Tom Hughes grew up surrounded by trees, in the heart of a nursery family. The family house stands on the Hughes Nursery & Landscaping property in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Hughes recalls some of his earliest memories involving “work” on the property.

“I would say that my earliest memories were watering trees,” Hughes says. “We’d sit on an old van seat mounted to a wagon with a tank; going through the field, my brother and sister and I all watering. I also remember riding on the planter when we were planting the bareroot liners. We would do that in the spring – my brother and I especially – when we were young. We were too young to do much of anything, but we’d sit on the planter and watch the work.”

During a recent conversation, we talked with Hughes about his career, his influences, his family … and we’ll just jump in and share what he had to say.

A unique approach to internship

Hughes says that, by the time he was in high school, he knew he wanted to be part of the family business. But like many scions of multigenerational companies, he thought it would be a good idea to pursue experience elsewhere to gain a broader perspective. “I worked for Dad the summer between high school and college,” he explains, “but we both agreed that I needed experience, at some point, away from the business.

“At that time, Dad was running a small business by himself,” Hughes points out. “And he said, the best thing for me to do would be to go to college for four years and then go to work for someone else for four or five years, and then come back.” But they agreed that when Tom went to college, he’d spend the summers between academic years working for other businesses, participating in a unique kind of internship created by Dwight and Tom, then enter the family business right after graduation.

During the summer following his freshman year, Tom participated in a traditional internship facilitated by Iowa State University. “I worked in Wisconsin for a landscaper who also was a grower, and they had a garden center,” Tom explains. “It was a large company, 150 or more employees. I went with other college students who were doing internships, and I learned a bit of everything there. Much bigger, different scale. It was a great experience, but Dad and I agreed that it was only one business, and there are a lot of different ways to do things. We thought, could we improve the internship a bit the next year?”

So, Tom says, Dwight “got on the phone the fall of my sophomore year and called up his friends in the industry – all, at the time, ANLA [American Nursery and Landscape Association] members.” Dwight explained to his friends and colleagues that Tom would be returning to the family business, but exposure to the way other companies functioned would prove invaluable. It was a different approach: Most companies were used to welcoming interns who would later join their business. And most companies accepted interns who worked for the entire summer.

Dwight and Tom had a another idea:

“We were not going to do just one,” Tom explains. “And so we lined up some of the best growers – ones we were using as suppliers ourselves – and I ended up spending anywhere from one week to two weeks starting late May through all of July into early August at Greenleaf Nursery, Briggs Nursery, Woodburn Nursery, Carton Plants and J. Frank Schmidt.

“It was because of the association (ANLA) – the partnerships, the relationships that we had in the industry – that every one of them agreed. They never hesitated,” Tom says. “They said, ‘Send him out, we’ll take care of him, we can help him.’

“For the whole summer, it was almost like a job shadow,” he continues. “For example, at Greenleaf: I was there two weeks, and they’ve got so many areas of their business – pruning, fertilizing, planting, shipping – every morning, I would be with one foreman who would take me around and show me what they were doing for four or five hours, and then at lunch break, I would go to a different foreman, and I would spend the afternoon with him and he would show me what he was doing.”

In the Hughes family, the lessons begin early.

Each grower shared different aspects of the industry, and a few even offered to introduce Hughes to other companies. “They’d say, hey, we should go over and check out this other nursery,” he says, “and so we’d go and spend about four or five hours and they’d give me a quick tour there. And again, I was just a college kid.

“It was an incredible experience,” he emphasizes, “and I did that at each one of those locations. Every one of them was a little bit different. And nobody had done this before, so we were all kind of learning.”

It’s because of the relationships formed through association membership that the companies were “more than happy to do it,” Hughes claims, and “they treated me more as a future peer in the industry, rather than just a college-aged intern.”

His job-shadowing experiences were followed by a similar landscape tour. “I was at Thornton Landscape out in Ohio, Campbell’s Nursery [in Nebraska], and then Horticultural Services, which is owned by Carl Meyer down in Kansas,” Hughes explains. “And it was the same principle: There are multiple ways to do things. And there are people that I still talk to today because of all those connections.”

The fourth generation of Hughes — Judy, Tom and John — tends to the field.

Family business lessons

Not all who grow up in the industry elect to carry on the family business. Some, however, are focused from a very young age. Both Tom and his brother, John, who is co-owner of Hughes Nursery & Landscaping, attended association events with their dad when they were still in grade school. They participated in then- ANLA-sponsored bus tours, riding along with business owners and managers and observing operations alongside the adults.

“I think the first year or two, they would kind of look at us funny, and after the third or fourth year we were there, we would start having conversations with nurserymen,” Hughes recalls. “John and I were 12, 14 years old, and it was as if we were just one of them, because we’d been doing it so long.

Being raised among the fields prepared the Hughes brothers for a lifetime career in the nursery industry.

“It gave us the opportunity to interact with adults, and it gave us a level of maturity as well as help us decide if this industry made any sense for us, personally. There are still relationships I have today, and I can reach out to some people that I met 20 and 30 years ago on those charter buses, when I was 10, 12, 14 years old.”

Early experience with professionals in the field, education and internships all contribute to Hughes’ life in the industry, but he also credits the lessons he learned at home.

“The association and those things have helped a lot, but the other thing that helped was that I learned most of my business techniques – right or wrong, good or bad – at home,” he states. “Either at the supper table, or after dinner, while we were discussing what’s going on, why it’s going on, what went wrong, and what’s going to happen to fix it. And that’s when I was six years old, 12 years old, 18 years old. Those discussions – even if I’d never gone anywhere near the nursery business – those are the small business, ownership type of discussions that are valuable in life.

