We went to Sterling, Va., the other day to visit with Bill Meadows, who owns a nursery there that caught our interest. It's quite large, employing 70 people in the off-season (which is now) and grossing nearly $3 million this year. But it wasn't the plants that we went to see, since when you get right down to it one plant is somewhat like another, but rather Mr. meadows' intriguing style of management.
When we arrived he was attending a meeting of the landscaping department. These meetings are held twice a year in December and July, as are similar meetings of the other department: retail. IT was largely a young crowd, dressed in blue jeans and boots, and quite serious.
Two weeks before the meeting all the employees were asked to submit a list of "problems" they found on the job. These problems - there were 197 of them - were collected into a mimeographed program and formed the agenda for the meeting.
They include such things as "better communication between puller, checker and loader" (#97) and "too much mud" (#99). The mud question seemed to be a particular concern. "This problem is so great there will be a committee set up to deal with it," Meadows said.
Committee were also set up to examine the questions of fertilizing all plants automatically, a system for foremen to buy gas, whether the company should continue to take government work, and the whole issue of trucks.
The meeting was held in Meadows' office, which is marked by a sign on the carved wooden door that says " Farmer." Meadows is called "Farmer" "Farmer" and there are signs all over the nursery that announce such things as "Farmer Sez Don't Carry More Than Four Plants to Your Car." (Susan Whitmer makes the signs and has printed more than 10,000 of them).
To find Meadows' office, we went through the mud and gravel lot where the trees and shurbs are sold, up the stans past the houseplants section and the employee lounge, and through the utilitarian cubicles used by the clerks, designers and executives.
Farmer's office is entirely carpeted in red plush, even the walls. One wall is covered with mirrors. There are banks of squishy white cushion sofas, and red chairs with chrome frames. On a shelf behind Farmer's desk is a row of glasses, each bearing a red letter, so that when properly aligned they spell out "F-A-R-M-E-R".
As the discussion went on secretary Tina Crawford took copious notes. All the suggestions and potential solutions will be given to the top executives (who by their dress, at least, were difficult to distinguish from the staff) and by March 1 everyone will have a list of assignments to correct the problems. Last year only five or 150 problems were not solved, Farmer said. The name of anyone who fails to carry out an assignment goes on a blackist.
One fellow said he was "embarrassed" about the rocks the company was selling "They're ugly," he claimed.
"That must have been just load." Farmer responded, "I've always been proud of the rocks we have.They come from West Virginia (as does Meadows) with moss and with character."
Later the discussion became more philosophical. A designer complained that a foreman had been rude to a laborer on a job, and Farmer spoke at length on that subject. "Anyone who screams or shouts or uses profanity - that person is handling the situation wrong and going against company policy. I've never screamed at any employee . . . Now Ted, here, he came to work here from a warehouse, where the only way you could scream and shout. When he came here he did the same thing. Ted has been restrained - it took him five or six weeks, but now he doesn't scream."
It also came out that some of the executives have been "short" or "cuit" when talking to employees on the two-way radio. (Installing the radios, by the way, was the result of a previous company meeting.) "We have to be courteous with each other," Farmer said, "sometimes our office staff forgets that, including me."
His philosphy of management is "guidance." not yelling, he said. "The lowest person on the totem pole should be treated with as much respect as a vice president."
After the meeting he took all 32 participants to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Herndon.
"We like to party," he explained while driving to the restaurant in his Bill Blass Mark IV Continental. Last year he took 29 full-time employees on a five-day trip to Atlanta to attend a nursery association convention, and anothe year he took a group to the Caribbean for a few days. His wife, Betty, who was school librarian and then the firm's bookkeeper, describes her job now as "social director."
Eight years ago Farmer Meadows was teaching sex education in Fairfax county elementary schools, but he soon found that selling vegetables from the 11 roadside stands he developed was more profitable. He quite teaching, and during months in his house shooting pool and listening to rock music, he conceived his nursery project. He would open a discount nursery, he decided, save money by hiring teenagers as clerks, not guaranteeing plants and by advertising extensively and differently.
"Other nurseries were advertising things like a 'one-gallon' to two gallon' Japanese holly," he said, "I advertised a "two-foot holly." it makes more sense to people."
The success of the vegetable selling business allowed the Meadows to move six years ago from a $135-a-month apartment in Falls Church to their custom designed home opposite what is now the nursery. Meadows, now 42, said he waited until he had enough money to pay cash for the house and all the furnishings; he didn't like the idea of having a mortgage.
Meadows taste for plush surroundings carries over to his house, which is also carpeted in red. It contins, as well, a room that is "wall to wall bed" for family television watching. He and his wife used to have a bed that swings, but he had it taken out because his daughter is now 16. "I realised my house was too sexy for my teen-age daughter," he said.
Sometimes Meadows prefers to watch Redskins games on the television in his office, where he can keep an eye on the business. On top of the television is anoth television, a closed circuit terminal he had installed so that he could see if his employees are stealing.
"The biggest problem I've ever had is employees stealing money. Perhaps I've overreacted - that's from having a produce stand and 50 kids dealing out of a cigar box."
He also makes full-time employees take a polygraph test every three months. The first day the tests were taken, he said, seven employees quit and five others were caught in a lie.
"Nine times out of 10 people will steal," he said, adding that the polygraph tests showed that nearly everybody in the firm stole a Christmas tree.
After two years of these security measures, 95 per cent of employee theft has been eliminated, he said.
"You can be nice and kind and have a good attitude, but money is so important." Farmer said. "You can talk about these polygraph tests - but as long as they're paid adequately, they don't mind." Farmer will have given out %40,000 in Christmas bonuses this year among his 70 employees (the staff swell to 150 full-timers during the spring and fall seasons.)
"I enjoy attention and have a great need for it." Farmer said. "I need to be No. 1. When I was a teacher, I was Teacher of the Year. When I was a coach, we won all the ball games. I started with one vegetable stand and ended up with 11. Now I want to be the largest nursery in the country."