Leading by example

Features - State of the Industry Cover Story: Profiles in Power

Dale Bachman, who retired as CEO of Bachman’s in October, reflects on his 46-year career “in one of the finest industries” and what garden centers must do to thrive.

November 7, 2018

© Becca Dilley

In February, Dale Bachman, CEO of Bachman’s, based in Minneapolis, Minn., announced he was retiring Oct. 20, 2018, after a 46-year career working at the company his great grandparents founded 133 years ago. Bachman, a fourth-generation owner, will still resume his responsibilities as chairman of the board for the company, which operates retail locations in the Twin Cities, including six full-service floral, home, and garden centers, a floral and gift store in downtown Minneapolis, and 27 floral departments within Lunds and Byerlys grocery stores.

Bachman has been CEO and chairman of the board since 2008 and entered that position during trying times for both the company and the economy, with the sudden loss of Todd Bachman, who was chairman of the board and CEO. At the same time, the Great Recession was beginning to dismantle the economy, and it took years for the country and the garden center to recover.

Bachman discussed his career and his post-retirement plans with us during an interview.

Editor's Note: A shorter, edited version was published in the print edition. Read the full version below. 

Garden Center: I know that you grew up in the business and graduated from the University of Minnesota, majoring in plant and soil science, but was there ever a moment you thought of doing something other than work in the family business?

Dale Bachman: I think I always knew that I wanted to work in the family business.

I’ve been thinking about those important points in time in somebody’s life, and for me it was really the importance of role models and mentors. I had great role models in my grandfather, Albert [Bachman, second-generation owner], and my dad, Larry [Bachman, third-generation owner] and my mom, Louise. My dad had asthma and allergies such that he couldn’t work in the greenhouse and needed to be outside. So, my grandfather started the nursery business during the war so that would be there for my dad after his return from service in the Air Force in WWII. Seeing the preparation my grandfather had done to have a landscape business ready for my dad when he came back from the war [was an inspiration]. 

GC: Who were your mentors?

DB: When I decided that I was going to go to the University of Minnesota, I was able to follow two [older] cousins; my cousin Todd [Bachman, who also served as CEO and chairman of the board of Bachman’s] and my cousin Craig [Bachman]. I had two good connections at the Department of Horticulture, but really it was Todd who was a mentor. We grew up next door to each other. When it was time for me to go to the University of Minnesota and study horticulture, Todd made the introductions on the academic side and as a member of Delta Theta Sigma, which is a social/professional agricultural fraternity. I pledged winter quarter of my first year, and that was all because of Todd’s mentoring and guidance. And then it just continued here at Bachman’s. I guess for all those reasons, I always knew where I was headed.

GC: News about your retirement indicates you’ve worked at and led Bachman’s for nearly five decades, but I was thinking about how if you count time spent there as a child, as you mentioned, helping to empty waste baskets when you were 10 years old or spending summers working at the growing range, it really has been part of your everyday life for all of your life. How will your day-to-day change in retirement, and, other than maintaining the chairman of the board position, how do you plan to stay connected with the company?

DB: My day-to-day is yet to be determined, and I’ll figure that out. My intention would be to attend our peer group meetings and also Cultivate to stay connected and learn. I will be tracking the company’s progress as our board meetings take place and continue as chairman of the board. I still have strong connections to the University of Minnesota, and I would hope to take advantage of taking some classes at the university, too. And I intend to spend more time in the garden.

GC: What are you most looking forward to in your retirement?

DB: One is to work on Dale instead of working on Bachman’s. The idea of expanding and growing and trying to become better every day. I look forward to being less judgmental. It seems like in business we’re making judgments every day, and I would like to take a break from that and be more present in the moment.

I was in church on Sunday [October 7], and the church has favored Bachman’s with some very nice landscaping opportunities, and just looking out at that garden yesterday and seeing the fabulous mums in color and hydrangea just blooming about as much as hydrangea can bloom. You just look at the landscape and the difference that it makes. This area had to be redone in significant ways for a variety of reasons. And you see the finished product, and it's a tremendous satisfaction that comes from looking at a completed project.

It’s no different than when I was growing up and working alongside my dad. He said one of the greatest benefits to this hard work is the satisfaction you get from a job well done. It's still true today. I think that’s the advantage of winding down now, is you start to reflect on those opportunities. Now there’s an opportunity to take a breath.

© Becca Dilley

GC: What will you miss most?

DB: I’m not planning to miss too much because I really do intend to stay connected, both with the people and the plants, so I don’t think I’m going to suffer from too much withdrawal. The good news is it will be a different relationship but hopefully one of more support and encouragement than anything else. But I do look forward to staying connected and visiting the stores and our production operations but visiting for different reasons.

GC: Reflecting back on your time at Bachman’s, what are you most proud of?

DB: It isn’t something that would be reflective on my work but the fact that we are in our 133rd year, I think we can all be thankful for that. That our guests, our customers, our team, the family has allowed us to be here for 133 years. You look at what Bachman’s has survived over the years, whether it was WWI or the depression or WWII and all the conflicts in between.

