A green thumb for business

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Last year, Lake County’s nursery businesses accounted for $90 million in sales. With such a large concentration of nurseries in such a small area, the industry frequently pits fishing buddies and old school chums against each other in the competition for sales.

So how did Jim Zampini distinguish his family-owned company and grow it to be one of the largest nurseries in the area, averaging 250 employees during the peak season? According to his daughter, Maria Zampini Pettorini, he did it with good business sense and an expertise in cultivation.

Pettorini and her brother, Joe Zampini, followed their father into the business that his father founded in 1946. Zampini and Sons Nursery started on a quarter acre of land in Painesville and has evolved into three divisions spread across 1,000 acres — Lake County Nursery Inc., New Plants Inc. and Champion Garden Towne.

Each year, the businesses together generate $8 million in revenue and 1 million plants.

Five years ago, Pettorini found herself rebuilding the company after her father’s long illness stagnated its growth. Once back on his feet, Zampini asked his daughter to work on a succession plan, her first project since graduating from Pennsylvania State University.

”We really could have lost the business if something would have happened (to him),” Pettorini says.

After the reorganization, Joe Zampini was assigned to manage the government, Canadian and house accounts. Pettorini became president of the nursery division and vice president of the retail store. Even with a degree in horticulture, she admits she didn’t inherit her father’s green thumb.

What she can propagate, however, is a business. Working alongside her father, she created a new management team at both the retail and wholesale divisions, then worked on process changes to increase the company’s overall efficiency.

Re-evaluate and update

There was an immediate impact after Pettorini evaluated and redesigned the general and administrative procedures. A close look at the books revealed opportunities to save on phone contracts and health benefits. After a year of rooting around, the result was a 42 percent savings in administrative costs.

Traditionally, the nursery industry employs relaxed business practices that result in significant cash flow problems.

”Nursery customers were averaging 98 days for payment,” Pettorini says.

Understanding that cash is king, she approached her customer base and set out to change the pattern. Today, payment standards are under 40 days, and only a few customers became casualties of the move.

Innovation

The green industry typically lags behind others in technology, says Pettorini, but the nursery created a Web site and was one of the first in the area to offer online services to customers and employees.

Champion also stays on the cutting edge of the cultivation side of the nursery business as a result of Zampini’s flair for plant development. He holds more than 75 trademarks and patents on plant varieties; hybrids are licensed throughout Europe and Canada, and sales from one Oklahoma garden center last year generated more than $25,000 in profit.

The continuous improvements paved the way last year for the highest fall sales quarter in Champion’s history, a whopping 33 percent above the company’s previous record.

In this male-dominated industry, Pettorini’s business savvy has helped her bridge the gender gap, and earlier this year, she became the first woman president of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association. Ironically, being a woman has worked to her advantage on the retail side of the business.

”I can buy for the store because I am our target demographics,” says Pettorini. ”I am a working mother that doesn’t have a lot of time.”

How to reach: Champion Garden Towne, (440) 259-5571

Lake County Nursery website