The Greenhouse Effect
Orchids by Hausermann has been growing orchids for over 70 years in Villa Park, Illinois. This spring, learn from Gene and James Hausermann how this family-owned business has bloomed, weathered change, and survived into its fifth generation.
What do you think are some of the main benefits of working together as a family?
James: (Laughs.) It gets pretty interesting
Gene: Everyone’s working toward a common goal. They all have a vested interest in the business, you know, and because you’re all relatives, the relationships are a lot stronger than they would be between an employer and his employees.
So you all get along?
Gene: Yeah, well, it goes without saying. We’d be long gone if we weren’t, you know how that works. That’s what destroys a lot of businesses.
James: Well, there’s always a certain amount of give and take. Not everyone agrees on everything, but everyone tries to do what’s best.
Gene: You can’t have one person saying that he wants it his way no matter what, or gets real demanding. That’s when the problems will start—when one guy goes off on his own. We really haven’t had that. You always have disagreements. You try to work it out, and as long as everybody’s willing to compromise a little bit, then it works out.
How has your business changed since it was founded?Gene: It’s not quite as specialized as it used to be. Back in the 1920s through the 1940s, growing orchids was basically just a rich man’s hobby. They’d grow their orchids in their backyard, greenhouse, or whatever, so it was very exclusive. But starting sometime around the mid to late ‘50s, orchid societies started popping up around the country. Back when corsages were pretty popular, we had orchids only as a cut flower crop. At that point, we were exclusively selling orchids to the wholesale market. Just the cut flowers—not the plant itself. We did that for quite a few years, probably until the late ‘50s. Since these societies were forming, my dad decided that we should give in to the idea of growing orchid plants and selling them to the hobbyists. At that point, it was hardly ever done. In 1959 or ‘60, we made a little plant department, where we had a little area set aside where we just sold the plants. This was just a very slow, gradual thing. Sometime in the 1970s, it overtook our sales of the cut flowers.
Where does most of your business come from today?James: Nowadays people are mainly buying our orchids for gifts and decorating the house. In the old days they grew them; now they just have them on their tables.
Gene: I hate to say it, but the real serious growers have disappeared, I think, because of the time element. People in general do fewer hobbies than they used to. Now they just tend to want instant gratification: They buy a plant, enjoy it while it’s blooming, and then discard it and get another one. There’s still a good, healthy interest in orchids, but it’s a much more passive interest.
James: Also, to be a dedicated hobbyist, you need to be a member of one of the societies in order to get information on how to take care of your plants and create hybrids with them. Of course, now you can go on the Internet and find out anything you want. So now people don’t even need to join the societies.
How has the Internet affected your business?Gene: In some ways, negative; in some ways, positive. Most of our mail-order business is now off of our website. It used to be, even less than 20 years ago, it was coming exclusively from our catalog. Today the catalog’s much smaller. You can update a website so much more easily. Five minutes before you got here, I took a picture of a green orchid and it’s probably on there already. (Laughs.) You know, plants grow. In a catalog, a lot of times it’s obsolete two to three months after you print it; with the Internet, you can upload a photo and update your catalog as the plants mature. That’s been the big advantage, but then again, you also have the competition wanting to do it, too.
How have you managed to fight against that?Gene: Well, we’re really a brick and mortar greenhouse. A lot of these places that you’ll find on eBay don’t even have a greenhouse. They’ve got something growing in their garage or a greenhouse somewhere and they’re just operating out of there.
James: Some work just as brokers, too.
Gene: We have to go by reputation here. That’s why we still produce a little catalog just to guide people to our website, if nothing else. We used to have a 60-page catalog, now we have a 16-page catalog.
James: You can rely on your old customers, but getting new customers to visit the site is a lot harder. Your site’s buried under thousands
of other business sites.
Gene: Also, you have to contend with the sites where you sometimes get unfairly criticized on the blogs and all that, and you have no way of defending yourself. They don’t say who they are—there’s just some first name tacked on. That’s the major disadvantage of the Internet.
While doing my own searches, I noticed that you actually have a reputation for excellent customer service.Gene: Yes, when you call here, you don’t get shuffled off to just an order taker. We have people who answer our phone, and that gets directed to a salesman, and the salesman is the person who actually picks the order. So you’re dealing with the same person all the time. If they call back, they can ask for that salesman.
