Planting Seeds for Success

There are tens of thousands of green industry companies around the country, and the vast majority are small businesses. Garden centers, nurseries, landscapers and green maintenance firms can be found just about anywhere.

But it takes more than a green thumb to succeed in this industry. With big national chains offering low-cost plants, flowers, tools and basic services, smaller companies require business acumen to produce a healthy financial yield. One way you can achieve this is to use software that automates routine actions to save labor while making it easier to sell more product.

For instance, The Siebenthaler Company in Dayton, Ohio began automating its nursery, landscaping and point-of-sale operations four years ago. As a landscape designer writes out a job order, the system informs him whether the item is in stock and commits those items from inventory.

“It’s easy to lose track of stuff on a couple hundred acres,” says owner Robert Siebenthaler, part of the sixth generation of family members to work in the company. “Any jobs we put in the system will show where the stuff is located on the order, and we know how many plants we have at any given time so we don’t oversell or undersell.”

But just as there are thousands of plants and flowers staring at you when you walk into a garden center, there is an abundance of software applications that serve the green industry. This article takes a look at some of the available choices and offers a few pointers on product selection.

Different Roots, Different Routes
Various software packages are marketed to the industry. While they generally offer certain common features, such as the inventory management or invoicing, the approach they take tends to vary significantly. To understand the differences, it is smart to take a look at their roots:

Custom Development
Townley & Associates in Aurora, Colorado was started by Jim Townley, a man who originally created business software for HP. Townley & Associates initially customized applications for a variety of businesses including dry cleaners, Dominos Pizza and Porsche auto parts distribution. In 1985 Townley obtained his first nursery customer, and found that the usual inventory methods that worked for inanimate objects like carburetors didn’t work for tracking the changing stages of growing plants. He devised a new application specifically for nursery inventory. The following year he released the first nursery point of sale barcode system.

Townley’s green software runs on UNIX and Linux operating systems. Customers usually use either a UNIX or Linux server along with Windows PCs. Also, in line with his software developer background, Townley deals with custom-built software, rather than selling it off the shelf.

Luen Miller, owner of Monterey Bay Nursery in Royal Oaks, Calif., does strictly wholesale work and has been using Townley’s software since shortly after opening his business 18 years ago. He is comfortable with using the UNIX operating system and appreciates the level of customization Townley provides. He says that the money he’s saved with just one feature – replacing triplicate copies of invoices, which have to be separated and filed, with laser-printed statements – has paid for the system many times over.

“We go through about 12,000 invoices a year and just distributing the paperwork was almost a full time,” he says. “Even at minimum wage, once you add in the ancillary costs of employment, you are looking at $20,000 a year – and that would pay for a lot of programming.”

Software Rental
Advanced Grower Solutions (AGS) of Fort Worth, Texas began its life selling payroll accounting software to strawberry growers who paid their pickers on a piecework basis. From there it expanded into the nursery business.

“We are focused only on wholesale nurseries and greenhouses,” says sales manager Rick Goff. “We don’t do point of sale, we don’t do landscape quoting, we don’t do design; wholesale growers only.”

The company has switched its pricing from a purchase to a rental model. Rather than buying the software outright, the customers pay a monthly fee. The software can either run on computers at the customer’s or on AGS’s computers. If AGS provides the hosting, customers can access the applications and their data over an Internet connection.

“People love the convenience of not having to manage their own hardware infrastructure,” says Goff.

Plants Before Programming
Slice Technologies of Milford, Ohio, has a different pedigree. Most green software vendors, it turns out, were originally computer companies before moving into the horticultural arena. Gary Thornton, founder of Slice Technologies, on the other hand, grew up in the business. His father worked in nurseries and garden centers, and Gary joined his brother in starting Cincinnati’s Thornton Landscape in 1963.

As they expanded, they created separate divisions for landscape construction, maintenance, a wholesale nursery and a retail garden center. In the late 1970s, Thornton purchased an expensive mini-computer and accounting program for the business, then developed a bidding and estimating program along with landscape production control programs. As this was one of the few successful implementations in the industry during the early days of computers, a software company sprouted up. Eventually he sold Thornton Landscape so he could work full time on advancing and improving his SLICEplus software.

SLICEplus incorporates landscaping, maintenance and a garden center, in addition to nursery operations. Customers select only those modules they need. If a customer decides to branch out into another area, such as a nursery opening a retail outlet, it can add the appropriate software module.

Software Selection
There are, of course, many more green industry software packages out there than the ones we covered here. For companies that operate exclusively in one area such as garden centers or nurseries, the selection process is relatively simple. AGS software, for example, works well for nursery specialists. Townley, too, fits in this arena. But it is can also function well in the retail point-of-sale settings common in garden center outfits. For people who prefer Windows, and who provide a wider range of services, SLICEplus is a better fit since it handles multiple facets within one integrated system.  

Siebenthaler chose this option since nothing else spanned his operations. “When you have many divisions that operate with completely separate mindsets, it is easy for them to build silos and work independently of each other,” explains Siebenthaler. “SLICEplus has allowed us to operate on the same page, know what any other division is doing and what any other division has in stock. It really lets us work more seamlessly than ever before.”

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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