Interview with former native tree grower, Jerry Fritz, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Jerry Fritz is the former owner and founder of SUNCO, a wholesale tree growing operation, with a mostly native inventory except for a few cold-hardy palms. Jerry was in the Florida native plant industry for 30+ years and remains an active member and volunteer with the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN), our industry partner in Florida. FANN is a trade association serving businesses that grow, sell and plant native plants. Jerry is also a founding member of our foundation’s inaugural board of directors. He shares a little of his experience and spoiler alert — is ready and willing to serve as a mentor to anyone getting into the business.
About our podcast
Go Native: the Business of Native Plants interviews seasoned native plant business owners and experts to help others learn from their successes and failures.
Find monthly episodes wherever you find your podcasts, here on our blog or at https://rss.com/podcasts/gonative
Now listen to Episode 2 or read the transcript below to learn more. Go native!
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 2
HOST: Mitzy Sosa
Interviewee: Jerry Fritz, former native tree grower
Mitzy Sosa 00:00
Hello, and welcome to today’s podcast. I am your host Mitzy Sosa. Today we’re going to go on a journey, to find out the most important things to know before starting a native nursery. We have with us today … drumroll please: [drumroll sound] Jerry Fritz. Hello, Jerry. Happy Monday.
Jerry Fritz 00:23
Yeah, right. I’m retired. Every day is Friday.
Mitzy Sosa 00:37
We are so excited to have you here today with us, Jerry, I’d like for you to get started by giving us an introduction. Tell us who you are and what you do, how you got started in this business.
Jerry Fritz 00:50
Okay, my name is Jerry Fritz and I started Sunco in 1982. Started out as a maintenance company. And then I got involved. I own some property in South Florida. So I started planting trees and the maintenance business sort of evolved into a nursery business. And I did a lot of landscaping down in South Florida and I had a cousin who lived in North Florida. And I seen there was a need for a lot of three gallon material. So he owned a lot of land. So I said, Hey, just give me one acre. And all I want to do is grow three gallon shrubs. So he said okay. I said, you’ll make more off this one acre, then you will off the other 40 acres of hay that you have and less — it won’t be as much work.
So we started that and we did okay on that. But I, I I wanted to get bigger. So I spent my summers in that area. So I bought 20 acres of land and started a nursery on it and all containers, all drip irrigation. At that time, you know, the, the top of the line, the most technical and had everything. So I grew that and only grew native trees. And then I joined a native plant society. And at that point, I met a lot of people that at that time, it was Association of Florida Native Nurseries. So I joined that, and became a member and met a lot of people who are friends today.
And anyway, so about five years ago, none of my children wanted to get involved in the business. So I see no reason to keep beating a dead horse. So I said, you know, I can handle it. So I sold off my nursery, the one in South Florida and the one in North Florida. So I’m retired, but I still believe in the industry. I still believe in native plants. So you know, I’m doing anything I can to help you know further the industry and get young people.
Mitzy Sosa 02:39
So was this something you studied in school? Was it [a] interest you developed much later on?
Jerry Fritz 02:47
I went back to school and got my degree in ornamental horticulture, which I did at night after working 12 hours a day in a sweat and then going home and then studying for four hours. But I already had the core. All I had to do was take the core, because I already had a degree in sociology, so.
I got that and I got a, I went and took a test to become a arborist, internationally certified arborist and I got that so and I was real proud of that because I was Florida 101 was my number. And now they’re in the 30 and 40,000. So I was real proud of that but, and I, then I got my pest control license, I became a certified pest operator. I took another test and I passed the state exam on that, which I guess I’m good at taking tests. But anyway, so I had that. So I was able to treat trees. Being the arborist, I could treat them, I could take them down or whatever, so.
And that’s basically what I did, mostly landscaping in South Florida and I sold trees to landscape contractors. So that’s pretty much how I got into this. I didn’t get started till I was 30-32 years old. I was a regional manager for a company that was in the southeastern United States. So I moved Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, North Florida, so I enjoyed working for that. But that job just never … I just didn’t like it anymore. So I had a chance to get in the industry. So that’s how I got into this job or network, so.
Mitzy Sosa 04:13
I also noticed that you kind of just started growing trees from the beginning or focused on the three gallon.
Jerry Fritz 04:20
Three gallon. Well here, I had a three acres in South Florida which is hard to believe that we had it in town, but it I grew up palms to start with and then at that point I went and started the three gallon native plants in North Florida. So I still had this nursery which I grew the palms mostly to plant in Palm Beach. That’s where I did a lot of work for the rich people over there, who were, believe it or not, were very kind and nice.
