To John Coulter, running a nursery is about more than growing plants. It’s also about growing the industry. And in order to grow the industry, you need to grow people.
As general manager of Fisher Farms in Gaston, Oregon,Coulter has had plenty of opportunity to develop both plants and personnel, as well as to immerse himself in the task of advancing and improving the industry. This month he completes his 10-year tenure on the board of the Horticulture Research Institute, having served as president in 2015. He also held the position of president of the board of directors of the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) from 2001 to 2002.
Committee memberships, working groups and civic volunteer positions have added to his outreach efforts, extending his reach well beyond the commercial horticulture industry — but always with the recognition that a hand extended is a hand returned.
We spoke with him recently about his experiences as a mentor, as one who was mentored, and how the industry needs to embrace a changing demographic. How can seasoned professionals make connections with up-and-coming staff, as well as those who haven’t yet joined the team? How do the generations work together, and what can they teach each other? It’s not just a top-down relationship, and Coulter shares his thoughts on making the most of the give-and-take.
Like many nursery professionals, industry veteran John Coulter wasn’t born to the business, but he took to it quickly. He started out in retail and brought his business acumen with him to his first nursery position. That background, along with a rural upbringing, helped him to adapt and find a home in horticulture.
“My dad was a forest ranger, and so I grew up in the country, and I appreciated the country roots,” Coulter says. “I had a business understanding, and so for me, it was a really good fit, a good way into our industry.”
His first job was with Glenn Walters Nursery in Cornelius, Oregon, and he moved from there to Teufel Nursery in Kent, Oregon. It was there that he began to engage with the greater industry, thanks to the encouragement of mentor Larry Teufel. Signing on at Teufel’s nursery, Coulter says, is the best professional decision he has made.
“[Teufel] embraced the idea of involvement in many different things,” Coulter explains. “He embraced being involved in your community, he embraced being involved in the industry, allowing us to be away from work during the day to go to meetings or attend functions.
“For me that was a huge step,” Coulter continues, “because it opened so many doors and opportunities. For me, fundamentally, that was the biggest change, going from a company that was focused on being a nursery, to working for somebody who saw the bigger need and the bigger good.”
This involvement continued — and grew — when he moved to Fisher Farms. “[Owner] Bob Terry was very much the same way,” he says. “Bob was a believer in being engaged and involved, and he wanted his people to excel at doing that.”
Mentors and mentoring
Mentors — or advisors, or teachers — are found wherever you can find them. Whether from within the business that employs you or a benevolent organization, an academic setting or a social group, finding a mentor or being one need not be a formal undertaking. If both parties click, if you can ask and answer each other’s questions, you’re a match. And don’t think there’s only one person for you. Coulter says that he had a number of mentors along the way.
“I learned this industry from Glenn and Viola Walters. They taught me everything about understanding the nursery industry. I had come from outside the industry; I was in regular retail and had met them in my encounters along the way, and there was just the right timing and the right opportunity to go to work with them.
“I learned a lot from Clayton Hannon, who was our association executive (OAN). He taught me the value of working as an association; working with other companies, reaching beyond your own comfort zone.
“He used to challenge me every year to try to do something that scared me. I spent a lifetime doing that, every year, I challenged myself to try something new. I just finished being the co-worldwide head of a Masonic youth organization called Job’s Daughters. It scared the living tar out of me, because I had 12,000 new daughters. But that’s what life is: It’s the challenge, it’s what excites you, it’s what gets your blood pumping every day.
“And I learned a lot from Bob Terry, whom I worked for for many years. How to work with people. They don’t always have to agree with you, but you have to build a relationship on trust and respect. I’ve had the privilege of working with people like Dale Deppe, and he makes you think. They challenge your mind, and not to just accept. I learned that, to really push your company, you have to ask your teammates, what if? Why not? Why not us? Those are questions you should ask, instead of saying no. Ask, why not us?”
As for mentoring, Coulter provides opportunities every day with his staff, engaging, challenging and helping to open minds to the two-way exchange of ideas that benefits all involved.
“I’m a manager who likes to embrace my total team in the company,” Coulter offers. “We meet as a group every day; we talk about not only what’s going on in our nursery, but about the things that are impacting our nursery from outside. I’m always trying to help educate my younger teammates on what it is that affects our company — and then looking for their input on it.”
It goes two ways
Providing guidance and opportunity, challenging young workers to make decisions are coupled with being open to learning what they can teach you.
“I think you need to create a culture where you seek to get advice and information from younger workers,” Coulter offers. “Your younger workforce has been brought up to embrace technology. Every gadget that comes out, they’re looking at it, they’re seeing how it works. They see how it works not only in their personal life, but how it may work in their business life. They may come up to you and say, ‘Hey if we were doing this or that with this particular piece of software, we could do X, Y and Z.’ They have that gift; they’re typically quicker at recognizing those opportunities than people who did not grow up in this world of technology.”
