Change can be hard for some businesses, but at Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, Mo., it’s welcomed and embraced. Since it was founded in 1951, the company has enjoyed a history of recognizing coming change and seizing opportunities for diversification and growth. What started as a hobby 64 years ago is now a multifaceted company with a 15-acre property designed by acclaimed garden center consultant Ernest Wertheim.
From pools to DIY projects
Sandi Hillermann McDonald, Hillermann Nursery & Florist president and second-generation family member, doesn’t hesitate when asked what sets the business apart from other garden centers in the area and the industry. “The main thing is the diversification in our company, without a doubt,” she says.
The breadth of products and services the company provides extends to areas some garden centers haven’t thought of or aren’t willing to go. Three main profit centers comprise the company’s current offerings, including a landscape division that spans a full complement of services and products from design, installation, irrigation, lighting and hardscapes to complete lawn maintenance programs. They also have a lawn and garden equipment sales center offering Stihl, Cub Cadet, Exmark and Toro, along with a full maintenance department staffed by experienced mechanics primed for tune-ups and repairs.
The retail area includes the gift shop, floral shop, nursery and garden center, where customers can find canning equipment, beer and winemaking supplies, plus a pottery-making shop where customers make everything from wheel-thrown plant containers to tableware and birdhouses.
Every division includes numerous examples of how the company’s response to changing times led to diversification and increased customers. Landscape design, installation and maintenance came in 1953, with florist services in 1958, greenhouse growing in 1960, and equipment sales in 1970. The list continues up to the addition of the pottery shop and classes in 2013 followed by beer and winemaking.
The recent addition of beer and winemaking supplies came about the winter before last when Hillermann McDonald and staff realized their business in chlorine-based swimming pool chemicals and water testing was soon to pass. “Customers started moving to salt water pools, so we got out of it,” she says. The decision to replace those departments with beer and winemaking classes and supplies proved to be a good one. “It’s still doing very well,” she says. “There’s nothing like it outside St. Louis, and it attracts a younger generation coming up. They’re interested in what their grandparents did and where their food comes from. Like canning, this is just a great fit.”
Hillermann McDonald credits community involvement and education with keeping their 125-car parking lot busy in a progressive river town with only about 14,000 people. The company is very community-oriented from the top on down.
“Throughout the company, we want employees and people to engage,” she says. She and fellow employees achieve that in numerous ways through service on park boards and urban forestry, tourism and wellness committees as well as their involvement in the Washington Town & Country Fair, one of the largest in the state, and the many projects that put their town in the elite “Circle of Champions” for the America in Bloom program.
The company strives to be a leading resource for its community. Current plans include the addition of weekly, year-round, short education classes, where customers can get hands-on experience and personal instruction in a variety of topics and tasks.
The company’s continuously growing product offerings and services start with ideas from many directions. “I subscribe to a lot of IGC newsletters from around the country. I love to adapt to change. I embrace it — even without all the pieces,” Hillermann McDonald says. Ideas come from inside or out, from all levels of the company, then usually get tweaked in turn. “I have a great motivational staff,” she says.
Some of what she considers the best ideas came out during tough times, when the company saw challenges as an opportunity to try new, unconventional things. “The pot shop is a great example. That idea came up when the economy tanked in 2007 to 2008, even though it wasn’t implemented until later,” she says. It continues to be a popular, productive department.
Changes and challenges
The biggest change Hillermann McDonald sees at the company for the current year comes in its landscape division. “That’s where we’ve seen the largest growth, and it’s now the No. 1 part of our business. The garden center is No. 2, and the equipment division, No. 3,” she says. Hillermann McDonald credits the division’s growth to offering more inclusive services for a complete outdoor package. If it involves digging dirt and a client in need, Hillermann’s people are there to do it.
Hillermann McDonald cites weather as the biggest challenge year after year. One aspect of the company that has been strong and constant is staff. Many employees have been with the company 45 to 50 years. “We have one retiring in December after 48 years with the company. I have great staff. They are what I’m most proud of,” she says. “The store is meticulous and my people are meticulous, from the way they dress to how they do business. They are passionate about what they do.”
For anyone new to the industry or interested in growing their company, Hillermann McDonald offers the following advice: “This industry is so giving. We’re all in this together. The sharing of information — everything is more family-oriented. Embrace it and network. Get out there. Ask questions. And try things.”