Mitzy Sosa 04:50
Was there anything that kind of pushed you to just focus on the trees?
Jerry Fritz 04:56
Yeah, um I don’t know. I did a lot of hunting. And when I’d go to the woods all the time, and you know, I was always looking up, I was not so much looking down. So I, I don’t know, really, focus, I just had a, I don’t know, being when I became an arborist, it was all trees. So I guess I just, you know, kind of slanted towards that. And I never really thought about it till you just asked me that question. I kind of, you know, there’s no way that we could compete with, you know, corporations that had 100 acres. So we tried to grow some of the stuff that nobody else grew. You know, that was still native plant, and sometimes for restoration work. But a lot of the architects were coming on board about native plants, so they were spec’ing some and we might have been the only one who grew it, so. I’m glad I did.
Mitzy Sosa 05:49
I think the world is very happy that you decided to focus on growing trees. I have heard before that it’s usually a good idea to stick to growing one thing and supplying that to the market instead of trying to grow everything at once. Do you think that’s that’s the way to go?
Jerry Fritz 06:09
I agree with that. At one time, we tried to grow everything. And then you know, no matter what you did try to grow, you never had what the customer wanted. So we sort of started, you know, getting rid of items. So we got down to about ten different trees that we grew, and we just tried to grow them better and not try to grow everything because you can’t grow everything, so.
Mitzy Sosa 06:29
Right. Well, apart from you know, getting a heads up of like, don’t try to grow everything. What are other things you wish you would have known or had been given a heads up before you started in the native plant industry?
Jerry Fritz 06:43
Well, in the nursery business, one thing, you know, with my former job, I worked five days a week. Well, in the nursery business, it’s seven and a half days a week, you’re never off, and you never ever get caught up. There’s always something to do. So you always feel like if you do something on the weekends, you’re guilty, because this had to be done or this should have been done. So I would say that was probably something that I didn’t anticipate, as much hands on as I did. But after a while, you just learned well, I can take care of that Monday – if it wasn’t, you know, water, irrigation problem.
Mitzy Sosa 07:20
And what were some of the really rewarding things that made all that grunt work worth it.
Jerry Fritz 07:29
Watching television and talking about how they’re cutting down the forest in Argentina and Brazil, and here I am planting trees back. Not at the rate they’re cutting them down, but at least I am doing something good for the environment, I’m doing something that’s going to help the future, planting trees. That’s a good thing. So, I always felt that I was doing something good instead of dumping chemicals down the river type of business, so.
Mitzy Sosa 07:56
Right, and that’s one of the beautiful things about this industry is that while we see all of the environmental impacts that we’re having, as we keep growing in population, our native plant growers are still trying to do something to, to help that. So switching gears a little bit, apart from the stuff that we have mentioned already. Are there some details that you think new nursery owners oversee [overlook], when they’re starting out? And what are some mistakes that they should avoid coming in?
Jerry Fritz 08:29
Oh, I would think maybe being not having enough money to start with, because you’re going to go through periods where you’re not selling anything, and you still have a payroll, you still have you know, electric bills, you still have everything, insurance, everything like that. So I’m saying you should be well funded.
I don’t know that I would say, I wouldn’t try to start out real big, I would try to start out sort of small, get a feeling for it. And then once I felt that I really liked this type of industry and I liked what I was doing. And then maybe I had a little history of sales, I would know, if I wanted to get bigger than I knew that I could grow easier planting the right things and having the experience to take care of it at times. So I’d say don’t try to start out big and don’t try to grow everything. Just try to concentrate on a smaller network and develop good customer relationships. That’s an important thing.
And another thing, not just because I belong to FANN and I belong to the Native Plant Horticulture Foundation, but it’s good to be connected in this business. I mean, it is important.
The lady that just bought the nursery from the gentleman that I sold it to. She has a career in marketing, which scared me, because I’m going, you need to know something about trees, but I’ve been helping her out. But anyway, she has done things with marketing that I never have come up with. I mean she has got a good thing going, so I’m saying marketing was something that I was probably light on and at the time when I got in this business there was no Facebook, there was no you know, there was just the PlantFinder, that was the only way you can advertise. But now, with everything else, I would say you’d have to have, you know, a good background in marketing because you can grow the best product, but if you can’t sell it, you’re not gonna make any money.
