Solid ground

Dexterity and transparency are cornerstones of Miami-based Nature's Way.

Dawn Wilson’s path into horticulture may not have followed a successive point A to point B fashion, but she has no doubt it’s what she was always meant to do.

Dawn founded Nature’s Way in 1980, a company that supplies plants to more than 2,000 big-box stores nationwide. Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t take over a family business, but she did grow up with a love and appreciation of growing plants. Her father, a successful real estate appraiser in Miami, cared for a huge garden at their home, and Dawn was his consummate shadow.

“He was so good at his job as an appraiser, but his love was always farming and being outside,” Dawn says. “And since I was always by my dad’s side, he inspired me and we shared that love of farming.”

Around the time Dawn was a senior in high school, her dad sold his appraisal firm and bought a 50-acre tree farm from a friend. He was in his element, Dawn recalls. She helped him on the weekends and earned money for the hard work, which was the foundation of her strong work ethic.

While growing food and other plants was a pleasant and important part of her life, she attended Florida State University to study physical education, not horticulture.

“I wanted to be a P.E. teacher and a coach,” she explains.

She achieved that goal, but nearly five years into her profession, her dad suffered a back injury that left him bed ridden for six months, and he needed help at the tree farm. She took a one-year leave of absence from teaching to run the business. Dawn was hooked. She never returned to teaching.

Nature's Way has transformed from a roadside stand to a 320-acre facility during the last 42 years.

A nod to serendipity

Prior to her dad’s injury, she moved into a townhouse nearby and the property owner was planning to relandscape the courtyard. She asked the landlord if she could take care of the job, instead of a landscaper, in exchange for credit on her lease.

“Turns out he didn’t have a landscaper, so he was happy for me to do it, especially when I told him about working on the tree farm,” she recalls. “Then he encouraged me to bid a landscaping job for all 20 units and I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

She won the bid, enjoyed the work and was paid well for it. That initiated a love for landscape work, which she continued to do as a side hustle.

When her dad returned to the tree farm, he gave her an acre of land with frontage on a busy road. She set up a small retail nursery and a production area to grow plants for her new retail venture, as well as her landscape jobs, and Nature's Way was born. Another opportune event occurred that helped pave her horticulture path.

“One of my dad’s customers came to pick up some trees and he saw my liriope, asked the price and said ‘Well, I’ll take all hundred that you have.’ So I loaded them up, and that was a $150 sale versus a $5 sale. And I said, ‘I think I like this better,’” she recalls. “I bought some more liriope from a guy down the street to replenish my stock. When that tree customer came back another day he noticed I had more and bought them all. That started my lesson of multiplying sales and orders. I knew that 100 plants was not enough. I needed to be growing at least 200 plants, because in two weeks, I had sales of 200, and then I could sell 400. So I need to start thinking about where I’m going to plant the next ones to be able to keep up with the volume. That’s why we’re now on 320 acres and growing thousands and thousands of plants.”

Dawn’s landscaping business and wholesale business grew in tandem. And serendipity played another role in Dawn’s life. One of her nursery customers was retiring and selling the business, and he sold plants to big-box stores. Dawn saw an opportunity and one that would change the entire trajectory of her business.

“They were phasing out and we could phase in,” she says. “And the chain store business was booming back then, opening 25 stores a year.”

At this point, Dawn was putting so much time into the growing operation, she knew it was time to sell off her landscaping division and focus solely on growing.

Nature's Way focuses all of their sales to big boxes, including Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart. The company has developed several collections for particular chains.
Nature's Way constantly analyzes data from store sales and must replenish plants in less than a week.

Digging in with dexterity

From a small roadside stand to a 320-acre nursery serving more than 2,000 stores, Nature’s Way has enjoyed stable growth from year to year. Dawn credits much of the company’s success to lessons from her dad, including transparency and treating customers and employees with honesty and integrity.

“My goal is to never give anybody a reason to do business with someone else,” Dawn says. “If there’s an issue with a crop or we’re preparing for a hurricane — whatever the issue — we are open and honest with everyone.

“I learned this working with my dad. I never wanted him to see something, like a problem, before I saw it. And instill that in my employees, too.”

Some of her management styles came from her background in sports, including being an athlete in school and later a coach and P.E. teacher.

“I learned about being a captain of a team and embraced the team concept and how important it is to rally everyone around a goal. To get everyone to see and understand the same concepts and ideas. I think that’s had a lot to do with my success as a business owner and a human being,” she says.

Her “wins” include the relationships she’s developed with employees and the partnerships she’s formed with customers.

“Nothing is more rewarding than to watch your plants grow and leave on their targeted plan looking beautiful, and seeing a 90% sell-through at the store. That’s the total package,” she says.

That high sell-through rate is possible because of the company’s ability to react quickly to the market and understanding the end consumer, says Beatriz (Bea) Garces, vice president of sales and marketing at Nature’s Way.

“Innovation is a key principle of Nature’s Way. We achieve that by listening to the stores and the consumers, then coming back to the nursery and being creative,” Bea explains. “We’re not the largest outfit in the country and we’re not the smallest, but we are serving more than 2,000 stores and we have to make things happen in a matter of hours. So innovation is imperative.”

To maintain this level of orders and fulfillment, Dawn and Bea have to think like a grower and a retailer.

“We’re always asking the questions, ‘What’s going to sell?’ ‘What do consumers want?’ ‘What is the data telling me?’ ‘What should I grow more of?’ And that’s on top of dealing with challenges like the weather here and the weather patterns in all the places we ship plants. We must be nimble and flexible. We’re on our toes all of the time.”

Once the data is reviewed and it’s decided which store needs what orders, plants for replenishment are shipped within 48 hours. The nursery constantly analyzes store data.

“We’re good at big. Dawn and the company thrive off of large orders and high-volume business,” Bea explains. “We know the big boxes so well and we don’t find it difficult to navigate them.”

And these aren’t six-pack annuals that are being shipped from coast to coast. Nature’s Way grows large tropicals, houseplants, flowering shrubs, vines, groundcovers and specialty mixed containers.

“Between the season-to-season forecasting, the store data analysis, the trend watching and the weather challenges, we are always pivoting,” Bea says.

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