Unexpected succession

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At 26 and 27 years old, Connor and Courtnie Lichtenfelt are following in the footsteps of Connor’s parents, David and Deborah Lichtenfelt, and continuing the success of the business.

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July 15, 2021

Deborah, left, David, Connor and Courtnie Lichtenfelt
PHOTO BY JACK ROBERT PHOTOGRAPHY

When Connor Lichtenfelt was 14, the last thing he wanted to do was go into the family business. In 1987, his parents, David and Deborah, founded Lichtenfelt Nurseries in Greenville, South Carolina, and like most small business owners, the couple wasn’t sure if their two young sons would take over when they retired.

“I was still a kid. When you’re a kid, you don’t even really think all that much about the long-term. All I knew was that my parents worked like crazy, and I didn’t necessarily want to do that,” Connor says.

Now, nearly 12 years later, Connor and his wife, Courtnie, find themselves at the helm of the garden center — and rather enjoying it — surprising both his teenage self and his parents.

Leap of faith

David, a tax attorney, and Deborah, a marketing representative at a state agency, left their jobs to pursue their dream of opening a nursery. After 20 years of working long hours nearly six or seven days a week, they were exhausted. They were more than ready to sell the business and spend more time together as a family, David says.

“We were fortunate to find a buyer in 2008. Connor was only 14 and his brother Griffin was 12. Over the years, when the boys were asked if they wanted to run the nursery one day, their response was always, ‘No way.’ When we sold it, we never thought we were depriving them of an opportunity, and they were too young to care,” David says.

However, the previous buyers unexpectedly had to return the garden center in the spring of 2017. Connor was working in real estate at the time, and Courtnie was working toward her degree in physical therapy. They had just tied the knot that April.

David and Deborah needed all hands on deck to help them resell it to a new buyer. Their youngest son, Griffin, was away in Charlotte pursuing his Master’s in architecture, but Connor’s schedule was flexible so he pitched in when he could. Courtnie also managed to help out while juggling multiple commitments, which included finishing a degree in physical therapy.

For six weeks, they temporarily closed the nursery for renovations. Deborah says they implemented old procedures, cleaned signage and ordered and organized brand new inventory for the upcoming fall season. They also contacted former employees and hired them back. One employee, Jana Fredricks, who had been hired by the Lichtenfelts in 2001, resigned from her job and committed to helping them refurbish the nursery. An asset to the business, the family says her eye for display and her knowledge have tremendously helped the garden center.

During this time, Connor decided to install a new POS system, a momentous task considering pricing information was contained in a book of laminated pages.

“One benefit of my generational group is that we grew up using phones and technology, so it’s just easier for us. It’s a little bit faster. I was fairly savvy, so I was able to set that up rather than having to pay a third-party company to come in,” Connor says.

And so, by October of 2017, they announced that the nursery was back under former management. The community began welcoming them back through word of mouth. Business was steady and growing every month, and Connor found himself stepping up to more challenges. However, during that initial fall season, he realized the POS system he used wasn’t robust enough for their needs, so the following winter, he started over from scratch and found a new POS system better suited for garden centers.

In 2018, Courtnie graduated and split her time working as a physical therapist and at the nursery.

“I got tossed out onto the yard and was told to sell plants,” Courtnie laughs. “It was interesting working alongside my brand-new in-laws, and I learned everything from them. I would not have any of my current knowledge if they hadn’t been there to teach me.”

Connor says working alongside his parents was a “tough love” situation, but notes that their constructive criticism was necessary for growth.

“Sometimes I’d be giving advice on the phone, and I’d end up giving incorrect advice because I just didn’t know, or didn’t have the experience,” he says. “One of my folks would be very quick to say, ‘Well, actually you should have said this.’ And you know, in the moment it sucked, but in hindsight, it was a good lesson.”

After learning about inventory, plant materials and other operational tasks, David showed Connor the ordering process. By 2019, Connor felt confident enough to take over the role of ordering materials like trees and shrubbery.

