Relationships and Trust help Hort Americas mark 10 years in controlled environment agriculture

Hort Americas celebrates 10 years of providing controlled environment growers with timely technical information and innovative products to solve their problems.

Horticultural distributor Hort Americas is celebrating its 10th anniversary of working with controlled environment growers. General manager Chris Higgins said it has been 10 years of forming trusting relationships with the growers and vendor suppliers that Hort Americas works with.

“Hort Americas doesn’t make a single product,” Higgins said. “What Hort Americas does do is we use our technical expertise to assist in the development of new products used to solve growers’ problems. This process takes a lot of trust. Our customers have to trust us about sharing their information. Some of that information could be proprietary. It could be information about their business that they need to be comfortable sharing. It could be information that allows us to look into the future and identify problems growers see coming up. By partnering with our grower customers and vendor suppliers, Hort Americas has been able to develop the technology, products and services that help controlled environment growers.”

At the same time that growers have to be able to trust Hort Americas, Higgins said a similar relationship has to exist between Hort Americas and its suppliers.

“Whether it’s working with our suppliers to develop new substrates or lighting fixtures, Hort Americas often has to share sensitive information. We need to have trust that sensitive information is going to turn into products that are going to be equitable in terms of helping everyone along the supply channel grow their businesses profitably.

“There is a lot of trust involved and that trust can’t be built off of non-disclosure agreements. That trust needs to be built off of years of experiences, cooperation and deliverables. If someone can’t deliver what they say they are going to deliver when they say they are going to deliver it, then trust is going to be lost. And the desire to want to cooperate is going to be lost too.”

Forming trusting business relationships

Higgins said forming a trusting business relationship should not have anything to do with the size of the company whether it’s a grower or supplier.
“Many businesses find themselves on a one-way street,” he said. “Many business people today only care about the value they create for their own business. And while it has probably always been this way, it feels this is more the case today than ever before.

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” – Author unknown

“This can happen with suppliers that haven’t set up a true supply channel management strategy. Distribution partnerships may seem needed, but are truly not necessary. Therefore some suppliers don’t really care about the health or well-being of their partners or partnerships. They just want to get as much of their product out the door as possible. Fortunately for Hort Americas we have been able to find those suppliers that are exceptions to the rule. Hort Americas must then remember that it is on a two-way street. We must create a situation that is not only good for our grower customers, but are vendor partners as well.”

Chris Higgins, general manager at Hort Americas, with Daniel Lee, sales development manager at Current, powered by GE.

Partnerships in the Information Age

Higgins said today’s Information Age also creates challenges for companies trying to form strong partnerships.

“In this Information Age companies don’t necessarily see the value of networking,” he said. “They don’t see the value of how long it takes to build trust along the supply channel.

“Hort Americas goes out on a limb every time it takes on a new business relationship whether it’s with a grower or supplier. Every time we begin to build a new partnership we have to expect we may never receive the invested money or time back. There’s two to three years of never knowing whether all of the resources we have invested are going to take on any sort of return.”

Higgins said there is an inherent amount of risk that one takes when forming business relationships.

“Sometimes companies build these relationships and they go very well for five to six years,” he said. “Then one person at the top changes the management strategy of an entire company and everything implodes. This could be a change in personnel. This could be a stress fracture created by the need to find increased profitability. There could be a change in market dynamics such as competition, demand or price. Based on this list of changing conditions, companies need to be able to find the ability to trust each other.

“Partnerships are based on trust and that takes time. Hort Americas and GE have been working together for 5 years and we could not be happier with what we have been able to accomplish together.” —Dan Lee, Current, powered by GE

“Just like in a marriage, if something drastic happens, the marriage can end in divorce. Being able to maintain that relationship has to do with the ability to change and adapt. The way you treat somebody, the professionalism and the ability to be empathetic to the position that a customer might be in, those are going to speak volumes in terms of one’s ability to create strong business relationships.”

From bicycles to horticulture

William Fry, who is Hort Americas longest serving employee, started as the customer service manager in 2012.

