Community grows around Valley View Farms
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 6/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Valley view farms, one of the mid-Atlantic region's largest garden centers, may have started as a humble roadside produce stand 50 years ago, but the business has always been more than it seems.
Its founders, brothers Billy and the late Punkey Foard, were no ordinary farmers. They were skilled horticulturalists and businessmen. Punkey graduated from Rutgers and Billy earned his degree from Cornell. They opened their stand on Friday, April 13th, 1962. The move was anything but unlucky.
The stand would not only be another outlet for the brothers' already successful wholesale produce business. It would also help them connect with end consumers. Word spread quickly that it was the place to go for the best tomatoes in greater Baltimore. Valley View Farms' already sterling reputation grew like a hearty shrub.
Today, Valley View Farms is run by Billy Foard and his son, Andy, who has worked there since he was 14. The whole operation sits on a 10-acre plot of land, with a 10,000-sq.-ft. retail store and a 10,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse. In addition to furniture and gardening, the store has a water garden department and, in the fall, transforms into a Christmas shop with more than 100 themed Christmas trees and huge outdoor light displays.
The community has grown with the business. The pumpkin patches and corn fields that once dominated the area are now malls and high-end housing developments. Like almost every other current department manager at the store, John Hessler, who heads the 2,500-sq.-ft. patio shop, started working at Valley View Farms when the fields were still there.
"In northern Baltimore County, Valley View Farms was one of the few places to get a part-time job when you were in high school," he said.
Getting hired was no easy feat.
"Punkey brought us in and said, ‘There are 20 of you, and I need five," recalled Hessler. "Then we literally took classes in a trailer. I had a binder where I got a working knowledge of plants."
Those who made it had to be willing to get their hands dirty, literally, and be able to faithfully serve Valley View Farms customers. Hessler could do both and was hired in 1975.
"I would come in at five in th e morning to unload plant trucks, go to school, and come back to work at night," said Hessler. "You worked hard. You learned a good work ethic."
Hessler gradually moved up the ladder. His first job was in the plant department, working in the fields planting tomato plants and unloading trucks. He moved to the garden shop in the early '80s, right around the time that department manager was considering patio furniture. He took Hessler along on the first buying trip to Chicago.
"It wasn't really intimidating like it'd be if I went today," said Hessler of the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market. "You could see everything you could see in a day or two."
The store cleared two spots on its floor for several Telescope Casual pieces, and the business grew from there.
Today, the furniture department squeezes 25 sets into its 2,500-sq.-ft. space.
"Every spring, each department manager fights for more square footage," said Hessler. "But we know garden drives the business and we're not getting more space."
So Hessler and his staff make the most of it, displaying a mix of different styles and frame constructions in their tight space while constantly tweaking the merchandising scheme to reflect what consumers are buying.
"It used to be primarily five-and seven-piece dining sets," said Hessler, "and now we're doing more seating."
He adds that more customers are also asking for American-made product.
"Everyone wants to buy U.S.-made products, or at least they all say they want to," he said. "I'd tell any manufacturer, ‘If you don't put a big flag tag on all your furniture, you're missing a great marketing opportunity.' We certainly push it."
Although the area around Valley View Farms has grown more affluent over the year s, Hessler said he tries to have moderately priced sets in addition to the high-end. He has also added more accessories to the mix, displaying themed tabletop, decorative pieces and other items along the back wall in his department.
"We try to get that consumer to at least walk through our department and buy something," he said. "Because of where we are, we have a crab theme and a beach theme for items like outdoor acrylic tabletop and sculptures. We also have wine totes, wine signs and other wine-related items."
Valley View's furniture business relies almost solely on word-of-mouth to draw new customers. Hessler said garden customers still walk into his department surprised to see furniture there. They often become furniture customers, too.
Before the recession hit, Hessler said his department generated about $1 million in sales annually.
"The last couple of years have been a little softer," he said. "But this year we've gotten off to a good start. We got lucky with the weather in March and April."
Other factors influence Valley View Farm's furniture sales. Hessler says he not only competes against big box stores. Four other high-end specialty stores are within five miles. None of them, however, have been around for as long.
"People will come in and tell me, ‘My mom bought furniture from you 20 years ago, and she told me to come in and buy from you,'" said Hessler. "We've always had great name recognition for garden. I think we've gradually built up our name in furniture, too."
The key to maintaining and growing the positive word-of mouth, he said, is keeping his sales team sharp.
"I tell everyone on the floor that they're selling three things," said Hessler, echoing Punkey Foard's teachings decades ago. "They're selling the product, they're selling Valley View Farms and they're selling themselves. You want customers to feel like they can trust you and believe what you're telling them."
Some employees get it, others don't.
"I realize not everyone is a salesperson," he said. "That's why I'm always looking for personality. I ask people I interview whether they mind wa lking up to a total stranger and starting conversation. If they they don't mind it, they can do well here."
Finding those personalities isn't easy. Hessler can't offer his people commission because no other department does. And because of the seasonal nature of the business, Hessler is always losing good people to year-round jobs.
"Last year, we had someone who wasn't a great salesperson but was wonderful at merchandising," said Hessler. "We couldn't keep her because I had no place to put her after the spring."
That leaves Hessler constantly training new people. The customers, he said, help.
"I can't teach personality," he said. "But if you can walk up to a customer and start a conversation, I can teach you everything in the swatch books and catalogs. In the end, they'll learn more by talking to customers than they will from a catalog."
The trick, he says, is getting customers to talk. When customers say they're just looking, Hessler tells his sales force to mention that if they can't find what they're looking for, they can special order exactly what they want.
"Customers will start asking you 100 questions at that point, because they've been somewhere and no one helped them and offered to special order something for them," he said.
All these lessons tie back to what Punkey Foard taught Hessler in those classes decades ago. There has always been more to the business than the inventory, whether tasty tomatoes, healthy plants or great patio furniture. The product may change, but the high service standards will not.
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