Two heads are better than one, and it may well be that two generations are better than one. “Oftentimes, many of our roles are a mixture of seasoned and non: the younger generation,” Coulter says. “I may have an outside sales rep who’s been in the industry for 30 years working with an inside person who is two or three years out of college. And it really allows both of them to learn from each other. I think likewise, specifically in the sales area, I try to match up my sales teammates to particular customers where they have the ability to connect. And it doesn’t have anything to do with age; it’s all in the ability to connect. I have a lot of 50- and 60-year-old buyers who communicate and connect extremely well with 25-year-olds, because they like to figure out the gadgets. And they like to learn from each other.
“Our company is a blend of both older and younger; I think it’s challenging, again, to have just one or the other,” he continues. “Because I think the younger generations benefit specifically in learning how to have relationships from watching their mentors and finding a mentor in their company. Typically, we grew up in a generation where so much of it was more face-to-face, one-on-one, the handshake deal, so to speak. And we’re trying to teach them the value of that relationship, while that generation is trying to teach us how to use the tools of the day to bring us together, to make our company excel.”
Working beyond yourself
As Coulter learned from his mentors, he encourages his staff to be involved in the industry beyond the boundaries of the company.
“If you have a management structure that is very controlling, then you’re going to get a workforce that’s very controlled. If you are one that gives them the opportunity to grow and ask and learn, you’re going to get a structure of employees that are willing to do that, not only for your company, but then they start to reach out. Encourage them to reach out; encourage them to get involved. I encourage my people to get involved in the industry, I encourage them to get involved in their community, I encourage them to get involved in their church, in fraternal organizations. I think your business is a reflection of the community you live in. And you cannot be isolated from your community: that includes your industry, your local community, the organizations within your community. You’ve got to be part and parcel with them.”
Giving staff the opportunity to engage and accept responsibility elsewhere, Coulter believes, helps to strengthen the company. When employees make strong connections and learn from others in the industry, they bring it back home. A brief absence from the daily grind, especially one spent in outreach and networking, benefits all.
“You can’t attend everything after work. Today’s world happens also between 8 and 5; you may need to be away from your company for a couple hours or a day to do different things if you’re going to be volunteering. And I think that has to be your company’s philosophy, and the top management’s philosophy, starting from the owner down, in order for you to feel that you can do it. For me personally, I felt that when I went to work for Larry Teufel, and then for Bob Terry. They embraced us being involved, because they were involved. They encouraged us to be involved, if we felt comfortable to do it.
“You know, other than sleeping, you spend more time in your business than anywhere else in your world. And the company that you work for should make you feel challenged, to make you feel accepted, to feel like you can grow and give you the tools if you are willing to grow. That involves you as an expert in your field, but more importantly it’s you as a person.”
Where will they come from?
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry today is: How to attract young workers, and even students, to a career in horticulture?
“We’re not turning away young talent; we’re not getting enough of it,” Coulter states. “Part of our biggest challenge today is, quite frankly, universities. They’re not embracing horticulture like they did 15 years ago. Likewise, if you look at Oregon, horticulture is the largest ag industry in the state, yet it’s like the silent giant when you go to a board of agriculture meeting. It’s cattle, dairy, and hops and wine grapes. We’re kind of like the silent person, we have to really push our way into the room.
“I think the challenge is how do we get the younger youth to be involved in our industry?” he adds. “FFA [Future Farmers of America] is not as strong as it used to be; there’s not nearly as many classes or hort programs at the community college level or at the university level, even at land grant schools like Ohio State or Oregon State. They don’t offer what they used to. I think we have to somehow continue to work with the university systems to push our way back in and make it so it’s a relevant program for kids to get involved in.
“And I think we have to change our image. We have to. It’s funny how you say this sometimes, ‘It’s not your daddy’s Oldsmobile.’ Well, this isn’t your daddy’s nursery industry. It is a nursery industry that has embraced technology, but we don’t have the labor that we want to have. We’re trying to figure out every mechanization tool possible so that going to work at a nursery isn’t about being bent over and picking weeds. Oftentimes that’s the image.
“It’s about learning the business. It is a business today. You know, there’s an old saying that we used to make profit in dollars; today we make profit in pennies. And so we have to be sharp business people; we need people coming out of college who have a business degree, who understand how to run a business, as much as we need somebody who can be a grower or a propagator. We need someone with an operations understanding that embraces technology, and how do we figure out how to use it? It’s not that we are going to eliminate jobs, the workforce is just not coming. We have to figure out a different vehicle to get our work done.
So we need to start younger and younger, yes?
“How do we reach those younger people who don’t even know that there is an industry?” Coulter ponders. “You know, it’s interesting. The technology industry did it: They started going out to junior highs and being involved at the junior high level, the 8th and 9th grade kids, and started getting them excited at a younger age. And by the time the kids make it into their 10th grade year in school, oftentimes they’ve got a pretty good feel for the overall direction they want to go, although maybe not the specific job. They’ve decided that they want to get into the tech world or banking world because they like money, or they’ll get involved in the ag world. I think maybe we have to reach down into the youngest generations and get them excited, get them involved.”
