As excited as you are for the start of spring, it’s a safe bet that AJ Petitti is just as eager for the return of warm sunshine, green grass and flowers in full bloom.
“This is what I love,” says Petitti, president at Petitti Garden Centers, as he meticulously scans the vast inventory of the company’s Avon store. “When you walk out here and you’re surrounded by flowers all day, and you see what you’re creating, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
The business has come a long way since the early days operating out of the small garage of AJ’s father, Angelo, in Oakwood Village. Customer traffic was swift, and Angelo and his brother, Dominic, quickly realized they needed more space. The first official Petitti Garden Centers opened on the site of that garage in the spring of 1971, and it still serves as the company’s flagship store today.
“I started working when I was about 7,” says Petitti. “Dad would take me in on the weekends and I worked all the way through high school and college when I was back in town. I came straight into the business after college. We opened up Strongsville, and that set the foundation to grow the retail side of the company to where it is now.”
Today, there are nine locations across Northeast Ohio where customers can find more than 7,000 varieties of plants and flowers. The company owns Casa Verde, its greenhouses in Columbia Station, where annuals and perennials are grown. In Lake County, five farms comprise Willowbend, where trees and shrubs come to life. It all adds up to 9 million plants in production and an estimated 600,000 customers each year. It’s impressive, but Petitti says customers expect more than beautiful flowers when they come to a Petitti store.
“When customers walk in, they often know what they want to have addressed and what issues they are having,” he says. “But a lot of times, they don’t know the right way to address those issues.”
Whether it’s in the store, online or through one of the company’s sponsored radio or TV programs, Petitti has made customer education a top priority. It’s a key factor in the company’s enduring success.
Sowing the seeds
The workforce at Petitti encompasses about 720 employees across all 17 worksites during peak season, with 255 employees working year-round. Finding the right people to fill key roles at each location comes down to a leader’s ability to clearly understand the work they’ll be doing.
“We address issues not as employer/employee,” Petitti says. “You have to look at things through a 360-degree lens. If I was in your position, would I be happy? Would I be satisfied with the resolution of an issue, good or bad? When we celebrate, we celebrate together. When we face difficult situations, we try to handle them in the best possible way. The more you do that, the more you build a legacy of strong culture. It helps you attract and retain great people.”
Petitti and his father, who still serves as owner and CEO, each drive about 50,000 miles a year traveling to and from each of the company’s stores on a regular basis. It’s not about micromanagement; it’s about being part of the team and creating an environment where everyone has the same knowledge and expertise to share with customers, Petitti says.
“We both spend three or four hours in the office every morning and make sure that’s taken care of,” he says. “Then we spend a lot of time outside. Just managing from your office, for our business, doesn’t work. We’ll go from facility to facility to see what’s happening. So much changes in our day, especially early in the season, but really any time of the year. To get the quality, you really need to be focused on the details.”
The company has built an experienced team of growers on the nursery side and floriculture side of the business that pays very close attention to the products that ultimately go out for sale.
“There is top-notch equipment we’ve automated as much as we can,” he says. “There are teams that are working with plant materials every day to monitor the weather conditions, the impact of temperature, of light, whatever else is going on. It takes constant focus and attention. It’s not something that just happens.”
Petitti’s job is to make sure the people interacting with customers have the same know-how that they can convey to them.
“It’s not always a matter of giving direction; sometimes it’s just support and perspective,” he says. “They don’t get to see what’s out there if they’re working in a specific department. We learn a lot of best practices from outside the company. But a lot of our leadership is taking best practices within the company and making sure that everyone is on board with them. It’s making sure Avon’s displays are as good as Strongsville’s. If there is somebody really dynamic at Bainbridge, it’s taking their idea and implementing it throughout the company.”
Ultimately, it’s about ensuring customers like what they see when they come to shop.
“It’s effectively managing inventory levels, making sure the right product and the right inventory are there at the right time and at the right stage, because this stuff also blooms out,” he says. “You’re keeping the freshest stuff in the store at all times. It takes a really good team to make sure you’re doing that. It’s not just on one person. It’s on a group of people constantly watching.”
