Beyond business

Features - Cover Story

With a mission that reaches far beyond the store footprint, Watters Garden Center has created an inspiring destination for both customers and staff.

May 5, 2021

Left to right: Charisma Moore, Patricia Wardle, Patricia Davis, Ken Davis, Christy Wilson, McKenzie Lain, Meghan Lain, Owners Ken Lain and Lisa Watters-Lain, Eric Anderson, Founders Lorna and Harold Watters, Jeremy Cespedes, Kate Lain-Cespedes, Michele Hyatt, Amy Langley, Patricia Tolbert, Huyler Chinnock and Susan Quinlan

Those who work at Watters Garden Center know it’s more than just a job. It’s a family, a community and a mission to make the Prescott, Arizona, area a better place to live.

Watters Garden Center has cultivated its brand around fun, positivity, community and giving back. The husband-and-wife team of Ken Lain and Lisa Watters-Lain has spent years reaching far beyond the world of gardening to touch the lives of employees, customers and the community at large. Lisa, general manager and owner, has been in the family business since she was old enough to hold a hose, while Ken, whom she met in college, has spent decades growing in the highlands of Arizona.

Together, their goal is to not only beautify the city of Prescott but to bring joy, hope and positivity to their community. And it all starts with living their core mission.

“So many companies have a mission statement that they put together 10 years ago but nobody else knows what the mission statement is,” Lisa says. “The employees don’t know; the community doesn’t know. I think we make it a point to live out the mission statement. So the things that we support — our staff, our community — we’ve got to live out our mission statement.”

The Watters Garden Center team stays in constant contact through weekly and daily meetings.
Owners Lisa Watters Lain and Ken Lain

The most integral part of the IGC is the strong beliefs that stand behind its purpose, as well as a sense of community, camaraderie and genuine passion for the work they do every day.

To that end, the entire garden center staff is in the midst of a campaign to craft “We believe” statements they stand behind. Those statements can be anything from movie quotes to sayings from favorite authors as long as they’re sentiments the staff feels strongly about. They run the gamut from “We believe in rising early, working hard and fruits of our labor” to “We believe in integrity, respect and love for one another.”

“So these are things we stand for and believe,” Ken says. “We believe that things should be natural, safe and organic. We believe that so we’ve got products that accommodate that. Our plants are natural; they’re safe and they’re organic.”

Watters makes those belief statements a part of their advertising, their website and their company culture. The Watters social media presence is always “positive, happy and uplifting,” Ken says. And that positive messaging helps attract both customers and employees.

“We can stand for things and be very positive and uplifting and make a difference in our community — not just our staff, but our community,” Ken says.

“A company that’s really engaged should carry the light for their town and make it a better place to live.”

Signage and labels help both customers and employees identify plants.

Finding the right fit

When it comes to hiring criteria, Watters Garden Center is looking for motivated individuals who enjoy working with others and encouraging those around them. “Our best employees are people who have been customers,” Lisa says. “They see how we treat people and they’re ambassadors.”

The garden center doesn’t require a specific level of plant knowledge or a horticultural background. Instead, they hire for personality and rely on the signage around the store that helps both staff and customers stay informed. “Even I don’t remember every detail about a plant all the time,” Ken says with a laugh.

Prescott, like many surrounding cities in Arizona, has a large population of newly retired residents, many of whom are interested in taking on some part-time or seasonal work to get connected with the community, stay active and meet new people. It was named the fourth-best city for retirement by Money magazine and the second-best place to retire by Smart Money, so that population will likely continue to grow.

On the other end of the spectrum, many seasonal employees are high school or college-aged students home for the summer. Many stick with the garden center throughout their studies. “When they come back home, they want to work for us. It’s more than just pay. It’s got to be a fun place, an energizing place, a respectful place,” Ken says. “For employers to think it’s just about pay — that’s so 1970s.”

Julie Bartz and Susan Quinlan
Michele Hyatt
Ken Lain shows his plants some love.

Selective hiring

With a strong returning seasonal workforce, Watters Garden Center has not had many difficulties finding employees. Nearly half of the 27-person staff is permanent, while the other 11 are seasonal. This year, the IGC only had to hire three employees.

“All of our seasonal staff came back because they like working here,” Ken says. “And so they may not want to work in the winter but in spring they love the energy, the style, the culture, the family and their colleagues. We look after each other so we don’t have to hire very much.”

With that kind of retention, it’s not easy to get hired at Watters. The company requires a four-page online application designed to weed through applicants and eliminate those who are not a good fit. The form includes everything from schedule availability to math calculations to a checklist determining what an applicant is and isn’t willing to do on the job like maintain a positive attitude and work well with teammates.

Once completed, applicants must print out the form and bring it to the garden center. When staff members meet an applicant, they’re encouraged to give their own feedback. If an employee writes ‘no’ on an application, management eliminates the applicant from the pool.