A big decision

The Lichtenfelts had successfully resurrected the name and accomplished what they had set out to do, but a decision loomed over their heads: keep it or sell it.

“Plan A was to restore the nursery and to sell again. I don’t think anyone expected the purchaser to be our son and daughter-in-law. Once you become bitten by the plant bug, it’s hard to recover,” Deborah says.

She says no one was more surprised than Connor and Courtnie when they realized this could be a viable career path for them. In the fall of 2019, the four of them discussed the possibility of the two millennials taking over.

“I just didn’t want my parents to have to go back into it. I was at a crossroads where it didn’t hurt anything for me to try to do this and it was something fun to try,” Connor says. “I had been used to working in a real sedentary job and this was an opportunity for me to get out and have a really active job while helping my folks out at the same time.”

Sink or swim

Connor and Courtnie signed the paperwork with his parents on Jan. 1, 2020, and took over the business in equal ownership. All was going to plan until the news about COVID-19 dominated the headlines. By St. Patrick’s Day, they worried they’d be shut down. They had learned a lot under his parent’s tutelage in their three years of helping to run the nursery, but nothing prepared them for the pandemic. During this time, Deborah and David were caring for their recently widowed mothers, and Connor and Courtnie were in charge out of necessity.

They were about to head into their busiest season — which provided nearly 60-70% of the revenue for the year — with a six-figure amount of plant material they might not be able to sell. One night before bed, as Connor skimmed the latest COVID-19 updates, he realized it was “sink or swim.”

“I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and I thought, ‘This is real.’ That was the moment for me. But at the same time, there was also a moment of, ‘Well, if it’s going to be bad, it’s going to be bad in the midst of us working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives,’” Connor says. “I refused to be the reason that the business was not successful. I thought, ‘I will work harder; I will work longer. I will do whatever I need to do to make sure that we give it every potential for success.’”

Thankfully, their worst fears didn’t come to pass, and they were allowed to stay open. Since the entire nursery was located outdoors and spread over 10 acres, it was easy to follow pandemic protocols and safety guidelines. Sales skyrocketed as more people turned to gardening in the wake of the pandemic.

In with the new

Connor notes that perfecting their POS system was a main line of focus, and tweaked it little by little.

“We didn’t run inventory counts in the system that first year, so we integrated that into it. And then the final component was an integrated e-commerce solution,” he says. Compared to his parents, he says he’s a bit more of a risk-taker and has started to increase their variety of plants.

They’ve also started the process of updating their signage with a new logo, so the branding is more cohesive. As people become more and more brand-conscious, he says they wanted to create aesthetically pleasing logos and shirts. Even the name is getting a reboot: Instead of calling it “Lichtenfelt Nurseries,” they’ve started referring to it as “Lichtenfelt’s” so they can open the business up to more digital business opportunities.

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Tapping into the values of their generation is one of their guiding principles, and they’re hoping to become a destination that offers its community a meaningful experience.

“We have a big space — 10 acres — so we’ve got plenty of room for allied trades to come alongside us as a community hub. We would love to see something like a farmers market. As a small business, you want to fight big retail, and we’d like to be a catalyst to promote that,” Connor says.

David and Deborah say they only give the new owners advice when they ask for it and praise their efforts of using social media as a marketing tool to generate sales and save advertising dollars. Noting Connor and Courtnie’s hard work, they are impressed by their dedication to the business.

 

“They’ve consulted with business coaches and sought advice about goal setting and everything, and it probably took us about 10 years before we ever did that!” Deborah says.

And while they might be millennials, Connor is quick to brush off any preconceived notions about his generation lacking motivation: “We bust our butts every single day.”

At the end of the day, he says the most rewarding aspect of the business is the customer interaction.

“It’s always a little boost to get on your phone and see that you’ve gotten a new five-star review,” he says.