40 Years of Fun
I remember the beginning of my employment here – being hired to care for tropical plants two days a week. I was excited to use my freshly-minted Horticulture degree. I had interviewed the original owner a few weeks before, as research for a paper I was writing to complete an independent study class. I was so taken by her enthusiasm, her professionalism and her candor. She was blazing a trail in a relatively new industry. She was working with plants indoors, year round, and she did not have to plow snow!
The first few years were a blur. I was learning so much, so fast. I mastered drilling holes for ceiling hooks because everyone was hanging spider plants and grape ivy in wicker baskets and macramé back then. I was excited to learn about a variety of plants as I worked. I quickly learned how to spot and treat mealy bug, scale and mites, as so many plants arrived from Florida with little insect friends in tow. It was the wild west of pest control then.
In the early 1980s it was legal to spray Malathion and use Oxamyl granules. These very toxic compounds killed insects but the horrid smell quickly led to office occupants asking for plants to be taken outside for treatment. Pesticides evolved and became safer.
I was thrilled when MSU taught the first class in Michigan for interiorscape pesticide applicators, and as the first woman to turn in my test at the end of the class (one fellow beat me by a few steps to the desk), I was proud to be in the first group of certified applicators. We have maintained our license since that time, and certify each of our interior technicians, as well as exterior applicators as well.
As the industry and the Lansing area grew, so did we. We added a staffer with floral education and experience, and started renting plants for events and offering floral for events about the same time. We had started in 1979 in the owner’s basement. When I hired in back in 1980 we were at 112 North Larch, where a distillery now graces the old brick building. We shared the space with a Scandinavian furniture store, with plants gracing living room displays.
Soon, we outgrew that and moved to a block building at 808 South Street. This gave us a delivery dock for receiving Florida trucks, but the small garage for the van we had just acquired was in back, and we sometimes got stuck in the mud in spring. I became the junior partner in the business about that time. Then the senior partner married and moved to northern Michigan. After some negotiation and a lot of stress, her desire to divest this business to open a boutique in Charlevoix led to my purchase of her shares. My friend, Renae, came to work at that time, and has worked with us since then, except for a time when she stayed home to care for her Mom during a long illness.
Our continued growth took us to Haco Drive, where we lost the dock but gained a drive-in space for the van and a lot more space for plants. We even had a holiday showroom there, as we had decorated our first Christmas trees while at South Street. I learned a lot about people and management at that time, as our growth led to some hires that turned out to be ill-advised. I had one mutiny, where a strong-willed but horticulturally-challenged staffer attempted to force us to give her control of the service staff. My refusal led to not only her leaving, but two friends of hers who had been hired as referrals. I was back doing a lot of plant care for a few weeks, and never hired that quickly or naively again.
The landlord there occupied a space in the building himself, and I began to find him in my space at times without advance notice, which was rather disconcerting. I realized how much I preferred space that I did not share. I had begun to consider that I should find space outside the city center and ideally with some ground. We developed our first small shade area for summering tropicals outdoors at Haco Drive, but I knew that I was tempting theft with that arrangement. We also had a complex composting arrangement, with a dozen large trash barrels that we had to load and drive to Granger and pay them to take our precious compost. That seemed so wasteful, as well as expensive. We were adding outdoor color planting to our services, it was time for space outdoors for us.
The next move was to 1178 Terminal Road. The building there was larger, with more office space, and a metal storage building attached, to hold our ever- growing trove of client holiday décor. There was a large gravel parking lot, and a shaded area on the North, as well as a small lake at the end of the parking lot.
Most importantly, my real estate leasing agent from Martin Properties had indicated that the building would likely be available for sale soon. In each location, we made improvements and customized the space. Each move meant disassembling and moving shelving and supplemental lighting, as well as moving plants and other stock. This was our first move with some professional help, as Two Men and a Truck moved the office furniture and equipment, including the raft of file cabinets we had been adding to over the years.