Numerous ways to connect
Petitti Garden Centers opened new stores in Brunswick and Canton in 2018 and completely renovated its store in Boardman.
“We’re sitting in Avon right now. Boardman wasn’t on this level,” Petitti says. “We wanted to make sure we got that store up to this level. We literally tore the whole store down and built it back up in Boardman. It’s beautiful and has been very well received.”
With those projects done, he says he’ll sit back and assess the landscape before taking on any new work.
“If you’re going to grow retail or if you want to increase the capacity of growing, you balance those sides and really see what the opportunities are,” he says. “Fortunately, this is our community, so we’re very familiar with it. We know where the really great areas are. We also know where the stores are. We use a lot of our information through our point-of-sale systems to see where the population density is and where we have gaps in terms of where our customers are coming from to make sure we can get to those areas and service our customers.”
Technology has created another way to communicate with customers and help them to be more informed. While AJ makes regular appearances on Fox 8, his father’s Saturday radio show on WTAM has for years been a must-listen for gardeners across Northeast Ohio and beyond.
“It’s a focus around education and making sure our customers are really comfortable,” he says. “It’s trying to break down the barriers of being intimidated about working with a product and knowing what to do with it.”
The company’s website also provides information and guidance to Petitti’s customers, which leads to greater confidence in their gardening exploits.
“Me in an electronics store, not a clue,” he says. “I want to watch TV and I want it to sound good. It’s kind of the same thing with our customers. They want to have a nice yard with whatever maintenance level they are hoping to have, and they want to be successful. That’s really what we’re focused on is making sure you’re successful with your yard, and if you’re not, working with you to make sure you’re happy and successful in the future. We’re going to be part of the community for a very long time. That’s why we want to take care of everybody as well as we can.”
Challenges and opportunities
One of the ongoing challenges that impacts business at Petitti’s — a factor that is completely out of the company’s control — is the weather. Last year was a tough one, as March and April were very cold.
“It pushed the season back about three weeks,” he says. “So you’re waiting for that green light, and then all of a sudden, we had about a week to fill up the stores before Mother’s Day hit, which is our biggest weekend. That’s our Black Friday. Every year is different, and you take things in stride. The weather has a significant impact all year round. From March to the beginning of November, the business is very responsive to the weather. If it’s weather that you want to be outside and enjoy and be on the patio for extended periods of time, for us, that’s a great weather season. Really hot, really wet, really cold weather — the extremes make it more challenging for us. But for the most part, it evens out.”
While the Northeast Ohio weather will continue to provide unexpected twists and turns, Petitti is confident that whatever the company faces, his team will be ready.
“One of the things I’m really passionate about is the beautification of the community,” he says. “There are so many great spots within the city and so much culture, so much history. There are a lot of other parts of the country you can go, the south, the west, very few places have the history that we have and the culture we have and the people we have. The more we take care of our community ourselves, the better and better it’s going to get.”
The Petitti File
Petitti Garden Centers
Education: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
What do you do when you’re not working? I like to cook, and I enjoy time with friends. I’m a terrible golfer, but not a bad skier. We still get together as a family for dinner every Sunday. That’s a huge part of our lives.
What is your favorite sport? Anything Cleveland. Browns, Cavs, Indians.
What is your favorite vacation spot? Italy. Pasta. Our family is from there, so it’s like going home. I try to get back there as often as possible. The food up north, the culture down south. There are so many regions, so many places to explore.
How do you feel about giving back to the community? We don’t say no very often. It’s from little bake sales to working with Eagle Scouts to Prayers from Maria, Cleveland Clinic Children’s, Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, Akron Children’s Hospital. We find different ways that we’re able to participate and contribute to the community.
With Prayers from Maria, they have a nice line of merchandise, so we took four feet of wall space and contributed it to them. So 100 percent of the sales from their space goes right back to their foundation. We’re always looking for different opportunities. Where we see we can be a good fit and help out, we try to make sure we’re doing that.