On the wall in Bill Coyle’s closet-size office at Plantland Nursery there used to hang a sign that read, “If you’re always the one running around putting out fires, you might be the one carrying matches.”
“I’m the guy who breaks things and then fixes them,” said Coyle, explaining why his wife, Jan Love, affectionately refers to him as the “creator of chaos.”
Fourteen years ago, Coyle and Love purchased Plantland at 15614 E. Sprague Ave. In 2011, they added a second business – Spice Traders Mercantile – to generate revenue during the quiet months when plants and gardeners are dormant.
Both businesses tend to attract the same clientele, said Coyle – “primarily women 30 to 70 with Visa cards” – although the mercantile’s spices, wines and craft beers draw more men than were anticipated.
But spring’s arrival has Coyle refocused on the nursery and his latest project: a solar-powered sales kiosk with a green, living roof outside and hydroponic and aeroponic vegetable towers inside.
During a recent interview, Coyle discussed Plantland’s evolution, the challenges small, independent nurseries face, and what happened to that office sign about extinguishing fires.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Coyle: In Northern California – Redding. I went to junior college there and got a degree in electronics, then enlisted in the military when I was given a low draft lottery number. After Vietnam, I bummed around the country trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I wound up in Eugene, Ore., where I met my wife and lifelong partner. Later I got into the irrigation business in Portland, and moved my family here, kicking and screaming, in 1997 when Toro eliminated a bunch of sales divisions.
S-R: Why Spokane?
Coyle: I was ready for a smaller community.
S-R: Then what?
Coyle: I worked for a local irrigation company – one of my former customers when I was a regional sales manager. In 2000, I essentially bought a job – this business.
S-R: What’s it take for a small nursery to succeed?
Coyle: Tenacity, and the ability to provide your own credit line. Banks used to beg us (to borrow money), and now they don’t want any part of us.
S-R: What has surprised you most about the business?
Coyle: How labor-intensive it is. Customers are always saying, “Oh, I’d love to work in a garden center.” And our response is, “Do you love to sweat and go home tired and dirty?” We’re constantly moving plant material. At 65, it gets a little harder every year.
S-R: Overall, how’s the industry doing?
Coyle: Independent nurseries are in pretty dire straits. This industry is driven by housing, and when fewer new houses are built, fewer people need trees and shrubs. We’ve gone from an eight-month season to four – spring – when everyone wants vegetable starts, bulbs, annuals and flower baskets.
S-R: What was your best year?
S-R: Then what happened?
Coyle: 2008 happened. I was driving home from Deer Park with a huge load of trees when the market dropped 1,000 points, and I realized I was screaming at the radio. I had to stop the truck and go for a walk. Our retirement pretty much went down the tube, which is why we’re still working.
S-R: How has the competition changed?
Coyle: During the first few years, we weren’t as pressured by big box stores. Now we’re surrounded by Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, Shopko, Target, and every supermarket puts out a plant display each spring.
S-R: What’s been the fallout?
Coyle: Last year we lost four independent nurseries in Spokane, either due to the death of the owner or someone getting an offer for their land that was too good to pass up, because often the value of the land is greater than the value of the nursery.
S-R: What has helped you survive?
Coyle: Jan and I treat our employees like customers. There’s nothing like the power of “please” and “thank you.” And we know a large number of our customers on a first-name basis. Many have become personal friends.
S-R: How are your plants different from what people get at big box stores?
Coyle: There are a lot of high-quality plants out there. The difference is the size of the pots and baskets – ours are bigger – and our fertilization practices. Our plants stay healthy for the entire season with no additional fertilization.
S-R: Do any customer questions still surprise you?
Coyle: One that makes us laugh is the person who calls up and says, “I just bought this plant at Home Depot. Now what do I do?” I try to turn those calls into opportunities by saying, “If you bring it in, we can show you how to plant it and take care of it” – try to get them through the door and turn them into a Plantland customer.
S-R: What common landscape mistakes do people make?
Coyle: The No. 1 cause of plant mortality is drowning. The No. 2 cause is drought. Watering is an art. Here at the nursery, every section has a different climate.
S-R: When choosing plant material for the yard, what should customers consider?
Coyle: Whether you’re talking trees, shrubs, baskets or annuals, think about how big a plant you want, how much sunlight it will get, and what colors you love.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Coyle: The people. We don’t sell anything people need, so when customers come here, they’re looking for something they want, and we provide them with products that make them happy. Also, this is a great environment to work in. We have people who come here on their lunch break just to walk around the nursery because it’s so calming.
S-R: What do you like least?
Coyle: At this point in my life, the long hours. I have a wonderful woodshop at home, and I don’t spend enough time there.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?
Coyle: Retail requires a really positive attitude, so that’s what we base our hiring practices on. I can train someone about plant material.
S-R: What would it cost to start a business like this?
Coyle: You could expect to spend $500,000 on an irrigation system, a growing facility and other basics. Of course, you’d want to own the property, because that’s your retirement account.
S-R: What’s the outlook for the industry?
Coyle: We’re part of a West Coast buyers group that gets together twice a year. At February’s meeting, the mood was much more positive than it’s been the past couple of years.
S-R: By the way, what happened to that office sign about running around, chasing fires?
Coyle: I put a match to it.