When Greg Schaan came to the green industry, it wasn’t via the normal route. He’s not a second or third generation nursery pro, although his roots in agriculture grow pretty deep. He didn’t major in horticulture; his field was business administration and marketing. He didn’t arrive because he grew plants, but because he grew companies.

Early in Schaan’s career, he learned the importance of connecting with customers and employees to better serve them, as well as his company and the industry. His path from a farm in Rugby, North Dakota, to his current position as General Manager, Connecticut Nursery and Vice President, Logistics with Monrovia led him through several businesses, all of them related to in some way to agriculture.

He first felt the need to connect when he was working in the Twin Cities with a large farm supply company. As a young intern and fresh from college, he absorbed as much as he could about the company, its products and its management, and about a year out of the program he was in line for a promotion to merchandising manager.

“I would basically become a department manager,” Schaan explains, “and about the same time I thought, I don’t really know our customers, I don’t really know retail that well. Other than the textbook kind of thing; I’d done all sorts of market research classes, but real, hands-on, understand-the-consumer type of thing? I didn’t feel like I had that.

“So I took an opportunity: I left just as I was about to be promoted and took a job [with the same company] in Washington, where I became the assistant manager of the local farm cooperative,” Schaan continues. “It was a retail operation: a farm store, a garden center and fuel … any type of thing that a farm supply cooperative would supply. I took less money and went from going to work in a corporate environment to putting my jeans back on, and was waiting on customers and filling cars with gas and changing tires and things like that. Only because I felt like I wanted to know, and really understand.”

At a glance

Name: Greg Schaan

Position: General Manager, Connecticut Nursery & Vice President, Logistics

Company: Monrovia

Location: Granby, Connecticut

Education: University of North Dakota, degree in business administration and marketing

Years in the business: Closing in on 40

A solid career move

Schaan calls the change his best career move: “I made less money and worked harder than the job I had before, but it was a decision that taught me some invaluable lessons that I draw on regularly. It was a great experience for me; people thought I was crazy, of course. ‘What are you doing, you just got out of college, you’re on the upward track, ready for a big promotion, and you’re kind of chucking that for this other thing, working in retail.’ If I look back, though, I would say: That was my best career move.”

Rather than jump at the chance for a promotion, Schaan recognized his need to be better prepared to lead by being better prepared to serve. Learning how to deal with customers, as well as what customers need, proved invaluable. “It was a great experience for that, plus it helped me learn about the entire competitive environment,” Schaan offers. “Instead of just being focused on the company I was working for, or knowing the products of the company I was working for, I was in the business of seeing products from other companies, seeing how ours stacked up against theirs, and seeing a lot about who were the other suppliers, who were the competitors.”

To gain further experience and understanding, he then took a position as territory sales rep and spent a few years on the road, connecting with customers and learning how the end consumers used the company’s products.

Ready to lead

Asked to return to the home office in Minnesota, Schaan felt his experience had served him well. He’d worked directly with customers and products: “I’d seen it come off the truck, I’d seen it go on the shelf,” he explains. “I’d talked with customers about it, I’d priced it, I’d done everything, so I had a much better understanding of the nuances and what it takes to make the product work. So my focus was on, how does it provide the value, how can we make it easier for the customers who are buying these products from us to do business with us?”

Now in the management position he’d previously turned down, Schaan says he felt ready to lead. “I could lead my team in a much different way than what I would have been able to, just because I had that broader understanding of how our products were going to be used – what value they provided – so I felt much better prepared. And I think it allowed me to be a better leader of that group, because the team was pretty entrenched in the way they had done things, and they knew what they knew; however, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.”

At 27 he was younger than the rest of the merchandising team, but Schaan found ways to connect and draw everyone into the decision-making process.

“I think it’s important,” Schaan insists, “to take the time to listen to people, and not just ask them a question and stop listening, but to really listen to what they have to say, because there is so much knowledge and experience that I think never gets harvested from people’s brains because others don’t take the time to listen. So I’ve always tried to do that.

“With this team, I started out that way by setting some direction for the department, but also by making it a very collaborative effort for all of us,” he continues. “To ask, ‘What do you think?’ And we ended up incorporating ideas from everywhere, and from everyone. It created a spirit of teamwork or collaboration where everyone felt they had input and that their opinions were valued.”

The metrics proved the value of his approach, improving both the financial and social results of the department, Schaan says. But a few corporate changes helped him decide it was time to move on, and to try new things.

Fast forward to the green industry

Schaan honed his leadership and management philosophies in related fields, but he had never worked with the ornamentals industry. After a few years in a related agricultural products company, in which his supervisor assigned him to specialty crops marketing and distribution expansion projects, he was recruited by Imperial Nurseries, then located in Connecticut. He was unfamiliar with the nursery industry, but by this time was seasoned in marketing, so he became Imperial’s VP of sales and marketing in the fall of 1992.

“I was just thrown into this,” Schaan muses. “I didn’t know plants and here I am leading the sales organization with two nurseries and seven distribution centers, and so I really knew that I had a big learning curve. But I learned a lot of what I know about this business from our customers.”

He developed a robust travel schedule, “visiting customers, spending time with customers, spending time with the sales team,” he continues. “It gave me a very good education on the reality of the marketplace and how the business worked, and who did things well, and who did not do things well. And I learned a lot that, over time, we were able to incorporate into our sales and marketing operations at Imperial.”