“I frequently say that John and I are very blessed to be the fourth generation in a business that we, at least, consider successful, however you define that,” he adds. “And it’s due to what the generations before us did, and the foundation they set and the principles they taught us.”

Getting involved, creating relationships

Pitching in and giving back are part of the Hughes DNA.

“Grandpa and Grandma and Dad and Mom always stressed involvement in your community, and supporting the community. And the community could be the local school district, your local city, the state, your local industry,” Hughes offers. “But as a family, we’ve always been involved. And Dad really took it to the next level, where we were doing a little more leadership, both at the national nursery association but also in town. John and I continue that today. All of those things we’ve always said are important.

“We’ve been shown that, not just taught, but shown that since we were born. Those experiences, not just nursery experiences, but all of those experiences, have given John and Judy and me an opportunity to see the world in a different way. This world doesn’t work just naturally, but it takes people willing to step up, take charge and take action.”

Hughes was elected to the board of AmericanHort last year, and he’s continuing the legacy of his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, all of whom not only supported the national organizations, but helped to build them. Hughes firmly believes that when you contribute to the greater good, when you support the industry as a whole, everyone benefits.

“If we as an industry come together and help each other, that can happen,” he claims. “But it’s very difficult to do that without face-to-face time, at least occasionally. That’s how relationships are enriched.”

And being a member of an association is only the basic level of involvement, Hughes asserts. “To maximize the personal and professional growth that can come from a trade association, members must get involved. Help with the set-up or tear-down of a meeting, contribute to a committee, take a risk to participate at a greater level.”

One of the challenges of participating on the board, Hughes says, is finding ways to promote to the membership, and to the industry at large, how critical those relationships really are. “Webinars are a great way to get an education,” he says. “But the true relationship-building happens outside of the conference room. How do we show people how valuable that can be, given the time constraints we all experience? Still, there’s a balance, and in my opinion, there is always going to be face-to-face interaction. That’s where I have a bit of a dilemma, of sorts, when it comes to work with the association: According to my age, I should be so much more in tune with the fast-paced social-media aspect of communication. But by my experience, I’m still very grounded in the face-to-face.”

Taking advantage of today’s technology is a bonus, but it’s not a means to an end. “I want to be able to use those tools to be able to order things quicker, faster, easier,” Hughes concedes. “But when I start a search, where am I going to go first? I’m first going to reach out to somebody I have a relationship with, even if it’s been two or three years ago. I’m going to go to their website and make it happen.”

Hughes Nursery & Landscaping snapshot

ACREAGE: About 30 in production and about 10 occupied by buildings, including the Hughes Nursery museum.

PERSONNEL: Tom and John are co-owners; six full time employees and a few part timers. Staff handles both growing and landscaping tasks.

DESIGN-BUILD: It’s a “total system,” a full-service and turn-key operation, providing Hughes-grown plants for Hughes-designed and installed landscape projects. Hardscape elements are subcontracted.

PLANTS: “We grow ornamentals, balled and burlapped, ornamental understory trees, flowering trees and shade trees and, of course, evergreens. Our trees are marketed at a 2- to 3-inch caliper; our evergreens we generally sell at a 5 to 7 foot. Everything we grow, we install ourselves.”

RANGE: “Ninety percent of our work is within 20 miles of our facility. We don’t like to put too many miles in; we like to say you don’t make any money driving up and down the highway.”

Mentors – and legacies

Hughes has had access to advisors, counselors and mentors nearly all of his life, both within the family and the industry. So it’s no surprise that he doesn’t credit just one mentor for his work ethic and dedication to the industry.

“I don’t know that I have a mentor,” he ponders. “The way that I’ve been brought up, I’ve tried to glean information from as many people as I’ve met over the years, and I’ve tried to take the best that I can of those that I met. I’ve had the opportunities, the blessings, in different areas of my life, to learn from a lot of different people. To have just one? Truly, I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of people.”

So he passes it along. Asked what he would say to a younger generation not yet ready to make a career decision, he’s encouraging.

“The industry has great potential,” he opines. “We’re in a business that is not a basic need, it’s a want. Yet, over the years, people have shown now that horticulture and ‘green’ are valuable to our mental and emotional health. Horticulture’s not going away. Consider our basic sanity and basic comfort, whether it be preschoolers being encouraged by a natural playground to retirement homes putting in gardens and paths to get the residents out into the gardens, and everything in between. Plants may not be a need but they are a major want in our human DNA.

“It’s a great industry, and it’s great people. I’ve known the people in this industry, and the association specifically, for my whole life. They’re good people, they’re great friends, and they would do anything for us, in a heartbeat. It’s that kind of sharing and willingness to help that makes it a lot of fun to be involved with them.”

What encourages him the most?

It’s the people. “Any group or organization I’m involved in, the challenges that we have are not nearly as important as getting the right people involved,” he explains. “If we have the right people involved, in almost any situation, anything is possible. The AmericanHort board is strong, in my opinion; they’ve got some great vision, and they’ve got great leadership. I think that there’s the potential to get a lot more people involved. I think it’s time to reach out and make sure that people know what’s going on. And I think that the trajectory for getting people involved is great.”

Beyond that, he’s inspired by a few other people.

“The other thing that motivates me is that I’ve got three kids at home,” Hughes adds. “And at 11, 6 and 4, everything is exciting, and the world is full of possibilities. When it’s been a tough day? You know when you see them, how can you not be excited about what tomorrow brings? And maybe we should all remember that.

“They don’t see the challenges that we do; they just see the possibilities. God has truly blessed my wife, Megan, and me each day to be able to raise three healthy, intelligent and hardworking kids, which is our greatest ‘success’.”