Learning from your own experience
Passing along your wisdom is noble and necessary, but in order to share the wealth of your own experience, you have to learn from it. Challenges often prove to be our greatest teachers.
“No doubt, for me, my biggest challenge was getting into an industry that I knew nothing about,” Coulter admits. “You walk in the door, and everyone just looks at you. You have to figure out, how do you fit in that industry, where do you fit in that company? Is it going to be a job, or is it going to be a career? And I came into the industry thinking that it was probably going to be another job. Then 30 years go by. It became a way of life.
“There’s an old thing my grandfather taught me: If you’re a smart man or a smart lady, sometimes you just shut up and listen. And I got the benefit of listening to Glenn Walters talk to people; I observed the art of negotiation and his ability to get others to see his point of view or see the value in his view. He was a master at that. I had the privilege of watching him. I think what you then do is you take your personality and the skills you have, and you figure out how to use them to excel.”
We learn from mistakes as well as successes, but perhaps a change of course isn’t to correct a mistake — it’s just a change of course.
Coulter says, “I’ve never felt in my life that I’ve made a big mistake; I think I have grown as I’ve grown in the industry. When I first got in the industry, I did not get involved, I really just worked at the nursery. It wasn’t [the company owners’ desire] to have us involved in anything other than our company. They wanted all your energy and time spent there, or at home with your family.
“I’ve come to realize the greatest gifts I’ve had in life come from the fact that I’m very multidirectional. I’m engaged in civic, fraternal, industry local, industry national. I find that’s what I get excited about. I’m not a singular focused person. I enjoy being a part of many different things; I enjoy getting the opportunity to lead the team when my time comes, and to get the team to work alongside with me, because that’s really why you’re successful — you’re all on the same page.
“I believe once you get in this industry and you’ve been in it five years, you never want to leave it. It’s about where can you fit, or where do you fit. Sometimes the company changes, or your situation changes, and you need to make a different move, because you may not be able to commit to the number of hours that they have or their leadership changes or ownership changes. Those things happen. That’s the reality of life. Sometimes it means you do move from one company to another.
“But I think at the end of the day, and I’ve always believed this, deep in my soul, that good things happen to good people. I think if you’re good to people, treat people with respect and kindness, genuinely care about them, not just their business but about them, good things in life happen — for you, your family, your company or whatever it is. Good things happen.”
Where do we go from here?
With years of industry experience behind him, what does Coulter see in the years ahead?
“First off, I think that there will always be a place for our industry and our product in the world we live in,” he predicts. “We have a need, a desire to have plants and trees around us. The dynamics may change with the different housing styles and sizes of yards, and with Millennials maybe not always wanting to plant it themselves, but hiring a landscaper to do it because they have more fun with the electronic stuff. But their desire to have a beautiful world to live in hasn’t changed, and it won’t change.
“So I think there’s always going to be a place. I think our industry, though, is going through what I call ‘right sizing’ right now. We went through the ugly downturn; we lost companies, we continue to lose some along the way now. It’s more challenging to work with banks to get financing than it was prior to the downturn because of regulations. I think we’re going to be an industry that’s going to fit the size of the demand that’s out there. I don’t think that’s going to change.
“We have to figure out how we must communicate differently to our customer base and be willing to accept different methods of reaching them and providing them product, whatever that could be. I think any company that’s complacent won’t survive; as a business, you always have to be looking at the next opportunity.
“The youth that’s coming up today, this is an industry that wants them. We need them. We need business people; we need people with banking understanding; we need people with legal understanding far greater than we used to have. We do want people to be growers and we need people in operations who understand mechanization and computers. All of those things are integral in our business. Don’t be fooled just because our product is a plant. The things that make that plant are a lot more than just soil and cans anymore.”
How about bringing generations together?
“It’s interesting: When you’re young, you’re the doer,” Coulter muses. “When you are in your 40s, you tend to be the leader. When you hit your late 50s, all of a sudden you become the mentor.
“As people who own or run nurseries, we need to look out there and identify that young talent and bring them onboard and give them real responsibilities. And give them real challenges and be there as mentors to help them so that they can run the businesses. And associations need to do the same thing. We need to embrace and recognize young talent and put them in place, much like Clayton Hannon did with me, put them on a committee here, there, that you believe they can grow from, and then give them the tools to grow.
“I was the president of Oregon’s association back in 2001 and 2002, and I used to ask my committees, what are we going to look like in 20 years? Well, we’re getting awful darn close. Those kids who were in grade school then are going to be running things. What have we done to prepare them? What have we done to give them tools, to give them guidance, to be their mentors?
“And if you’re a young person? Find someone to buddy up to as a mentor. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown mentorship; I’ve been mentoring people like Ken McVicker from Van Essen for many years as much as a friend as someone in the industry, just helping him along when he had questions. You can find that mentor; it doesn’t have to be a formal relationship.
“Again, if I was a young person, I’d look to those people that I could learn from. At the same time, you’re going to be teaching them far more than they’re ever going to teach you.”