Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Garden Center is Always Blooming With New Ideas

Mickman Brothers Inc. in Ham Lake has expanded services this year, highlighting its owners' tuned-in timing.

Originally published April 26, 2006

By Sarah McCann, Staff Writer, Star Tribune

A time to plant,
a time to reap,
a time to innovate and expand business.

Chris and John Mickman of Mickman Brothers Inc. nailed that pattern once again this year.

The brothers grew up helping with the family Christmas wreath business in the 1960s, started their own landscaping and irrigation business in 1975 and took charge of the wreath operation soon after.

Mickman Brothers produces about half a million wreaths a year. If a Cub Scout has ever knocked on your door in the winter months, you probably know Mickman wreaths.

Then they added a Garden Center with trees, flowers, pots and tools at their 21-acre property in Ham Lake.

Last year's expansion included a partnership with Hedberg Hardscape Center, which offers materials and services for retaining walls, water features and patios at the Mickman Brothers' site.

This year's growth area is aimed at women, who make up 80 percent of Garden Center customers. New this season is an expanded home decor section in the center, and it's all arranged in a female-friendly atmosphere.

The idea came about after visitors from the American Nursery and Landscape Association noted that men were the decisionmakers for the Garden Center while mostly women were using it. Advice taken.

The Mickmans asked Diane Lee, who grew up across the street from their family and is the former owner of the Round Barn antique and home decorating store in Andover, to head up the effort.

Lee worked on redecorating and selecting new items. "Women really want to get a warm, fun feeling when they're shopping and more of an experience," she said.

The result? Sales are up 40 percent this season.

Leslie LaBonne, who has shopped at Mickman Brothers for about 10 years, is one contributor. "I was amazed when I came in this year and saw how they expanded it. I like that a lot," she said. "They've really grown. They've just added and added and added."

The Mickmans' open ears to feedback, innovative ideas and calculated responses are exactly what keeps the business strong, employees say. In 2005 the business recorded $11 million in gross sales.

Bob Fitch, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, said, "Both John and Chris are experts at new ideas, creative ideas and the ability to implement those ideas."

John gives some credit to their downtime in winter months.

"I take that time to do a thorough evaluation of our past year's operation and search for ways to enhance the good things and look for ways to deal with the issues we had," he said.

That could mean major business decisions. Or adding classes that now run every Wednesday and Saturday on topics such as growing and cooking with herbs or decorating a beautiful table for wedding showers or July 4th. Or purchases such as the cardboard compactor machine that breaks down loads of cardboard boxes that become profitable when sold for recycling.

"I'm always looking for ways to make things more efficient and easier," John said.

Conservation is a huge part of that for the company, Chris said.

"Our father was a real big role model for us," he said. "He always told us we should be like the Boy Scouts and always leave a place - for instance a campsite - better than when we first got there.

So Mickman Brothers stocks shelves with cutting-edge technology like the new solar landscaping lights that store enough energy to shine throughout the night. The brothers spread the word on the most forest-friendly way to harvest balsam boughs for wreaths. John initiated and garnered support for legislation requiring lawn sprinkler systems to have rain sensors that stop watering during or just after rain. That became state law in 2003.

People who work with the two say they have a passion for conservation, a balance between reflection and action, and enthusiasm best described by John himself.

"They're going to bury me here. This is my hobby," he said. "I like spending Saturdays in May here - I'm not going to be at my house doing my garden; I'm going to be here talking to customers about their gardens."

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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