There were just a couple of challenges. The dock was once again outdoors. We had to cut down some trees and do a lot of clearing to use the concrete dock near the back door. We had that ready in a couple of days. We were still an all-female crew at that point. We had hired men at various times previously. We had one good male interior technician, but when he graduated from college, he took a job with another company. I had one facilities/installation driver at Haco, but he did not really enjoy plants, and did not have the hustle to keep up with the women on our crew.
We had planned to again have one parking space indoors for a van, so plants could be loaded in the warmth in winter. The outer door was a typical metal roll up door, but just 6’ in, across a hall, there were double metal doors, and they were too narrow.
The van would not fit through without scratching the paint. I had invited my best friend, Megan, over to see the new space, and she brought our friend Peggy, who had been my high school Model United Nations Association coach.
Peggy has a lot of remodeling experience. As we walked, I showed them the doors and asked if they had any ideas for me. Megan and Peggy were soon drilling holes in the wall and then the reciprocating saw came out. We cut the doors and frame out, and stored them as a unit in the metal storage building. We framed the opening, and had a finished doorway with a couple of feet of clearance. Before the weekend, I painted the new trim to match. Problem solved.
During this time, I had the insight to start recruiting people I already knew from church to help us out. I hired part-time Terry, who did a lot of the clean -up at that building, and then our friend, Don, came on board to help with outdoor color, installations and plant rentals. His sister-in-law Carol came later. Our friends, Kathy and Bill, whose daughter Cheri was already my office manager at the time, joined the staff while we were at Terminal Road. Julie started with us in 1996, placed through a program that helps people with special needs find work. She has been an asset for us when plant shipments arrive ever since, cleaning saucers and trays and washing plants like a champion, and showing us all what dependability and a positive attitude look like.
Alexa came originally as a plant technician and then plant care supervisor, before leaving us to raise her growing family. She later returned once our landscape division sprouted, to offer the landscape design services we then needed, using the landscape design skills and interest that got her into horticulture.
Our exterior color operation thrived with the added outdoor space, but I really wanted an enclosed dock for unloading our tropicals in cold weather. After five years, I began to seriously push to buy the building. We were putting too much money into improving spaces that were not ours, and I was tired of renting. Unfortunately, the building was held in a trust, and the two inheritors were not on good terms with each other.
Anyone who was an adult at the time remembers September 11, 2001. I was sitting in my conference room meeting with an appraiser to get a value on that building, when a staffer told me about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. We were all quite shaken that day, and living and working near the Lansing airport, the silence, with no flights coming or going, was eerie. The ripples through the hospitality industry affected us like many service companies, but the focus on buying a building remained strong. I later went back to Martin Properties and asked them to help us find a different building with some acreage to buy.
After a few weeks of looking at buildings that were too small, in too poor a physical condition or just too expensive for our budget, we looked at the 16886 Turner Street property. It was a single building about 50’ by 60’, sitting on three acres. The facility included a space for floral work, holding tropical plants, a staging area, and a large-enough space to hold two vans. There was also a mezzanine level and offices upstairs. I dragged Don and Bill to the property when I went to look at it the second time.
Don thought I was nuts, and Bill saw the potential of both the building and the property, though we knew at onset that we would have to build on immediately to accommodate our growing holiday storage business.
The building itself was a two-story metal structure with a curved metal roof. It had been built as a freight dock, used as an Arby’s regional bun bakery, and at the time we looked at it, the owner ran a floral wholesale company, complete with huge walk-in coolers on the first floor.
All we would need to do was tear out a walk-in freezer, open several large openings in what had been the walk-in cooler, repair the stairway between the mezzanine and the first floor, take out a second-floor window and replace it with a door and add stairs from the mezzanine to the upper offices.
Then we could tear out shelves, close off six overhead doors and replace four with windows, and replace most of the lighting. Other refurbishments included: painting the upstairs and downstairs; clean the carpets; replace the women’s room toilet; buy and install a commercial sink; move the existing sink to what would become our floral design room. We replace the cupboards in the upstairs break room, and of course changed all the locks.
