GreenhouseGrower.com reported last month on the leadership transition taking place at Zeeland, MI-based Walters Gardens. We recently caught up with the management team at Walters Gardens to learn more about the process behind this transition, what they learned along the way, and what growers facing their own looming decisions on succession planning can learn from them. (Note: all feedback below is from Vice President of Product Strategy Karin Walters, Chief Operations Officer Ryan Hop, and Vice President of Marketing and Industry Relationships Christa Steenwyk.
Greenhouse Grower: Succession planning is always an important topic, but one that tends to get overlooked. How did the Walters team prepare for this transition?
Walters Gardens: Succession planning is challenging. We knew we needed an outside professional to help. We had a few false starts with people that weren’t good fits. We were fortunate to find a consultant who specializes in HR and transitions who was local to our area. We were able to meet with him in person weekly to talk through succession. It helped us keep things moving and kept us in check. We do not feel like we would have been successful flying in a consultant two to three times a year for the push to move forward, although that could work for other companies.
Succession planning should not be limited to just the ownership and top leadership, but to most management areas because every area is affected. As we evolved in our roles through the transition, we found that we also needed/need (it’s ongoing) to develop current and future leadership to grow with us.
Greenhouse Grower: What were some of the important lessons you learned along the way?
Walters Gardens: Having all parties involved ready to start to think about succession and transition is key – for example, for us, our journey began in earnest when John Walters [current CEO] indicated he was ready for the process and handpicked the consultant we ended up working with.
Too often we get stuck in the operations of the business and don’t set aside time to strategize about the future. If we hadn’t set aside time to plan weekly, we wouldn’t have been successful. There’s always going to be some crisis that may derail your planned timeline (for us, it was COVID-19), but it’s important to get back on track as soon as you are able.
Greenhouse Grower: What effect, if any, will this news have on Walters Gardens’ customers?
Walters Gardens: Our customers can have the confidence that we are looking to the future, planning for succession, and strategically setting ourselves up for success. We will remain a family owned and operated company, we will have the same values that we are known for. Ryan, Christa, and Karin have been working for their family business for 15 to 20 years each in other roles, so they are all known entities among staff and customers.
Greenhouse Grower: What’s next for Walters Gardens? What are some projects or initiatives you’re working on?
Walters Gardens: We are building a new 4-acre greenhouse to accommodate for our incredible growth. We are also in the process of moving our tissue culture lab (which has been around since the 1970s) to a leased space in a nearby clean facility. Our lab’s main purpose is clean stock maintenance and internal production, and the new location should decrease contamination and increase capacity.