Do you do any hybridization here?Gene: Oh, yes. Probably the most famous hybrid was made by my uncle Ernest. He named it for his wife, Irene Finney, and that’s turned out to be one of the most prolific and well-known orchids in the world.
Do you still make them?Gene: We’re still multiplying them, and that hybrid was made back in the 60s.
What are the ways in which your business has changed and how have you adapted to it?
Gene: Well, at one time you could get a lot more for your plants. That has changed because there’s a lot of these mega-growers and overseas competition. The overseas competition is probably the biggest problem. They can bring in stuff really cheaply, hire cheap labor, and we have to try to compete with that situation.
James: I think one of the biggest changes is that they actually allow the growing media to stay on the plant and now it just keeps on growing. That makes for a plant that doesn’t really have any setbacks. In the past, the roots had to be completely bare of any growth material. That’s now changed, and that’s probably done more to promote it than anything else.
Gene: So when we see this onslaught coming on, we don’t necessarily fight them that much; we actually take advantage of the cheap imports. We buy the plants really young and work as a finishing person. So, rather than fighting them, you’re joining them to a certain extent. We always like to keep our own identity, too—that’s always important. You create your own identity by making your own hybrids.
Do they do any hybridization before exporting these orchids?James: There’s a tremendous amount of hybridization overseas, especially from Taiwan. Not only is the labor less, but they’re also getting government subsidies.
Gene: And we don’t get any of that. (Laughs.)
James: You have to say, they’re very good at it. One man told me that they have 15 guys who just breed plants.
Gene: Also, they have certain climatic advantages in Taiwan. The weather’s just perfect for orchids there. It’s not as perfect here. It’s snowing outside as we speak! It’s too cold in the winter and a little too warm in the summer at times.
James: But our location helps.
Gene: That’s the key to our success—we’re centrally located in this country. If we ship, we can ship to all points of the country a lot more easily than other growers. An orchid grower from California who wants to ship to New York has to pay much more in shipping than we do. We’re near O’Hare Airport for our shipping.
James: We’re not the ones who are discouraging O’Hare from expanding. (Laughs.)
Have you done anything else to adapt to the changes in your business?Gene: Well, we’ve started a garden center for non-orchid things. It’s largely retail for local customers, but the two operations complement each other. Someone might buy their annuals and perennials at the garden center and say, “Hey, they have orchids here” or vice versa. It’s not a big part of our business, but it’s a nice addition in the spring.
James: Like much of our operation, it has grown by word of mouth. We’re a little bit off the road, so people don’t see us quite as easily as they would if we were right on the road. We kind of like how it is, really.
Gene: For the original founders, this was strictly a wholesaling business. Had they known what we know now, they would have put the greenhouses on the road and the houses behind them, but we did it backwards.
James: The decision was made in 1928, mind you. This was all just farmland then.
Gene: If you wanted to go pheasant hunting, you’d just get your shotgun and walk outside and bag two birds. It’s amazing how much it’s changed.
I was reading on your site that the vanilla plant is actually a form of orchid. Are there any other things about the orchid industry that many of your customers don’t know about?James: Well, there’s always the talk about the black orchid, that’s a big deal from some
of the old novels and comic book characters like Brenda Starr and Nero Wolfe.
What was the big deal about the black orchid?Gene: Well there was always a lot of talk over if there actually is one or not. I would
say “Not quite.”
What do you mean by “not quite”?Gene: There are a couple of varieties that have black lips, but none of which the actual leaves as black. It’s called coelogyne pandurata, that’s the scientific name of the legendary black orchid, as close as they get to it anyway.
James: But it’s actually purple.
Gene: The only way that you could really get
it to be black is to spray one.
James: And they do spray them.
Have you ever been involved in any kind of conservation work?Gene: Yes. Take Brazil: Down there, they’re slash burning the jungles and a lot of their habitat’s disappearing. With the habitat gone, the plants disappear. So we bring a couple of those plants into this country and then sell or make seeds from those plants, so you’re actually promoting that species again and bringing it away from extinction. We’ve done that with quite a few species over the years.
What’s your advice for other small business owners today?Gene: Vote Republican. (Laughs.) Republicans have always been known to take care of the small business owner a little better.