Walking through the silo entrance into the renovated 1909 cattle Barn No. 1, originally owned by Diamond Match Co. founder and city father O.C. Barber, you immediately notice the subdued lighting, joyfully interrupted by splashes of color from Amish quilts decorating the walls throughout the building.
The Yoder brothers -- Ira and Menno -- managed Barber's greenhouses on the Anna Dean Farm. When Barber died in 1920, the brothers bought the greenhouses and incorporated Yoder Brothers Inc. in 1921. The company's breeding and production facilities have moved to warmer climates, but headquarters remain local.
Once home to a Prohibition-era distillery, a haunted house, a Seiberling Latex manufacturing facility and more, Barn No. 1 was scheduled to be razed in 1974. A local historical preservation group stopped demolition, but the barn sat vacant until 1982, when Yoder bought the building for its headquarters and began its three-year, $2 million renovation, working with the Ohio Historical Society to receive a tax credit and maintain the building's original integrity.
As the world's leading breeder and propagator of chrysanthemums, as well as a leading propagator and marketer of perennials, the company's humble nature is reflected in the modest demeanor of Vice Chairman Tom Doak. Doak, who is retiring this fall after 37 years with Yoder, began his career at Yoder's Fort Myers, Fla., operations as an industrial engineer and climbed the management ladder to become vice president of production in 1977, executive vice president in 1985, president and COO in 1989 and CEO in 1992.
He stepped down as president and CEO last November; William Rasbach succeeds him in those positions.
Doak's office follows the curved brick form of another silo in the barn building. Photos of Yoder's greenhouse facilities dutifully line the wall, and papers on his desk are stacked in neat piles.
"We have 13 different locations, which operate right now in four different countries," Doak says. "Our main business is starter plants to growers in North America and some exported material. We have a finished product business that supplies supermarkets primarily. ... We have 10,000 customers in North America. ... (In the chrysanthemum product line) we offer almost 450 varieties, and we probably have 1,200 varieties of perennials. We're doing all of this with a perishable product in an environment where we're somewhat subject to the environment itself.
"That makes for a very complicated business."
Planting the seeds
Although horticulture is a mature industry, the products don't have infinite life cycles, so Doak says having more products, or those that serve different seasons, provides more consistent cash flow and protection against market downturns.
Among its developments over the last 20 years, the company acquired Green Leaf Enterprises in 1996 to move toward the perennial starter plant business -- which Yoder was not involved in at that time -- and Blooms of Bressingham North America was formed in the late '90s to market products originated from U.K.-based Blooms of Bressingham. Since then, "we have expanded the use of that name and trademark to incorporate other breeders' new perennial products, which we market through our Green Leaf subsidiary," Doak says.
Six years ago, Yoder joined Fischer USA, the Paul Ecke Ranch and Goldsmith Seeds and Plants to launch The Flower Fields, a marketing cooperative representing more than 1,500 annuals, perennials and garden mums.
Yoder's new-product development group and breeding group produce new flower varieties, a process that takes about five years for chrysanthemums. The company also acts as an agent for growers who find new varieties.
"A grower of chrysanthemums may find a mutation that occurs spontaneously on a product that he's flowering, and he might send that into us," Doak says. "We would analyze it in terms of whether it's a change that's stable or not, or whether it represents a change that's worth considering."
The company performs trials of the product in various environments because "it'll grow quite differently here in Barberton than it does in Southern Texas or in California or in Northern Europe, or if it's a cut flower, in South America."
Doak says while marketing the product and making it available to growers takes only six to nine months, a large amount of time is spent "making sure it's a product you want to put your name on."
Yoder also works with Royalty Administration International, a Holland-based organization that protects breeders' intellectual property rights and allows breeders to collect a return on their investment and breed more varieties.
Locally, the Yoder name is associated with Barberton's annual Mum Fest at Lake Anna. The company donates 15,000 to 19,000 garden mums each year for the weekend festival, which draws busloads of crowds from miles around.
