Growers Greenhouse Supplies Inc.: Nourishing Innovation within its Field

Summer 2010 - In a general sense, Coulter runs GGS Structures Inc., a greenhouse building designer for the horticultural and agricultural industries, and Niagrow Systems Ltd., which creates heating systems for greenhouses. Meanwhile, Harrison is still senior management and oversees JGS Limited, which specializes in greenhouses for research purposes at universities and laboratories, and he maintains the day-to-day operations of the overall company. However, GGS is not the type of place that gets hung up on status. “We don’t really use titles. We’re a family business and I’ve grown up through the business doing different jobs, so we all just kind of do what we need to do here,” Coulter explains. Niagrow and JGS were added to GGS during 2009.

“It was a bit of a challenge ... to add two companies in two months. But we picked companies with a strong management base and then we’ve backed that up to expand it more for future work. JGS Limited specializes in high-end research greenhouses for corporations and governments. They do real architectural stuff,” Coulter shares. “The green roof movement and local food movement have inspired municipalities and developers to put greenhouses on top of restaurants, apartment complexes and more, and this is the best company in the world for that type of work.” Meanwhile, “Niagrow is a heating systems provider for the other companies. We used to subcontract to Niagrow and then we purchased them and brought them in-house,” Coulter explains. “But all of the companies operate as completely separate organizations as well.”

Growing Internationally

With these companies integrating a multitude of specifications through internal CAD-assisted engineering, GGS is able to offer a wide range of products with customers' interests in mind. Some of the GGS superior quality designs include curved glass greenhouses, low-profile greenhouses, widespan greenhouses, gutter-connected poly greenhouses, coldframes and fabric-covered buildings, with shade centers, ventilation systems and more. GGS also designs material handling systems, showcase garden centers, customized expansion plans, and it offers maintenance and repair services.

The main focus of GGS is finding ways to create the cost-effective products that its customers need. Japanese to Dutch distributors have made special requests, resulting in successful product lines sold beyond their initial implementation. At home in Ontario, “we have an energy-savings R&D project ongoing because a commercial grower in Leamington requested we come up with solution for his problem.”

GGS prides itself on its exemplary customer service and distribution. The ability to partner with its customers and meet their individual needs has further strengthened the company’s reputation. GGS stays ahead of its competition thanks to its willingness and preparation “to take projects anywhere in the world,” Coulter shares. “We’re one of the largest manufacturers of commercial greenhouses in North America … and we sell worldwide. We have established distribution in Asia and Europe and we do a little bit in Africa, a little in South America, the Caribbean and even projects in the Philippines. We are bar none the most qualified group to do turnkey research facilities in the world with Niagrow specializing in energy efficiency and maximization for research. There might be only three companies in the world, only one other in North America, that do that work.”

All manufacturing is done in Vineland Station, from which GGS sells directly to Canadian and American garden centers and mass merchandisers (such as Home Depot and Lowes), as well as coordinates with overseas distributors and labor subcontractors for installation of complex industrial structures. “When we build outside the country we tend to use local contractors, providing supervision as needed. Over the years this has helped us build an international network of qualified builders,” Harrison explains.

The company has a broad market base, a heavily experienced public tender research & design division, and has about 50 total full-time employees (adding more during seasonal peaks). To ensure its employees are prepared for any future technological developments, GGS uses both in-house and external training. “To engineer our heating systems we have to do it in-house, because there is nowhere else to go. Greenhouse heating design is a very specialized field,” Coulter says.

Training is especially important as the industry changes. For example, now that energy conservation is a burgeoning trend, “we have to look at geothermal options, and we’ve worked with solar panel companies to integrate solar panels with our systems,” Coulter says. And she sees these green technologies increasing. “It’s there in ideology at the moment and it’s an area in which we see future growth.”

