Employees and customers distraught over the possibility that Behnke Nurseries Co. might close its doors cheered the news last week that the 72-year-old Beltsville gardening institution has been granted a reprieve by two banks in commitments that could help the company remain open.
After years of fluctuating revenue and large losses, Behnke's learned this year it would lose its line of credit from SunTrust Banks Inc., a move that would have forced the company's Beltsville location to close. Behnke's, which opened on Route 1 in Beltsville in 1931, also has stores in Potomac and Largo.
Last week, John Peter Thompson, the company's chief executive and one of the heirs to the family-owned business, said that two lending companies sent "letters of commitment" for loans totaling $4.5 million.
If the loans from First International Capital, a Hartford, Conn., subsidiary of United Parcel Service Capital Corp., and Business Loan Express of Limerick, Pa., are approved, Behnke's will remain open past June 1, the date Thompson predicted the store would close. Thompson said the store's 160 employees could keep their jobs.
"In the back of our minds, we knew it would stay open," said Christy Garner, 29, a 10-year Behnke's employee who works in customer service. "I didn't want to leave Behnke's. I love it so much. We're a well-knit group."
Losing Behnke's would be "a loss of a good friend for gardeners," said Barbara Dupree, 44, of Greenbelt, who was shopping at Behnke's recently for gerbera daisies and geraniums. Like many other gardeners, she remembers which plants and trees she bought at Behnke's. "I always come here because their flowers last. If they don't, you bring them back and they will replace them."
Behnke's has been an institution for years among Washington area gardeners, who praise its wide selection of plants and its knowledgeable staff, many of whom work full-time and teach free seminars on various planting topics.
But those qualities also led to financial problems, said Thompson, who took over as chief executive when his mother, Sonja, retired. Thompson is the grandson of Behnke founders Albert and Rose Behnke.
Behnke's prided itself on carrying rare or out-of-season varieties, even if they cost the company a lot of money. Likewise, Thompson said the company kept a full-time staff, even during the slow winter months, and was reluctant to lay off anyone during tough years. Every year, the company relied on a line of credit from SunTrust to make up for its operating losses, and this year the bank ended that commitment.
Thompson said he already was prepared to make some changes to improve the company's financial condition. Earlier this week, company managers were going over the payroll list, trying to decide which full-time employees would be asked to work only 10 months of the year.
Thompson said most likely all but perhaps a dozen employees would not work during the winter months when business is slow. He also said Behnke's would not sell as many out-of-season plants.
"Payroll has to be reduced through attrition," Thompson said, adding that some employees had already left because he told employees the store would close. "That's our single biggest expense."
Alex Dencker, 33, a Behnke's store manager in Beltsville, said Thompson informed employees of the news last week, saying that most of them wouldn't be hurt financially to work 10 months of the year. "The vast majority are seasonal employees," retired people or former customers who work at Behnke's as an extension of their gardening hobbies, Dencker said. "There are not many nurseries open in January and February."
Sally Creeden, 55, another Behnke's customer service employee who started working there a year ago after years as a loyal customer, said not all the customers had received word that the nursery would remain open. Many customers continue to call every day, upset about the possibility that Behnke's would close.
"I got three calls today" before 10 a.m., Creeden said recently. When Creeden told the callers the latest news, she said, "They said, 'Oh, my God, you've made my day.' I never knew people loved it so much."