Schaan also learned quite a bit from industry professionals. “I got involved in the industry, and I’d go to meetings where I got to know a lot of other people in the industry – and a lot of our competitors – and I was just amazed at how welcoming and open they were. I’d tour and talk with them; I would ask them questions and we’d share information, which we know is something that’s unique about this industry.”

Marketing specialty plants

One aspect of the industry that Schaan noted immediately was the marketing – or lack thereof: “That was a different time in terms of marketing, there was very little consumer marketing going on, mostly trade marketing.” Back then, “It was all about ‘my plants are better than your plants.’ It predated any plant brands except for a couple; Proven Winners was there, but not really going into shrubs yet, and of course Monrovia’s been around for a while in that arena.

“That was the thing that intrigued me, when I talked with the team at Imperial about the marketing of the plants and how they were sold and who were the customers,” Schaan continues. “It was very production-based. It was ‘we grow this … ‘ because we grow it. I thought we can make that better, if we listen to customers, and we put all these resources behind producing things they actually want, we could do great things. It was very exciting; I saw a huge opportunity there. That’s what gets me charged up: when I see a real opportunity to build something.”

For the first few years, Schaan continued to grow Imperial’s marketing and sales efforts, and in 1998 he was named president and CEO of the company. Then in 2014, Imperial’s assets were acquired by Monrovia: “I went from being president and CEO and being involved in everything to handling two primary functions: I’m still general manager of the Connecticut nursery, responsible for operations here, and a member of the Monrovia leadership team.”

Leading, and listening to, the industry

Greg Schaan’s connections within the industry led him to join the American Nursery & Landscape Association, the forerunner to AmericanHort, and to become deeply involved in helping to grow the industry. He served on the executive committee of the Horticultural Research Institute as well as the Horticultural Distribution Committee (later ANLA’s Landscape Distribution division). In 2008, Schaan was named ANLA’s president. This induction came just a year after serving as president of the New England Nursery Association — and if you know anything about association leadership, you know that such positions require a deeply committed and dedicated volunteer.

New duties, new company, same philosophy

The change in ownership meant a change in day to day responsibilities, but Schaan continues to lead by listening, engaging and connecting. He also volunteered to take on the additional charge of managing Monrovia’s transportation and logistics business. This newer role holds two facets: “One is in making the business better from a transportation/vendor supply standpoint and cost standpoint; we’ve saved a lot of money in our transportation costs,” Schaan says. “Then the other side of it is that we’ve improved our customer service significantly by using better quality carriers.”

He’s also engaged in engaging: finding new recruits to the industry and to his company, and encouraging college students to find a home in horticulture. These efforts are as much a part of who Schaan is, and how he functions, as they are a part of his job description. Schaan’s modus operandi has been to listen, learn, connect, recruit. And to grow his company, and the industry.

Encouraging the newer generations

Monrovia has one of the oldest internship programs in the industry. “We’re active as a company with our internship program throughout the country, and we have many interns every year between our four nurseries,” Schaan says. “Finding interns is a collaborative effort between craftsmen (employees) throughout our company. We visit schools and encourage students to join our industry. Our internship program is only one of many ways for them to get involved.

“But for me, personally, I have a real interest in this, and I’m personally involved in that effort. Working with others on the Connecticut nursery team, we are collaborating with the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts to develop programs to get more students interested, to tell our story, to tell the story about the industry, to answer their questions, to generate enthusiasm, to create enthusiasm for our industry.

“We need to tell people about the industry and what it’s like to work in the horticulture industry and why it’s good – and we do that.

“In our industry, we’ve missed the mark on that point. Horticulture programs around the country are all crying the blues because they’re either disappearing or they’ve shrunk. At the same time, we haven’t worked with them as an industry to get them the next step in the progression of their students’ education. And that’s why I think it is an opportunity. If we do a better job of working with them, we will attract more people, and some of the [academic] programs may at least maintain if not start to grow again.

“You know, it’s not unlike how we used to market our plants. We used to grow the plants, and we were sure that if we grew them, somebody would find them. We tend to undervalue our own products, if our product is a plant or our product is an industry or our product is a job or an internship, we tend to undervalue that. We don’t get out there and tell the story in a way that we should tell the story to help us grow the business.”

There’s a lot of room for new ideas, and new blood, in an industry that has matured. While that may seem to be counterintuitive, there is opportunity for a younger generation with the technology and social media skills to help develop new enthusiasm for the green industry’s products and mission.

“There’s a whole developing, emerging part of our industry related to the marketing and the social media, the digital marketing, to help move our industry forward and to provide personal growth opportunities for [younger workers] in being better marketers of our plants throughout the industry and connecting with consumers in a way that our industry has never connected with consumers,” Schaan says. “They can connect to a consumer on more of an experiential level than on a business transaction level.”

It’s a huge opportunity for the industry, as well, he adds, “if we can direct more of that passion that way.

“They naturally want to share,” he continues, “because they’ve been sharing all their lives, with people they know and people they don’t know. But they want to share, and they want to learn from others who are willing to share. We can tap into that. We can give them a way of sharing their passion and their knowledge and their experience with others, and it would help our industry a lot.”

Schaan says he benefited from the advice and support of supervisors and industry vets when he was new, and he’s determined to pass that along. “They were giving, generous mentors for me, who I learned a tremendous amount from, and because of that I was able to accelerate my own career success,” he says. “So I recognize that it’s one of the reasons why I personally am so passionate about being the very same type of person for others who I can help in the same way. To me, that’s the best legacy that I could have.”