Michael and Josh Bracken, brothers and co-owners of Nicholson-Hardie Nursery & Garden Center in Dallas, grew up — literally — on the garden center’s grounds.
When their parents, John and Linda Bracken, purchased the long-standing business in 1974, Michael was 10 and Josh was just 6. Sometimes, the young siblings lent a hand. They vividly recall helping fill seed packets to fulfill Neiman Marcus catalog orders during the holidays.
And sometimes not so much. “There was a little attic above the main store, where I would hang out after school,” Josh Bracken says. “One day, a customer came up to my mom and said, ‘There’s a little boy throwing water balloons on your customers from the attic.’ So, the rest is history from there.”
While their dedication to the business during childhood might have been mixed, as adults, the brothers have been laser-focused on making the family’s garden center a success.
Michael joined the staff professionally in 1988 as a hard goods buyer after earning his degree in horticulture from the University of Arkansas and working for two years at another garden supply company. “Having the experience of working outside the family business for a few years gave me the confidence to know I could be successful here or elsewhere,” Michael says.
Josh came on board in 1993, following a multi-year career in the hospitality industry that built on his hotel and restaurant management degree from Texas Tech. “My time with Hyatt was like getting a master’s degree,” Josh says. “I learned so much about service.”
The pair have now worked together seamlessly for more than 25 years. “Michael has paved a path of successful teamwork for our company,” Josh says. “He is a great brother, friend and business partner.”
Recently appointed to the International Garden Centre Association (IGCA) Board of Directors, Michael is passionate about helping garden centers around the globe find ways to navigate a changing retail environment. “Brick and mortar’s dying pretty quickly, particularly in Dallas,” he says. “I feel strongly that garden center retailers need to look outside the traditional garden center model in order to survive the next 10 to 20 years.”
The Brackens’ willingness to take their business into non-conventional directions has helped secure Nicholson-Hardie’s status as one of Texas’ best-loved garden centers. (The shop has been voted Best Garden Center by Dallas’ D Magazine multiple times, among many other accolades.)
While the roots of Nicholson-Hardie date back to 1899, when David Hardie — a seedsman from Scotland — first opened a seed business, today the garden center has pivoted fully toward retail.
“Whereas before we were a garden center that sold gifts, now our garden center location is a gift store that sells plants,” Josh says.
In addition to traditional garden center offerings such as trees, shrubs, water features, perennials, annuals and succulents, Nicholson-Hardie’s inventory also includes candles and soaps, door mats, women’s fashion, books, seasonal home décor and even entertainment essentials like decorative serving plates, cocktail napkins and bar ware.
“We hear people say all the time, ‘I love it here because it’s a one-stop shop. I can come in and get hostess gifts and the things that I need for my house,’” Josh says, noting that customers will often stop in before hosting a get-together to purchase exterior bedding plants or colorful, interior potted arrangements to spruce up their home – and get party essentials.
“If we didn’t make that pivot, I’m not 100% sure we’d still be in business,” Michael says.
Nicholson-Hardie has two locations in Dallas just five blocks apart. Both shops are located in very affluent, established urban areas and despite being close by, the locations have different client bases: one has more do-it-yourselfers while at the other, “the majority of customers have a company that takes care of their lawn, or even a personal gardener,” Michael says. “So, if they’re coming in [to shop for garden supplies], they’re likely just dabbling.”
Given those demographics, the brothers decided years ago to focus their business growth on “things that go with the home as opposed to what you would consider a traditional garden center,” Michael says. “The number of doormats we sell now is actually pretty incredible.”
The shop’s more traditional nursery – the smaller of its two locations – sells shrubs, roses, perennials, annuals, fountains, and other hard good items. Its other, larger location focuses primarily on gift items but also stocks indoor tropicals, orchids and a limited amount of annuals and herbs.
While the garden center does maintain a small bulk seed division to pay homage to its origins — complete with 1920s-era seed scales, retail is Nicholson-Hardie’s main focus.
The garden center has worked with an ad agency to place strategic advertising on billboards, in TV and radio spots, and in high-end local magazines — a move that has “helped everybody realize that just because we’re a garden center doesn’t mean we’re not in the fashion business as much as anybody else in our neighborhood,” says Josh, noting that Nicholson-Hardie is part of Dallas’ ‘Miracle Mile,’ an affluent, high-end shopping district.
The garden center employs around 40 full-time employees and a dozen or so part-time employees, many of whom have been with the business for decades. The two locations do their buying independently, with each of Nicholson-Hardie’s eight full-time buyers spending at least 50% of their time on the retail floor interacting with customers so they can see what’s selling and what isn’t.
“Our buyers are in constant touch with our customers,” Michael says. “So, our inventory and product offerings kind of flow directly with what they feel our customers are looking for. Frankly, that’s how this [pivot] evolved. When we first started with gifts, the idea was to have only gift merchandise that related to plants. But that’s now grown to become candles and doormats and anything decorative for the home.”
Willing to stretch their business inventory to meet customers’ needs, the Brackens are also committed to providing the highest possible customer service for their patrons.
One of the garden center’s most popular services is its in-house design center, which offers custom indoor pots of orchids, ferns and flowering plants. “We have customers that will bring in half a dozen to a dozen containers that we replace every two or three months for indoor color,” Michael says.
The brothers — both former chairs of the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association, as was their father — want Nicholson-Hardie to be a place where customers feel welcomed and energized whenever they come in to browse.
When hiring new staff, they tend to look for “a smile, a positive attitude and compassion,” Josh says. “One thing I truly believe about retail and why I’m kind of a zealot for it is that you have the power to make someone’s day better. People have challenging lives, but they can come in and see beautiful things. And if an employee listens and shows just a little bit of compassion, the customer can leave feeling much better than when they came in.”