“I came from the world of bicycles, Fry said. “Bicycles were a passion of mine, including riding bikes all the time. That led me to the business side of bicycles. I owned a bicycle shop and worked with a bicycle parts distribution company. That experience translated well into horticultural distribution when I came to Hort Americas. It doesn’t really matter what the commodity is that you are trying to get from one side of the world to the other, it’s very similar.

“Coming to Hort Americas I had no knowledge of greenhouse technology–what went where, what was needed for each crop, etc. But since I had learned about thousands of bicycle parts, I figured I could learn anything I needed to know about what goes inside a greenhouse.”

Fry, who is now Hort Americas operations manager, said the reasons he has stayed with the company is it’s a fun place to work and he really enjoys working in the horticulture industry.

“Hort Americas and the industry constantly challenge me, both by the technology that is coming out and how they are ever evolving,” he said. “I have to constantly educate myself from a product standpoint.

“From a logistics standpoint, our products are shipped from all over the world. The challenge is to bring them in in a logical way. I’m constantly trying to beat myself as to how I can do things more efficiently and bring costs down for us and for our customers.”

Trying to grow its customers’ business

Fry said one of the major reasons that growers enjoy working with Hort Americas is the company is constantly trying to bring new technology to market.

“We’re trying to bring proven technology to market,” he said. “We aren’t just going to have an idea that a product might work and then offer it to growers. We are going to test it in a research greenhouse first. We are going to send it to growers who we have great relationships with for them to trial. And we are going to work with universities to prove that these products will serve a purpose in this market and work before we bring them to market. That has been fun and interesting.”

Hort Americas general manager Chris Higgins (center) with the Hort Americas team look to provide their grower customers with the expertise they have acquired on controlled environment production.

Another benefit that Hort Americas offers its grower customers is its efforts to be very economical.

“We try to buy at the best price, sell at the best price and ship at the best price,” Fry said. “We are constantly working to provide excellent customer service and to save people money. We are trying to help our customers grow their business so that our business can grow. We try to be a cheerleader for our customers. I have always tried to value every single sale that we have made and try to make our customers that much better so that as they grow we grow.

“Developing our own network of logistics partners has given Hort Americas the ability to cherry-pick the best combination of price vs. speed depending on the situation. With this network we feel confident that we can respond to whatever needs our customers have, whether it is saving money on shipping or delivering an emergency order to them ASAP. We can lean not only on our logistics network, but also on our network of vendors who have much larger buying power.

Looking for supportive suppliers

Fry said good vendor/suppliers provide a consistent, high quality product in a timely manner with logistical excellence.

“Good vendors back us with sales and marketing materials and trial materials for our customers who want to try a product to prove it will work for them,” he said. “They also have a good customer service team on their end as well.

“I’m looking for vendors who treat us as a customer and as a partner, not as a middleman. The same thing that I expect Hort Americas to deliver to our customers, I expect from our vendors. Offer good products, deliver them to us in the best manner possible and help us market and promote them. Be there as a partner and work with us as a team to accomplish a goal. The training that has been by provided by GE lighting engineers along with the hands-on installation of new GE fixtures and factory tours with Grodan representatives to understand the rockwool production process have been invaluable.”

Kyle Barnett (left), regional sales manager at Hort Americas, talks with Bruno D’Amico, design and product manager at GE, about the lighting company’s newest LED fixtures.

Fry said Hort Americas tries to pull from its staff’s experiences when developing new products and working with its vendors to develop these products.
“Sometimes we find a product and it really works well,” he said. “Sometimes we decide the market just isn’t big enough for a product. Or a product may not work in trials as well as we thought it would and we scrub it before ever bringing it to market. We are always looking for those products that make us special to our grower customers. We have also been much more responsive in how we bring on new products in order to lower costs for our customers and for Hort Americas.

“The other half of this product development is training our staff to work with the products. Our staff has a lot of hands-on experience with the products. Depending on the supplier, they may not have the employees who understand the niche industry that we’re in. That is where Hort Americas comes in with staff members who are experts in controlled environment agriculture.”

This article is property of Hort Americas and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, TX.