40 state associations as well as the National Christmas Tree Association. To Cantwell, that’s both a success and a good start. “I want [AmericanHort] to be a true national association,” she exhorts. “I want the states to be enthusiastic about it, and I want what we’re doing to matter to the states.”
Come next summer, when Cantwell assumes the chairmanship of AmericanHort’s board, she’ll further divide her time between family business matters and national association duties. Both parents – Don and Dot Bates – are still active in the company. For years, Dot worked as sales manager, and today she manages orders and planting schedules. So with the business in good hands, Cantwell is well-positioned to lead and grow the association into the national powerhouse she envisions.
Cover photo courtesy of Dr. Zhanao Deng