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Perfecting the garden puts Bronze Frog in growth mode

When Kathy Thomas got the phone call telling her the Bronze Frog Gallery had been nominated for a 2005 Apollo Award, her mind was on the customer standing in front of her, not on the caller telling her the good news. It took a minute for the conversation to register and even then Thomas was new enough to the casual industry that she didn't immediately understand the point of the call. She kept waiting for the sales pitch.


Kathy Thomas added outdoor furniture in 2003.

Kathy Thomas added outdoor furniture in 2003.

"It was a real surprise when I finally understood," she said with a laugh. "Then it was very special and much appreciated, especially because it was very unusual for a store like mine to be nominated."

Thomas opened the Bronze Frog Gallery outside of Toronto in 2003 to complement Green Thumb Landscaping, started in 1971 by her first husband. The store was intended to be "the icing on the cake," providing products that would be the final touches in a beautiful garden design. In particular, she was interested in statuary and sculpture.

"I loved how Europeans use statuary," Thomas said. "It might be very simple, a very large pot or water feature. My original intention for the gallery was to source more of that type of thing as a focal point that brought life to the garden beyond flowers, trees and shrubs."


In addition to sling and woven furniture, Thomas also carries teak from Rock Wood Casual Furniture, like the Mendocino Sofa, pictured here.

In addition to sling and woven furniture, Thomas also carries teak from Rock Wood Casual Furniture, like the Mendocino Sofa, pictured here.

Interested in sculpture and statuary, Thomas carries pieces that reflect European influences, such as large pots, left, and more modern pieces, all intended to bring life to the garden beyond flowers and foliage.

Interested in sculpture and statuary, Thomas carries pieces that reflect European influences, and more modern pieces, all intended to bring life to the garden beyond flowers and foliage.

Rather than transforming her store during the Christmas months, Thomas draws in crowds looking for gifts and artwork.

Rather than transforming her store during the Christmas months, Thomas draws in crowds looking for gifts and artwork.

Woven and teak collections from Gloster, above, along with additional teak collections, below, and outdoor accessories, account for the store

Woven and teak collections from Gloster, above, along with additional teak collections, below, and outdoor accessories, account for the store's highest growth potential.

She soon found out her initial vision was too narrow.

"I grew quickly from that launch for several reasons, one of them pure and simple: money," she said. "You're going to die on that kind of an idea. But the other reason was that as I started going to shows and seeing the outdoor furniture lines, I realized there was so much more that I could offer to my customers."

Today outdoor furniture and accessories account for 35% of her sales and represent her highest growth potential. Garden sculpture and water products are each 5%, and indoor art and accessories 35%.

Personal taste

The Bronze Frog is located in a 150-year-old renovated hotel in downtown Oakville, a historical town on Lake Ontario that happens to be one of the most affluent communities in the area. With its stone flooring and fountains, the space aptly fits the Thomas's European sensibilities when it comes to style. But at only 3,100 square feet, there isn't a lot of floorspace for displaying outdoor furniture.

As a result, Thomas is now looking for alternative or additional space.

"I'm hoping that within a year I'll have found another space," she said. "I might dedicate the new space entirely to outdoor furniture and accessories, and this keep this location for the art."

Thomas currently carries Rock Wood teak and Gloster teak, sling and woven furniture. She added Treasure Garden umbrellas this season, which are doing well, and is looking at two or three new lines for next year to offer more contemporary looks.

"I'm a romantic. I love the emotional connection of teak that goes from generation to generation ... but I do recognize that in particular younger clients really don't think as long-term as that," she said. "They are going more for a certain look than [wondering] will this last 100 years?"

Many of the Bronze Frog's customers are also customers of the landscaping business, now managed by Thomas's son-in-law Todd Rainey. Although most landscaping companies focus on design and construction, a high percentage of Green Thumb's revenue comes from weekly maintenance of the gardens found in the area's high-end homes. Thanks to long-term relationships with these cross-over customers, Thomas personally knows their gardens and preferences. She also does all of the site visits for new customers and generally makes three or four visits a week.

Thomas often finds herself buying with particular customers in mind, but even if a customer doesn't go with her recommendation (she can't remember a time when that happened), Thomas won't ever find herself regretting a buy because she won't buy anything she doesn't personally like. In fact, she'll refer a potential customer to another dealer instead of ordering something she doesn't like.

"I won't bring in something because a supplier I like recommends it," she said. "I want to personally know about it, to know if it is something that I would have in my own garden. That's what builds customer loyalty and why my customers trust me."

Although her established customer base is very affluent, Thomas has competed on price on occasion with new customers who don't understand the value of the service they receive from the Bronze Frog. Once they've experienced it, they come back for more.

"It is very hard to tell people you are going to give them good service. They think they understand what you mean, but they have to experience it," Thomas said. "We'll do anything for our customers."

Creating legacies

Thomas does considerable advertising to bring new customers into the Bronze Gallery. In addition to print ads, she is on a local jazz radio station four times a day, prompting many who've heard her to come into the store feeling as if they already know her.

May and June are the peak sales months, but Christmas is a close second. Rather than the traditional Christmas tree and ornament business, the Bronze Frog draws in holiday crowds looking for gifts, artwork and high-end amaryllis bulbs.

Four employees work at the Bronze Frog, while the Green Thumb has a crew of 21. Management of the two businesses overlaps somewhat, with Melanie Newport handling customer service and business development for both. Annette Venable is assistant manager of the Bronze Frog.

"I've been very lucky with employees," Thomas said. When two of the original store employees quit last year, one due to health issues and the other due to a move, Thomas was able to find new employees by word-of-mouth.

For her part, Thomas now serves more as "cheerleader" for the Green Thumb, devoting most of her time and energy to the Bronze Frog. As most specialty dealers can agree, being owner/operator isn't easy. Her biggest challenge these days is having enough time in the day.

"I rarely work less than 60 hours a week," she said. "I've always said that sales are 10 percent of the work and researching product, getting it and promoting it 90 percent. And when you are in a growth mode, you don't have the resources to hire all of the people you need to do the work."

Not that she's complaining. Thomas gets up every day wondering what fabulous things await.

Her optimism may be genetic but it is reinforced day in and day out by her passion for helping people create garden sanctuaries where they and their friends feel their best.

"I opened the gallery to expand my customers' selection of products for their gardens so that they would develop emotional attachments and there would be legacies built in their gardens," Thomas said. "It's quite an emotional thing for me."

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