During the Great Recession, Stan Bachman (a third-generation family member) was still alive in those years. To talk to Stan about the issues around the Great Recession when we were living through it, and to hear people like a Stan Bachman, or even Gordie Bailey (of Bailey Nurseries, also third-generation family member, based in St. Paul, Minn.,) say this period of the Great Recession was probably in their estimation different than any other economic downturn than we have experienced in terms of its severity and duration, was helpful. The recognition that this Great Recession that we went through, both the magnitude of the downturn and the duration and the complexity of managing through something like that today, was significant. There are so many more moving parts today than there were, as Stan recalled, for what it took for his father’s generation to live through the Great Depression. Bachman’s was much smaller at the time. We were able to take care of the company and the family in the depression years. 

GC: How did you get through it?

DB: It took a tremendous amount, including sacrifice from the team. Those were difficult, difficult times, but with the whole team involved in the process, we made it through and began to grow again. We're really tremendously thankful that we came out on the other side. Business is fragile, especially for our segments — landscape, garden center, production — nothing is a given these days. There are probably easier ways to make a living than in our industry, but we go into it for lots of good reasons. And it’s still one of the finest occupations and industries that you’re going to find in the country.

GC: November is our annual State of the Industry issue. What must garden centers do to remain relevant and successful?

DB: The aspect of garden centers being community centers is what is exciting about retail today. During a session at Cultivate’18 about garden centers being community centers, Lindsay Squires Chrisp of Tagawa Gardens in Colorado shared ideas and experiences, similar to what we see in our marketplace. Event marketing is a big part of what we do at Bachman’s and a critical part of the shopping experience today. The Ideas House was spearheaded by Paul Bachman (who retired as president in 2016) and the marketing, visual merchandising and buying teams in 2010 as part of Bachman’s 125thyear celebration. The Ideas House product mix and merchandising changes with the season, with a spring, fall and holiday house on the property of the Lyndale store, and it has become a tradition for our guests.

We started customer appreciation events at all of our stores this fall, with each having its own mix of events. At our Lyndale store, we offered yoga in the garden, food trucks, and green plant seminars led by the Minnesota State Horticulture Society. I did yoga for the first time, and it was really fun. The next time, I’ll try to breathe; I was so focused on getting the positions right, but it really was a great experience. We’ve got our fall inspiration night and our holiday inspiration night coming up. We’ve started a tradition of indoor farmers markets in the wintertime, and now that’s been expanded to five stores.

GC: You also have organized flower shows for a number of years.

DB: We had such a long tradition with our flower shows in downtown Minneapolis. With the closing of the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s in 2017, we didn’t think there was a future for the flower show. We thought that was the finish line. Then, we received this marvelous invitation to do a flower show at The Galleria this past spring. It was called the Floral Experience: Spring is in the Air. The galleria realizes that shopping has to be more than just shopping. It’s the Galleria shopping experience and other special events they offer that make the difference.  

They just asked us to do three more years, from 2019-2021. They ended up with daily guest counts nearing the number of guests they get at the Galleria during the holiday season, so that made a big difference for the stores and the restaurants. It is all about the experience. The flower show continues to live as a gift to the community, and we’re very fortunate to be a part of bringing it to life.

C: What is one of your fondest memories of working in the business?

DB: It’s all the people who have been part of the Bachman’s story. It’s not just our team, but the guests we’ve been able to work with over the years. We’ve always tried to make it easy for our guests to provide feedback. You just hate to fail, and if we had failed, we wanted to know about it. I would save customer complaints and try to learn from them and not repeat them. I was kind of feeling like we couldn’t do anything right, because you tend to take these problems to heart. So, I started to save the thank yous and drop those in a file. Over the years I ended up with boxes of compliments, and [we compiled them into books.] To reflect back and look at some of the good that we’ve done through those years, I think it means a lot. I will miss the people that have been part of Bachman’s story that I’ve gotten to know through the years.

GC: What do you wish you would have done differently?

DB: When I talk about staying connected, I think my cousin Todd had an ability to focus on the operations and learn about our team members at the same time. Just one example, I saw one of our floral merchandisers leaving at the end of the day during the lead-up to Mother’s Day. I wished her a good evening as she was heading to her car, and she perked up and said she was going home to see her son, a service member who had come home and surprised her that morning. In talking with her, it wasn’t just that one adult child that she had in the service. She has three active duty service members, a daughter and two sons, and I didn’t know that. I think Todd would have known that, and that’s what I’d like to do, is to spend some more time listening to their stories.

GC: What advice would you share with Susan Bachman West, your cousin, who has been president of Bachman’s since 2016?

DB: Learn from role models and seek advice and counsel from mentors. She has tremendous role models in her father and her mother. That’s going to serve her well, and I know that she has the support of the family, no question about that. I’ll just try to support Susie and the 5th generation family members, Karen Bachman Thull, director of marketing and communications, and Adam Bachman, fleet logistics and operations manager, and the company, as best I can.

Editor’s note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.