Successful Fort Worth nursery is a family affair

03/15/2014 12:00 AM

03/15/2014 8:27 PM

At 5, Henry Archie is well on his way to being the top salesman at Archie’s Gardenland.

“He sits up front and sells interesting rocks that he finds around the place. People actually give him 50 cents, or as much as a dollar; and they’re just rocks he found outside,” said Randall Archie, 30, Henry’s dad and the fourth Archie to manage the 80-year-old company.

In the spring of 1934, when Neal Ervin “N.E.” Archie Sr. opened the business in the family’s Arlington Heights home, there wasn’t a single greenhouse on the property, his great-grandson, Randall Archie, said. Now the company maintains 14 greenhouses on 5 acres at 6700 Z Boaz Place in west Fort Worth, and grows more than 500,000 plants a year.

But Archie’s isn’t just about plants; it’s about traditions and times gone by.

“I’d rather deal with a mom-and-pop, because that’s what my generation grew up with,” said customer Ann Young, 82, who’s been loyal to Archie’s for the past 18 years. “My generation grew up with family-owned businesses.”

Such long-term success when almost 80 percent of new businesses fail within five years is encouraging, said Herbert Austin, a Small Business Administration district director. He also said keeping it in the family for generations is unusual in most places.

“You don’t often hear about a company staying in a family that long,” said Austin, 64, whose Northeast Texas district covers 72 counties, 58,000 square miles and 905,000 small businesses. “What often happens in family businesses is that the kids don’t want to take over. The owner who starts the business eventually sells out.”

In Fort Worth, long-standing family businesses are more common, said Marilyn Gilbert, executive vice president for marking at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

For example: Southwest Office Systems (SOS) was founded by Victor Puente in 1964, and is still run by his sons, Vince and Buddy Puente, Gilbert said. Joe T. Garcia opened his namesake eatery in 1935, and it’s still in the family 79 years later. And Williamson Dickie, founded in 1922 by cousins E.E. “Colonel” Dickie and C.N. Williamson, has the co-founder’s great-grandson, Phillip Williamson, at the helm 92 years later.

Americans typically believe that entrepreneurial spirit will carry a company through the tough years, Austin said.

“Each of them believes in their idea, that their business will survive,” he said.

But sometimes a great idea needs something more, said Rick Archie. He knows the emotional glue that holds a family together can also work on a business.

Training and technology

He believes it’s his job to train the fifth generation, now that he’s turned over most of the management duties to his son, Randall.

Rick Archie showed his 7-year-old granddaughter, Olivia, how to stick plant cuttings into wet sand so they’ll sprout roots and found out she didn’t like that job any more than he did when he was her age.

“So we walk around every day learning plant names,” he said.

Like her brother, Olivia is better at working with customers, Rick Archie said.

“Olivia was out front one day when a lady asked about a plant,” he said.

He recalled that the girl put a hand on her hip and rolled her eyes, then pointed to a flat of flowers right next to the customer.

“It’s right here,” Rick Archie quoted her. “The lady looked at me and asked: ‘Should I deal with her from here on?’ I told her she might as well.”

Olivia’s dad said she likes to help make fairy gardens — collections of plants, tiny furniture and buildings that create an environment where miniscule fantasy people might live.

“It’s one of the fads these days,” Randall Archie said.

Recycling pioneers

Lots of things have changed in and around the company in the last 80 years.

“Customers used to bring in actual samples of plants they wanted to know about,” Randall Archie said. “Now they bring in photos on their iPhones.”

Other aspects have remained the same, in many ways. Trees were big in area landscaping between World Wars I and II, and Archie’s continues to plant more than 500 a year in and around Fort Worth, Randall Archie said.

Trees used to be more of a challenge, Rick Archie said, and are one of his least-favorite memories.

“We would hand-dig them, up to 10-foot-diameter root balls,” Rick Archie said. “I was small and I’d have to get down in the hole and tunnel around the tree to make a ditch, then we’d cut underneath with shovels.”

They wrapped the root balls in burlap for protection until they were transplanted in customers’ yards.

“It wasn’t just for trees and shrubs, but also for bedding plants,” Rick Archie said. “They’d be in little six-inch burlap bags.”

Egg cans were the alternative to burlap. A pioneer in recycling, Archie’s Gardenland bought thousands of the rectangular tin cans in which eggs were delivered to restaurants, Rick Archie said. A foot-operated machine — now a rusty but still working ornament in one of the store’s showrooms — punched drainage holes in the cans’ bottoms.

It’s in ‘your blood’

Repurposing was common among the store’s customers, too. In an age before store shelves were crowded with plastic bottles and jars, Archie’s took delivery of lawn and garden chemicals in 55-gallon drums, and fertilizer in 100-pound bags. Customers brought their own containers, Rick Archie said.

“Chauffeurs would pull up to the side door and honk,” he said. “I’d run out and the back window would roll down and the customer would tell me what to put in the trunk.”

Though nothing weighs more than 40 pounds anymore, that kind of service hasn’t disappeared, Randall Archie said.

“A few of our old customers still pull up and honk,” he said.

If Olivia and Henry don’t change their minds, Archie’s Gardenland will give at least one more generation the chance to practice a customer-friendly approach.

“A family business gets into your blood,” Rick Archie said.


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