Pro football champion Lou Holtz once said, “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
For northwest Kentucky-based Rolling Hills Nursery owner, Rob Stanfa and his team of 10 employees, that’s the right strategic mix for growing a destination garden center and landscape business in a market where the population is about 19,000 and the annual median household income is roughly $28,000. Competition comes from big-box stores, smaller area garden centers, hard-goods suppliers and a humid subtropical climate consisting of four distinct seasons with a very short spring selling window of April and May.
Stanfa’s playbook is on target. Celebrating 30 years in business and located up the road from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, Rolling Hills Nursery has grown from a “postage stamp-sized garden center and landscaping hub” once located behind a church in the center of town, to a nearly 9-acre garden center seamlessly specializing in nursery and supplies, landscape design and installation, and gifts and decor for the home and garden.
“Being an athlete, you focus on becoming that athlete in that one sport,” Stanfa says. “You do the best you can do and you get better at it with focus. When you want to be good at something, focus on being that.”
After 30 years of coaching a business and team-building a staff, Stanfa hesitates to describe his management style.
“I think my employees would probably say I’m the quarterback. I’m a Type A personality,” he says. “I work hard. I believe that success comes from persistence, from being available and able to endure — from creating a place that is respectable.”
Football isn’t just an analogy for Stanfa. An opportunity to play with Murray State University’s football team led Stanfa from his family’s home in Carlyle, Illinois, where he worked part-time at a small nursery, to Murray’s campus in 1973. From the start, “I liked the topography in Murray,” he says. “I fell in love with the area. Then I got to know the people and I felt like this was the place I wanted to be.”
While a student earning his bachelor’s degree in horticulture, Stanfa worked for that “postage stamp-sized garden center and landscaping hub,” then called Jones’s Landscaping. He left Kentucky for South Carolina in the late 1970s to be a county agent with Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. He also received his master’s degree in plant and soil science from Clemson University, but the call of Murray was strong, and his wife received a job offer back in the area.
Returning to Kentucky, the couple bought a farm in Puryear, Tennessee, in the mid-1980s, about 18 miles south of Murray. There, Stanfa began a production facility, nurturing field-and container-grown trees and shrubs for retail. In 1989, he ceased that work and took over the lease for Jones’s Landscaping, changed the name to Rolling Hills Nursery (a nod to the rolling topography of his farm). He hired an industry development consultant and began plans and designs to move and expand the facility to its current location along a well-trafficked area north of town.
“The nursery and garden center are set at a lower grade from the roadway so when you drive by, you can look out almost across the entire facility,” he says.
Today, Rolling Hills Nursery draws its clientele primarily from Murray, but it also is a destination for visitors from other areas of Kentucky, as well as adjacent states. With a cohesive team, an enviable marketing strategy and a Facebook following of 46,000 and growing, shoppers travel to Rolling Hills Nursery from as far as 60 miles south into Tennessee. Inquiries come to the garden center through Facebook from Kansas, Virginia and North Carolina, among others.
“One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to make this a destination place,” Stanfa says. “I’ve been to a lot of other garden centers and it’s all about experience. Get rid of the dead plants, keep the weeds down, make everything organized, label things. We’ve tried to do all that and more, while offering shoppers a reason to be here and come back.”
Rolling Hills Nursery presents a spring open house each April and an Oktoberfest sales event in the fall, as well as random sales known as Hot-Spots that offer half-price plants while supplies last. Facebook-only (there are currently no plans for a presence on Instagram or an e-commerce program) marketing concepts include Happy Hour Fridays and weekly giveaways. Both incentives have proven highly successful for Rolling Hills Nursery and, ironically, in a town that once prohibited alcohol sales when “Happy Hour Fridays” began a decade ago.
“Back then we were the only happy hour in town,” says Randy Sanderson, garden center manager, who grew up on an area farm and has his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Murray State University. “We host it on late Friday afternoons in April and May and offer in-store discounts. ‘Happy Hour Fridays’ has been popular for years and we continue to do it. Almost every week we offer something as part of our free Facebook giveaway. Our followers share the offer to their friends and our following just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
Stanfa says the business’ Facebook, which Sanderson manages, is its primary marketing outlet, followed by occasional local television advertising, print ads in high-end area magazines and on-air public radio sponsorship. Sanderson limits annual buying trips to the September BWI Expo and pays special attention to items that cannot be found elsewhere in town.
“We’re fairly different,” he says. “We emphasize a mix of accents for the garden and garden-related items for the home. Of course, we follow trends like farmhouse decor, which is hot now. We also have a good mix of concrete fountains — things people cannot find at the big-box stores. Customers use our lanterns both indoors and outside the home and for the last couple years, lanterns have been very popular for us. This mix helps draw people in and that’s how we can overlap with landscape. Customers come in, talk about their needs and then we put them in touch with our designers to work with them. We also offer inspirational sheets with pre-designed gardens they can do themselves.”
Sanderson has been with the company since it was Jones’s Landscaping and was hired on at Rolling Hills Nursery initially as landscape manager. Customers know of Sanderson’s design work, and now with another designer on staff, homeowners continue to seek out custom drawings, and the process for upselling landscaping unfolds organically.
“My perception is that people almost expect it,” he says. “They are of the mind, for example, that, ‘If I buy this tree, do you have someone to come plant it?’ So that’s how it’s evolved and of course now we have a 30-year reputation.”
In addition to offering plant diagnostics, the on-site nursery specializes in trees and shrubs, and offers a healthy assortment of in-season annuals, herbs, edibles and perennials. On-site greenhouses are used primarily as holding areas for plants sourced locally and from Midwest-area growers.
With a layout inspired by Berns Garden Center in Monroe, Ohio, which Stanfa visited and toured while considering his business’ move and expansion, Rolling Hills Nursery provides a covered concrete walkway throughout the facility.
Trees and shrubs are displayed along a square and in a central courtyard with an area for rows of trees on drip lines that are easily viewable. Signage points to plant highlights around the walkway, which is dotted with sculpture accents and includes an outdoor display kitchen. In addition to providing comfort for shoppers when it’s raining, the walkways provide necessary shade during mid- to late-summer months when temps typically soar to an average high of 90° F. Given the short selling season for retail plants, Stanfa says the covered design is key for maximizing the shopping experience and sales.
“Without a doubt, plants are the highest profit margin in my business,” he says. “We sell bricks and blocks as well, but that profit center is much lower. Retail is definitely a profit center, too, and Randy, who does all the buying, merchandising and selling, has a keen touch on what retail mark-up is in the garden center and how to move product through the business.”
Seasonally available shrubs are Rolling Hills Nursery top-sellers and include hydrangea, as well as upright and spreading boxwood, holly and flowering shrubs like laurel and Abelia, a Stanfa favorite.
“We’ve got our capacity pretty much where we need it to be, so we have no further plans to expand,” he says. “We have storage space for trees and shrubs in the back, where we can keep them irrigated and spaced in a holding area. We have a destination place that is, I hope, impressive as people drive by.”
Giving back to the community he loves is important to Stanfa, and to his team. “Everybody here knows us, and I think it’s important that we know them, too,” he says. “They have supported us, so we’ve got to support them. That’s it. That’s the bottom line.”