“We’re not even going to take time to read it,” Ken says. “They get authority at the cashier level to say yes or no. So we’ve got many, many hurdles that keep you from coming through.”

The company doesn’t do any traditional media advertising for open positions, relying instead on social media because, as Ken says, they want to hire people who are “social.”

“We want people that, like us, that share the positive and do their homework on Watters Garden Center before they come in, so it goes both ways. We’re looking to find the right staff that fits.”

Once the IGC finds a good candidate who meets the criteria, an average of three or four staff members take part in the interview process to make sure the candidate is a good fit. Including staff also helps create a sense of camaraderie, Ken says.

Staying connected

Watters very rarely has to fire an employee, thanks to meticulous hiring and management. But when conflicts do arise at Watters, the garden center’s philosophy is to talk through problems before they start to fester, whether it’s an issue with one employee or several. The management team finds that most problems can be fixed with a simple apology or a simple conversation.

“The other thing I really, really push a lot is having grace and mercy for each other because we all have days where maybe we’re cranky or we say something wrong,” Lisa says. “It’s just telling team members that we all have to be here together.”

Watters also tries to get out ahead of potential problems in their weekly manager meetings in which the top managers come together to discuss potential issues. The full staff also meets every other week to stay connected and get out ahead of conflicts, encourage growth and foster a better understanding of the business.

“Virtually every meeting we start we tell them, ‘We want you, when you leave Watters Garden Center, to feel that you are a better person when you leave than when you started. So you know more about business. Not just business, but plain skills,” Ken says.

That includes understanding gross margins, sales units and more. The company shares all numbers with every team member from cashiers to watering staff to salespeople to managers.

It’s part of the motivational process as well. Each team has its own scoreboard and weekly accomplishments to fulfill. Teams share their progress, and in turn, the company shares overall numbers and goals. It helps create camaraderie and gives teams the tools to track their performance independently. When big goals are met, the team is recognized, whether it’s a party or a bonus or just a shout-out.

“So they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves because they are,” Ken says. “And when they leave this place, I truly think they’ll find a difficult time finding a better place to work for. They might leave for more pay or, you know, they finally graduated from college and now they’re off to their real job that they trained for. But you’ll never find a better place to work than Watters Garden Center.”

Charisma Moore
Cheryl Christensen
Doug Arthur
Amy Langley

Community outreach

With nearly 60 years in business, the garden center is a community staple, thanks in large part to its outreach and volunteer efforts. The garden center frequently partners with the local Rotary clubs and just last month, hosted a donation drive for the local food bank in partnership with a local high school club.

But the garden center chooses its partners wisely. “We’re trying to selectively choose the nonprofits that have the same values as Watters Garden Center and not only give them donations, but give them our resources, our writing talents, our advertising, our mentoring program,” Ken says.

The goal is to simply make the community better by pooling resources, and the garden center has plenty of knowledge to share through speaking engagements, The Mountain Gardener Radio Show, magazine columns and classes as well as social media and their website.

“It’s tough to garden here in Arizona. So if you can make it easier for people to garden and give them that inspiration to be out there working in their yards and making it prettier and better out there, we truly believe that many of the world’s issues would be solved if more people would garden,” Lisa says. “And that’s what’s happened in the past year.”

Before COVID hit, Lisa estimates that 50 to 100 people would show up to classes at the garden center with 10 to 30 joining online. Now, they have 30 or so in a class but 200 more joining online via Facebook or YouTube.

And those classes really bring customers in. Lisa says the garden center sees sales of products mentioned during the classes, sometimes on the same day. The IGC’s podcast is performing well too, growing from hundreds of downloads to thousands. “I don’t know what this means for the future, but it’s definitely changing under our feet,” she says. “It’s changing as we speak how people are interacting with our content.”

Getting through tough times

Last year, when COVID hit and garden centers were uncertain if they would be able to stay open, the Watters management team made it clear that they would all get through the pandemic as a family. They told staff that no one would be facing layoffs, even if the owners had to go without pay.

Watters Garden Center also created a community food bank to help employees going through a tough time. Ken cleared out a closet in his office and gave a team of employees a $1,000 budget to stock it. Every morning, team members would go out to different grocery stores and search for whatever staff needed from toilet paper to flour to salt.

“I just created a team and they started helping each other instead of being isolated, looking outwards. We created ways to help the team help each other,” Ken says.

Anyone on staff could take whatever they wanted with no questions asked, either for themselves or for others in the community who were in need. And, of course, any donations were also accepted. Now, more than a year later, the closet is still packed with food items.

But it didn’t take a pandemic to pull the Watters team together. When a coworker was dealing with a heart issue, staff pulled together to take groceries to his house and check in on him during his recovery.

“This is what Watters Garden Center is,” Ken says. “We’re not a church. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a business. We’re an organization that looks after each other and wants the best for all. I think that’s how you define us, but it’s way beyond business. It’s something deeper as a community.”