Mitzy Sosa 10:15
That’s the cold hard truth, folks, you heard it here first. Well, what about the role the Internet has played on the native plant industry, or the interest of homeowners or individuals designing their own native landscapes or even just having some native plants in their backyard? Do you think that’s going to increase as we get the Internet involved and I don’t know, eventually become a little bit more mainstream.
Jerry Fritz 10:47
I see it. There’s no way that it cannot. I mean, it seems like you know, everybody’s on Facebook, and everybody’s, you know, streaming this, and everybody’s researching plants and I mean, like, sometimes I cannot remember the name of a plant, that I get older now that I knew the name of, but I can really quickly find the name of it. And before, you had to go to the library, you know, and look it up to get to find out the name. So I would say, with all the internet sources, that it is nothing but going to help more people discover native plants, more people to get in the business.
The only thing disheartening, when I went to school, there was, there was some, I call them children because I was much older then, but there was people in the class, young people that were just taking it because they thought it was a easy class. So that kind of concerned me. And but there was some of ’em that were really dedicated, and I have met some since then that have graduated, and they are really, I’m impressed that makes me feel good that you know, I’m not the only one carrying the torch.
And I am not the only one carrying the torch. There’s a lot of us in this state that, that you know, will do anything to help anybody succeed, so. That’s one thing about being connected. People aren’t afraid to help you if you got a problem. I could call anybody at FANN and say, hey, look, I got this problem. Oh, I had that problem a year ago. Here’s what I did. You know, and they don’t. They’re very helpful. So it’s good to belong to organizations.
Mitzy Sosa 12:17
It’s always good to surround yourself with like minded people for sure. If you were talking to some of those young students that that you saw, and they were deciding to start their own nursery. What are some of the skills that you think they need to have under their belt to be successful once they open their their nursery?
Jerry Fritz 12:39
Well, I think you have to have some knowledge of, well, horticulture. I mean, it doesn’t have to be, you don’t have to have a PhD in it, but you should have some knowledge, you should have a little bit of background and know what you’re getting into. I mean, if you got a degree in ecology and then all of a sudden you want to open a nursery, that doesn’t mean you really have a background in horticulture. It doesn’t mean you do not, but it means you’ve accessed it.
So I’m just saying to get started, you would, you really got to have a desire, I mean, to plant things that help the environment. I think that would be a big thing.
And the big thing is, plant the right thing. And I always told people, Hey, what should I plant? What should I plant in my nursery? What should I plant in my nursery? I go, well, I’ll tell you the best advice I can give you, you go through my nursery and you see what I planted, and you plant something else. Because these ain’t solid.
A thing, too, is that I’ve had three downturns in this business. And I mean, it broke a lot of customers. I mean, growers, I mean that were not big growers, but smaller growers, you know, that we’re starting with a couple acres maybe and the industry hit where there was no building, nobody were buying plants. And I mean, I went through three of ’em. And I mean it’s just like. I was, I had everything paid for, which is one thing that I would do, I didn’t borrow a lot of money. So I didn’t have, you know, the notes that I had to pay, but those downturns were something. So, if you’re going to get into the business, you need to be aware that it ain’t all going to be, it’s not all going to be peaches and cream, there are going to be some times and it’s you know, and right now, building is good. So I always say tough times don’t last tough people do. So that’d be my advice. I mean, you’re going to have to be strong enough to put up through the tough times or you should maybe should seek another line of work.
Mitzy Sosa 14:33
That’s a harsh but true point. What about the, the training or the communication skills that it takes to manage some employees or just have them there to help you?
Jerry Fritz 14:45
Well, employees are very important. Maybe when you start out small you’re not going to have a lot of employees you might be the only employee or your relative does that helps you out but you got to have good employees.
I know when I worked, part of my job description to myself and not to anybody else was, I just didn’t tell the employee what to do. I taught them what to do. Why do we, you know why we’re doing this? No. Well, the reason we’re doing this … So as we were working, I was teaching them so they were learning horticulture, whether they knew it or not. So if they were a good employee, pretty soon, they would know as much as well, almost as much as you did. And they learned it that way from the ground up, they didn’t learn it from books, textbooks, videos, they learned it. Well, just the way I did learn it.
When I went back to school to get my degree, I’d already done it all, I had already done everything wrong. So I knew the right way to do it after that, but starting from the ground.
