Diverse perspectives

11-10-2021    14:04   |    Greenhouse Management

As the industry tries to diversify its workforce, The Growers Exchange is years ahead. Find out what it means to their business.


Even with all the recent momentum around women and minorities in horticulture, we’re still admittedly a ways away from true equity among all this wonderful industry’s many stakeholders.

And yet, in order for more access to power for these groups, it helps to amplify some of the operations that have embraced true diversity in the boardroom.

You might remember The Growers Exchange (TGEX) from my colleague Kate Spirgen’s cover profile of the operation (Online Exclusive, June 2020). Based in Sandston, Virginia, the e-commerce-only greenhouse operation owned by Briscoe White made for a great profile of an operation that was leveraging a new sales channel to increase its relevancy among plant buyers, and the timing was perfect, as more and more wholesale greenhouses began exploring the e-commerce angle.

While that profile dug deeply into the how and why of White and co.’s online pivot, there’s another worthy angle that is worth exploring with the East Coast plant shipper.

“If you are looking for an article about young greenhouse managers, especially female greenhouse managers, TGEX team would be a shining example,” White wrote to me in an email back in August. “If you’re wondering who in the hell is going to run greenhouses in the next generation, we have some [idea] here.”

Well, White, challenge gladly accepted.

The Growers Exchange’s young, all-female management team discusses advancing the industry through more inclusive hiring practices, how to approach the plant pricing conundrum, and much more.

TGEX is seeing high demand for novel and unusual plants and herbs.

The now (wo)managers

For much of TGEX’s history, White has been tremendously involved in day-to-day operations at the $1 million dollar-plus in annual sales “plant factory,” as he called it back in our previous story on the operation.

Today, however, he has been able to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the production grind. And that’s all due to, according to the owner and founder, the steady stewardship of the front office duo of Operations Manager Jessica Smith and Horticulture Manager Shannon Convery.

While the two couldn’t come from more disparate backgrounds — Smith has a background in operations and in early e-commerce ventures around the Richmond, Virginia area, and Convery got her start as a section grower at a “big commercial grower” — they’ve been able to combine forces and safely steer TGEX through what’s been a turbulent last 18 months.

“Overall, the past 18 months, we did really well, actually,” Smith shares. “Sales were up, everyone was at home, and we provided a service that allowed people to keep growing and gave them piece of mind.”

“From the greenhouse perspective, I think it was admittedly kind of insane, ya know,” Convery adds. “We did the best that we could. Going into it, we kind of knew things would be insane, and since we were already just doing e-commerce strictly, we knew this was a big opportunity for us to sell a lot of plants.”

There were a few hiccups along the way that the dynamic duo had to overcome. Things mostly related to the strain COVID-19 put on everything supply chain-related.

“We had some seed shortages, and plastic stuff was hard to get for a while there, so we had to make some changes on the fly and use cuttings, things like that,” Smith explains. “You do whatever it takes to get around some of those issues and keep supplying your customers.”

After a 2020 where the greenhouse blow past its profit projections by 25%, the duo saw an opportunity to reward those who helped them manage through such a turbulent time.

“We were able to raise wages significantly and make sure we’re paying what we feel is a true living wage to our people,” Smith says. “And we started doing monthly bonuses for the employees to just show our appreciation for them just showing up day-in and day-out, wearing masks during the hot and humid summer, that kind of stuff.”


More seats at the table

It’s time to address the elephant in the room. While we’re perhaps doing better than we’ve ever done on accepting nontraditional demographics into the boardrooms of horticultural businesses, the TGEX management duo feels there’s still a lot to be accomplished.

“I just had this conversation with my partner a couple months ago, and like we were saying, especially with the new cannabis boom [in hort], it’s all middle-aged white men,” Convery says. “Not only are women not getting these jobs, but it’s also non-white males that can’t get their foot in the door. If you go into any greenhouse in this country, I guarantee you’ll see a good number of women working in that greenhouse.”

Convery would like to see the industry someday get to the point where promotions and appointments are doled out purely based on individual merit and proficiency.

“We have to get to the point where we’re hiring people based on experience and how much growing knowledge they have, and whether that package comes in a man or a woman, a Hispanic woman or a Black man, it shouldn’t matter,” she argues. “I get in the greenhouse, and I start working with my people and talking with them and it’s like, ‘Man, why aren’t these people running the show and calling the shots?’”

An open mind and willingness to be different at the top of the organizational structure is what struck Smith about upper management’s hiring philosophy.

“[I] was hired literally just to do data entry and as I worked with them, I tried to learn [about horticulture],” she recalls. “I am not a green thumb, so this was all new to me when I started 10 years ago. Briscoe and Kenan [the owners] were those types of people that supported every crazy suggestion I came up with. I’d hope people in this industry have mentors that will listen. I had so many ideas and some of them were insane and they supported me, which allowed me to learn more. People need to just take a second and listen to their people.”

Read more on Greenhouse Management.
All Photos Courtesy of Kate Thompson

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