The former owner suggested we just swap her office furniture for ours, which led to our measuring the existing stairs and realizing they were not wide enough to get our furniture upstairs. That meant adding a second stairs before we moved.
The addition was my first experience with building permits, contractors and inspectors, but Bill’s construction experience was invaluable. We moved in summer. I thought I could build yet that fall, but once I understood all that was involved, I made arrangements to move our holiday décor to offsite storage during our move, and focused on learning and pursuing the construction permit process over the winter to get everything lined up to build.
Bill suggested I act as my own general contractor to reduce costs, and we selected a company to do the grading and site preparation, a concrete firm and a contractor to build the wood frame, vinyl-sided structure. We wanted the addition at the same level as the existing building, which was built at truck dock height, so the fill and concrete volumes were quite impressive.
I learned so much in that process, and though we had some hiccups for sure, the results were both beautiful and well-suited to our unique needs. So many people were a part of the design and planning process. I even invited my favorite foliage semi-truck driver to come to the new site with his truck and help me lay out the unique dock that made it all tie together. We wanted drive-through access for our vehicles adjacent to the semi dock, with the ability to roll plants on carts through the entire first floor and into that drive lane. This would protect the plants from the cold and weather whenever needed.
This building allows us to have a floral design room, cooler room, plant preparation, several areas of live plant holding, restrooms, as well as a mezzanine and added upper mezzanine for storage of product. Past the drive lane and dock is the North Pole, the original holiday storage built during that addition. Upstairs are offices, break room and conference room.
The larger building seemed to attract more work and more staff. As the outdoor color and holiday work grew, I hired more skilled men and women part and full-time employees.
Amelia came with a ton of management experience and a desire to make some extra money for new granite countertops. That was in 2005. I knew when I interviewed her that I wanted her to supervise our interior plantscaping team. She started as a trainee technician, grasped all the fine points quickly, and set a very high standard for both plant health and appearance. She continuously moves her people forward in skill and professionalism.
We have provided floral services since we hired that skilled employee, Deb, back on South Street, but since 2009, Dave has been the magician who makes beautiful events come to life in flowers.
Justin, who was living next door (the ultimate short commute) and had some landscaping experience, was hired to help with installations, and then had to take the lead when another fellow left suddenly. Justin was also playing with his dear friends in a Christian rock band. When he became overwhelmed at the beginning of the holiday season in 2010, he traded places with newly-hired Al, an experienced landscaper and horticulturist, who became the installation lead. Al has never looked back, growing us into a serious landscape design, build and maintenance company, and masterminding our continued growth in holiday as well. Al is now vested as a partner in the business.
Justin, is now a customer, handling marketing for Foster Coffee, which is about to open their third location in East Lansing.
In 2012, we added a pole building to hold tools and equipment for landscaping and expanded our shade yard. During 2016, we extended the mezzanine to gain more storage in the main building. In 2017, we added Tinsel Town, a 60’ by 24’ pole barn designed to hold our clients’ holiday décor. I tease the staff that I am done building, but we just added a hoop house, and expanded the shade yard in 2018 to more than double its size.
Lisa took over as bookkeeper in 2011, and soon became a full-time employee. Her attention to detail and focus on improving systems makes us better every year. Carol and I knew each other from a board we serve on, and she joined us in 2106 to help with new client projects. Joe is over a year in as our marketing and administrative assistant. He handles social media and helps create marketing materials as well. There are over 30 of us on staff at The Plant Professionals.
What this history does not tell you is all the wonderful people who have given us work to do over the years. A lot of our work is for companies and institutions, but we are really working for people, whether property managers, event planners, office managers, facilities managers or homeowners. Some I have been privileged to work for over three decades, and we have a few corporate clients we have served over 35 years. I feel so blessed to be working with and for such wonderful people in mid-Michigan!