But employees is probably the most important part, keeping them, making their job fun, making their job interesting. You know, it’s not just going out there and digging holes, or planting trees or stepping up plants, it’s, you know, there’s a reason we do everything, and this is why and it seemed to always work with me, to teach them where they were learning something that just wasn’t boring. So that’s about all I got in that category.
Mitzy Sosa 16:14
And while you were teaching your employees everything that you knew, what were some of the ways that you made sure that you were still learning as much as you could about anything.
Jerry Fritz 16:24
Well, every year FANN would have a native plant show, and they always had classes there. So even when I went there, there were classes that you know, I thought I knew somethin’ about it and then when I’d go to the class, I would learn more. Same way with the native plant society. I mean, I just, I would leave there, thinking how dumb I was, when I went there, and how smart I am when I left, but you got to have unique places to go learn, and you need to be able to find those places. And again, that’s where the internet might help to learn. But a lot of times, it’s still hands on and then do like I do, do it wrong for about three times and find out well, if that’s not working, no matter how many times I tried it, so let’s try something different. So that worked.
Mitzy Sosa 17:08
You have brought up some really, really amazing points. So, I want to make sure that we get everything that we can, condensed in our last question here. I know, you have spent all this time listening to us. And now we’re reaching the end. But, Jerry, if you were to be in charge of designing your very own “how to start a nursery” course that included different modules of different topics to learn before you are ready to go, what are some of the key topics that you would make sure were covered in that course?
Jerry Fritz 17:40
Well, I know this sounds funny coming from me and speaking to you, but I think you would need a good ability to work with the Internet. When we first started, one of the classes that I changed in my major to get, I took some statistics off, but I I said I don’t know anything about computers. So I got a chance to get to take a class introduction to computer. So one of the first things that I’m going to say to you now is you do have to have some computer access, some computer ability, to know how to use a computer. And not so much for getting on the Internet, but making spreadsheets, I mean keeping track of your sales, keeping track of your labor, keeping track of interest, keeping track of insurance, so you need to have some ability to use a computer.
The next thing is you need to have, again, I would go back and say you need some way to sell your product. How can you get your name and your material out there where it can be easily viewed, and if viewed then maybe sold. So you’d have to have that.
You’d have to have some information on soils and fertilizers. That was one of my first classes I took was soils and fertilizers. And at that point, I knew why I had taken chemistry because there was a lot of chemistry and that was very important. So you need to know some of that.
You need to know something about, a little bit about photosynthesis. Like you know, why can’t I plant this tree under, in the shade? Why? Why do I want to plant the rose north and south or east or west, depending on the sun. So you need a little bit of that but basically
What else would I doing? I would, something to do with finance and economics you need. You’re not just growing plants, you are running a business. You really need to know economics and financing. Like you need to know how can I borrow money cheap if I need to borrow money? How can I do this? How can I work with dealers, equipment dealers — you need to know a little bit about that.
So that would be some of the things that I could think of.
Mitzy Sosa 17:51
We have reached the end of our time here Jerry but it has been so amazing to have you here and to listen to your story. And as well as all of the advice that you have for anyone that is trying to pursue their own native plant nursery.
Jerry Fritz 20:06
I thank you very much and I hope I help somehow but I mean, I’m the kind of person if somebody calls me I don’t mind mentoring. This lady that bought the nursery from the man I sold it to, who ran into the ground, she is doing her best to bring it back. And it’s you know, that nursery is in Live Oak, which is, I live in, well actually, I live in Lake Worth and Madison, Florida. So I’m in Lake Worth now. But uh, I mean, I stop by there, I call up and say, “I can stop by for an hour if you got any questions.” And like, a simple thing is, how do I get the trees on a trailer? Well, which, she put ’em on and she just put ’em on there. She put ’em on and she stood them up. So no, you got to lay them down so they don’t catch the wind and you got to put a tarp over ’em. Oh, like, uh, you know, just simple things. So anyway, I’m here to help any way I can, so.
Mitzy Sosa 20:59
Apparently! Thank you so much.
Jerry Fritz 21:01
Thank you. Alright, don’t be laughing [laughter].
Mitzy Sosa 21:09
Ay ay ay! And that was Jerry Fritz. Thank you so much for listening to our podcast. Don’t forget to visit our website at nativeplanthort.org where you can find even more information and keep an eye out for even more interviews coming your way. We will get to interview other nursery owners like Dara Dobson, Roger Triplett, Nancy Bissett, and many more. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of your day.