GGS also holds trades in-house, including “engineering, design, procurement of materials and fabrication of all structures or components that need assembly,” says Harrison. Everything else is subcontracted. “In our industry we don’t have much lead time in having structures completed, so we have to rely on our suppliers bending a little bit and getting materials to us a little quicker. And we tend to stick with people if we get good services,” Harrison reveals.

Strength In Partnerships

GGS maintains a strong reputation for meeting each client’s needs, but it takes constant effort because of circumstances beyond the company's control. “A very big challenge is the different building codes for different countries. It’s a major obstacle that has to be overcome. For example, it took five years for one product line to be accepted by the Japanese building code. We just went through eight months of rigorous prep for Germany codes,” Coulter says. To overcome these challenges, “our engineers in Canada work closely with engineers in the specific countries for which we are designing.”

It is for situations such as these that GGS focuses on strengthening an environment that prizes teamwork. “We have built a very good management group here. Most employees we inherited already dealt with our main players for years. Everyone kind of knew each other already. That helped, because those were good solid relationships. And what we don’t have in-house we subcontract. We try to know where our strengths are, and anywhere we’re weak we find someone strong. And if we can bring them in-house like Niagrow, we will.”

Other current challenges are more politically and economically created. “What we’re finding now, with the Canadian dollar being equal with the U.S., is that we get American contractors coming up here. They are successful and winning some of the major contracts with big box stores. When they come they bring people from the U.S. greenhouse industry, which makes it a little more difficult for us. It's a tough economy, so everyone is trying to get their piece of a smaller pie” Harrison shares. To beat the competition, “we try to be more aggressive and look for new markets, and push back harder ourselves into the U.S.”

Planting the Seeds of Success

Challenges have not kept GGS from completing interesting projects throughout the world. In March 2010, GGS was involved with a research facility project in Nairobi, Kenya, for the International Livestock Research Institute. This project took an unexpected turn and was delayed a month because the ship transporting our material from Canada had to be diverted to Oman to wait for a convoy to build up in order to avoid pirates off the coast of Somalia. Even with the need to redo construction scheduling, GGS was able to quickly assemble its signature galvanized steel frames, wide tempered glass panes and friction fit glazing system to provide a condensation-controlled, efficiently vented environment.

Other current projects include a heating system Niagrow is designing for a resort spa. This is the first of this type of project for Niagrow. “But it’s all the same principles; we determined it would be kind of a fun challenge for our people,” Coulter shares. GGS is always looking for ways to take the company's structural developments beyond the obvious sectors. “We have a patent on a special door we call the bifold door, because it folds in the center so it can be very large. Last year we supplied and installed four of these doors for the Olympic Village. We also supplied those doors to the Massachusetts Aquarium in Boston, which was kind of a fun, new endeavor,” Coulter recounts.

Harrison adds, “We’re doing engineering for a project right now at Dartmouth College and a couple for Public Works Agriculture Canada. We’ve had some Lowes stores. I guess from a grower’s standpoint, our book is pretty full right now; it’s a good time. We delivered some domes to the U.S. army in Germany and recently sold some more domes into Japan.” But, “whether they’re big or small, they’re all interesting because of the people you work with,” Harrison says.

With this prospective toward its projects, the company hopes to continue growing by “exploring new markets. And we’re going to continue to look for acquisitions that will increase our overall ability,” says Coulter. “The current economic outlook is a tough one, because the stimulus money is running out and the banks are reluctant to flow money as freely as they have in past years. But one of our strengths for overcoming the economic downturn has been our diversity. Our growth plan is to continue along that line to see where we can use our skills to add value to customers. Our current marketing tagline is 'We’re building a growing world.' That’s really what we do – we supply the technological knowhow to provide a complete, environmentally controlled facility. Come to us for our expertise, because we design, manufacture and build.”

With the ability to take any manner of flexible, economical, innovative growing or storage space from concept to completion, the passionate and knowledgeable staff of the companies operating under the Growers Greenhouse Supplies Inc. umbrella has grown a full-line business model that is built to last.