With no money and little experience in horticulture, Angelo Petitti founded Petitti Garden Centers in 1966 out of an oversized garage — for pretty much no other reason than he enjoyed working outdoors. It wasn’t long before Petitti’s gardening knowledge grew, and he began driving the growth of his business based on the belief that he would one day have a sizeable company in the marketplace.
Fast forward nearly 50 years and Petitti’s love for the outdoors and his attention to quality and customers has allowed Petitti Garden Centers to dominate the Cleveland marketplace.
“The business has evolved from being a very small operation to 800 employees,” Petitti says. “In Northeast Ohio we are pretty well situated with nine stores — and there is definitely a lot more involved today in terms of planning and managing.”
From that oversized garage, Petitti’s grew to multiple locations in the 1980s and launched growing operations to become self-sufficient in all aspects of plants, trees and shrubs for quality, delivery and consistency purposes.
In the early 1990s, Petitti’s opened its first greenhouse, a 32-acre operation near Columbia Station, and a nursery in Lake County that today boasts 1,300 acres for growing. Petitti didn’t stop there. In 2000 he started updating the company’s garden centers.
“Throughout the ’90s we operated with older garden centers, but in 2000 we built the first state-of-the-art garden center in Strongsville that was one of the largest in the United States and had an assortment of products from home, garden, furniture and lifestyle,” Petitti says.
Since then, Petitti’s has built state-of-the-art facilities in Avon, Mentor and Bainbridge.
“There are really no other cities that have that many high-end, state-of-the-art facilities in one area,” Petitti says.
With 270 full-time employees and annual revenue of $45 million, Petitti continues to look for ways he can improve his impressive operation and give customers exactly what they are looking for in terms of their home and garden needs.
Here’s how Petitti has listened to customers to grow Petitti Garden Centers into a state-of-the-art operation.
Believe in your business
While Petitti didn’t enter the horticulture industry with a wealth of knowledge or years of prior experience, he believed he had what it would take to be successful. And in the early years of the business, that’s all it took to get started.
“When you look back at my beginnings, I started with no money and I really didn’t have any experience,” Petitti says. “I really took it day-by-day to learn the horticulture industry. What drove the growth was my belief in having a sizable business in the marketplace and having dominance in the category. That was always the goal from day one. I wanted to keep pushing the envelope.”
Petitti had what many entrepreneurs have when they start a business: commitment and belief.
“Those are the two ingredients you have to have,” he says. “It’s generally not an easy road.”
With all the ups and downs most entrepreneurs face in a new company, especially one like Petitti’s, you have to surround yourself with the best people.
“It’s helpful to have some kind of an advisory board, or a sounding board, where you can discuss your ideas, because that is a big help, especially before making big decisions,” Petitti says. “Through the years I have had a lot of friends who were very successful in the business and being able to talk to them and bounce ideas off them has been instrumental.”
Another matter that is very important is to be part of associations and groups within your industry to help you gain more knowledge and stimulate your creativity.
“Getting to know those people is another big part of how you can inspire yourself to create. It helps you make contacts with people you may want to get ideas from or bounce ideas off of,” he says. “That really helps a lot to see how other people run their business.”
Setting up relationships is really a key part of running a business. It’s not the only thing that will make your business successful, but it’s a big part of growth and navigating the different areas of your industry.
The other instrumental aspect of growth has to do with the people you hire to work in your business. Petitti says this is still one of the most important aspects of his business.
“When you go to hire people, most people hire people that reflect their personalities,” he says. “When you’re building a business from nothing, your gut becomes your No. 1 gauge of what’s right and what’s wrong. Your gut is going to be right 99 percent of the time. That’s been my biggest gauge, and after a while as you get the experience, you get the feel for what is right and what doesn’t feel right.
“Hiring is one area that you really want to put the effort in so you have people that will represent your company and have passion for the industry that you’re in.”
Focus on the customer
Aside from believing in himself and putting in the necessary work to gain knowledge in the industry, Petitti also knew that having a customer-heavy focus in this business would get him far.