"That's a community activity which is largely a donation on our part," Doak says. "We don't look at it as a research project. Those varieties are already in the marketplace, and certainly the number of people are potentially customers of ours ... but it's a relatively small portion of the market. ... Our interest in it is primarily to help the city of Barberton and give them something that we can work on as well."
Yoder also invites growers and retailers to open houses and field days, and sends company representatives to trade shows.
"We have a program with key growers on new products whereby we provide them with products on a pre-introductory basis ... and then we get feedback from them as to whether there's something we've missed in the process that we should think about before we make it available to everyone," Doak says.
The company also participates in industry exhibitions, including the Ohio Florists' Association Short Course in Columbus, one of the largest horticultural presentations in the United States; the California Pack Trials; the Southeast Greenhouse Conference in Greenville, S.C.; and the New England Greenhouse Conference. Catalogs and spec sheets are distributed at these events, and the company advertises in trade magazines.
"We don't do much (advertising) in national magazines because the consumer market is not one that we directly interface with," he says.
Nurturing the crop
Just as Yoder's greenhouse operations follow a process to create a beautiful bloom, Doak says the company maintains a three-year strategic plan, subject to review as marketplace issues change and opportunities become available. This plan establishes financial, product introduction and location parameters, which form the context in which the company operates.
Doak says annual planning provides guidelines for facility and personnel requirements, as well as pricing and competitive issues. Yoder, which has a board with outside members as the majority, hosts quarterly board meetings.
"Weekly and monthly reports keep people internally aware of how the corporation is performing," he says. "Even though we are a private company, we keep our key managers involved in the financial, corporate and sales status."
In addition to being answerable to its board, Yoder has a corporate philosophy to be accountable to growers who purchase its crops. It has received praise for its Clean Stock Program to propagate clean, disease-free plants, and in 2002, it made the financial investment and corporate commitment to have foundation stock programs for 100 percent of the company's perennials by 2005.
Doak says while the project is still on track, the numbers may not match the original commitment.
"There's 1,200 different products to do, and I'm not sure we will have all of them by 2005, but certainly, we will have all the major ones by then," he says.
For example, Yoder's chrysanthemums go through an annual internal certification process to make sure they are free of viruses, bacteria, fungi and other things that would be deleterious to the product. The company maintains an elite number of plants of every variety. Some are kept in bottles in a cool environment, while others are kept in protective greenhouses where airflows are monitored and plants are kept from touching.
Doak says lab-coated breeders use these stock plants to renew the coming year's crop.
"We aren't dealing with a nut or a bolt that we could measure that stays the same -- we are dealing with a living product," he says. " ... Not only does the product change but the bacteria, viruses and insects change. ... It still has to produce a product that performs the way the customer expects it to perform in terms of growth habit, color, and, of course, it has to live. Dying is not good, at least premature dying."
Reaping the bounty
Yoder Brothers' products are widely respected throughout the horticulture world. Trade publication Greenhouse Grower has ranked the company No. 4 on its list of the Top 100 Growers for the past three years.
"We have a responsibility not only to our shareholders and employees but also to our customers, because they depend upon us for the starter plant that drives their business," Doak says. " ... We look for products that are more difficult to do in terms of growing reliability, product timing and plant stability because that's where we can contribute best and have the best niche for ourselves."
Doak knows that growing a stable plant and growing a successful company rely on solid roots.
"The original founders were Mennonites. ... I think we inherited a conservative tradition that came from that mold," he says. "We're conservative on financial issues. In other words, we're not likely to go out and highly leverage the company to do something. ... Because we are a private company, we generally tend to look at things in a fairly longer timeframe.
"We're looking for relationships as well as products that have a life to them, rather than something that would be hot today and gone tomorrow."
How to reach: Yoder Brothers Inc., (800) 321-9573 or www.yoder.com