“Being independent, we’re in a very, very competitive arena,” Petitti says. “The way we differentiate ourselves is through very high-quality plant material and high-quality service to our customers. That’s something where we have to make sure we pick and train the best employees who share and believe in the same philosophy that we believe in.”
Petitti says he has always been very customer-oriented and treats his customers the way he wants to be treated.
“I always tell our employees to put yourself in the customer’s position and do what you would want someone else to do if you were the customer,” he says. “That’s the philosophy we use. They are empowered to take action and take care of the customer, but we rely on that philosophy.”
Treating the customer well is one thing, but it’s another thing to make sure you’re delivering on what the customer wants from a product perspective.
“We’re very focused on product diversity and making sure we deliver products that our customers are looking for,” he says. “We are also very focused on the plants, which is the core of our business, and bringing the latest innovation in terms of new varieties of plants.
“The focus has been on easier-to-grow plants and longer blooming plants so the consumer doesn’t have to be a plant scientist to grow them. Everything is shifting toward less maintenance, more hardiness and less spraying.”
Lifestyle is another segment of business now receiving Petitti Garden Centers’ focus because customers are looking for it.
“Today, homeowners are trying to tie the outside in with the inside by having nice decks or patios and connecting those rooms to the inside,” Petitti says. “That’s become a very popular thing to do and something people enjoy the most about their homes. So there’s a lot being done in that part of the business.”
It’s not too difficult to ask customers what they are looking for and then deliver on those demands. It’s much tougher to actually be out in front of consumer demand and offer customers things they don’t even know they want.
“You have to have very engaging people on the retail sales force so that they provide what the people are looking for, but they also try to find out the trends,” he says. “We travel to Europe and Asia to look for new trends. We go to all kinds of different shows to pick up on what is coming down the road.”
No matter what industry you are in, connecting with the customer takes work. You can’t expect to manage your business from behind a computer in your office.
“You have to be involved,” Petitti says. “I go on the radio to tell people what is new at the stores. I’m in the stores all the time talking with people and being very engaged with our employees. It’s something that never ends.”
In Petitti’s world, everything that was good this year may be out the window next year. You have to stay on top of it.
“You can’t assume that things are going to be the same next year, and you have to be very engaged,” he says. “It’s a never-ending evolution. It doesn’t matter what product it is, it will get better — more customer-friendly — the following year. Everybody is looking to make things easier for the customer, whether it’s plants or furniture, so that people have fewer issues to deal with.”
Today, few businesses dare to remain stagnant and unchanged. If you believe in keeping the status quo, you’re likely to fall by the wayside. Petitti has tried to do an exceptional job of keeping pace with his industry, and in many cases, leading the pack when it comes to diversifying his business.
“Up until about six or seven years ago, our company was about 75 percent green-oriented, and by that I mean trees, shrubs and plant material,” Petitti says. “We had very little in the lifestyle segment. As the industry has evolved and seasonality has become more important, we recognized that we had to take the seasonality out of the business and get into other areas.”
When Petitti opened the company’s Strongsville location in 2000, the company began selling lifestyle merchandise such as outdoor furniture and grills.
In the past, Petitti’s would sell plants until the end of June and then the rest of the year the company’s stores saw minimal traffic.
“The motivator was to make the business a year-round business versus just a seasonal business,” he says. “Seven years ago there was very little of that kind of merchandise. Today, it represents almost 50 percent of our business.
“Every business really has to look at diversity. If you just have one focus in business, you’re very vulnerable to whatever market changes can come. That diversity gave us a year-round business, allowed us to keep employment for our people year-round and was a big key to the expansion of the business.”
Having recently diversified the company’s offerings to make the business year-round and having updated many of the company’s operations around Northeast Ohio, Petitti says he is excited to see more growth in the business.
“Moving forward, we are going to keep looking at growth, but be much more cautionary and not be quite as aggressive as we were in the past,” he says. “At this point we don’t have any plans to expand beyond Northeast Ohio, but we’re looking to invest more in our stores, our customers and our workforce.” ●
How to reach: Petitti Garden Centers, (440) 439-8636 or www.petittigardencenter.com