Sunday, July 14, 2002

Plant business grows with family tree

Third, fourth generations of clan work to integrate floral, nursery customers

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Horticulturists know that a well-established root system is essential to a plant's growth and health. That bit of gardening wisdom can apply to business organisms as well, and the owners of H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse Inc. know that.

Kathleen and Michael Benken (front) and Lindsay and Tim Clarke, two of Mrs. Benken's children, operate H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse Inc.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Several generations of Benkens have nurtured the company over 63 years, encouraging new shoots and adding fertilizer when necessary. From hardy root stock has grown the Tristate's largest full-service florist and nursery combination, still operating from the 30-acre site where it started.

        The family enterprise began with Henry and Johanna Benken, whose initials are still part of the company name. In 1939 they left their dairy farm on Cincinnati's west side and moved to Silverton, deciding to operate the small floral shop and greenhouse on the property. The pair knew little about their new calling, but Mrs. Benken learned the basics of floral arrangement while her husband grew the flowers to supply the shop.

        As the floral industry began to change in the early 1970s, company ownership passed to the founders' eldest son, Richard. Rather than relying on local growers, florists could order blooms from all over the world, year-round. Often, floral arrangements were personalized with small gift items. Silk flowers and potted plants became popular alternatives to cut flowers.

        Richard Benken and his wife, Annette, positioned the business to take advantage of these trends, expanding the company's product lines, enhancing its floral offerings and adding a new showroom. The focus began to shift toward retailing and away from growing.

        Since 1997, Richard and Annette's son Michael and his wife, Kathleen, have owned and operated the business. Kathleen Benken's three adult children, Tim, Lindsay and John Clark, are also involved.

  H.J. Benken is at 6000 Plainfield Road; 891-1040 or
  H.J. Benken's owners have decided to make the company's 30-plus acres a destination, rather than moving retail operations to a more central location.
  Nestled in a woodsy corner of Silverton is a greenhouse nursery that grows almost 100 percent of what Benken sells to gardeners, a garden center, a floral design studio and a gift shop. Every October the business hosts a fall festival.
  The nursery sells about 50 varieties of annuals and almost 300 kinds of perennials. To help gardeners make wise selections and treat their purchases properly, the company publishes a booklet that offers advice on placement and cultivation for each plant.
  The company has launched a corporate initiative, “Roses for Winners,” designed to help companies recognize outstanding employees. Customers can enroll in the program monthly or occasionally.
  In addition to the five family members, H.J. Benken employs about 40 people year-round, adding others during peak season.
        “When we took over it was with the idea that the kids would want to take the business over eventually,” Mrs. Benken said. “We weren't going to work that hard to turn it over to someone else when we were ready to retire.”

        Since 1997, H.J. Benken has posted double-digit annual sales growth. The nursery, which caters to the increasing residential gardening market, accounts for about 50 percent of the company's sales. The floral division, which has won awards at the Cincinnati Flower and Garden Show, has expanded its clientele.

        The problem that has faced the current owners is how to integrate its two customer bases. Traditionally, the business has created flower arrangements for one group, and sold hostas, petunias and shade trees to another.

        “One of our challenges right now is trying to get the two customers to mix,” Mr. Benken said.

        “We recognized the need for some major updating, to build long-term growth and brand recognition,” Tim Clark said. “We have a new logo that promotes both aspects of our business, and we're going through a redesign of our Web site.“

        Said Mr. Benken: “We want to be known as the place to go to make your home beautiful.”

        A diverse bouquet of talents supports the effort. Like Mr. Benken, John Clark spends his time in the greenhouse. Tim Clark's main emphasis is administration and marketing. Mrs. Benken, who serves as vice president of the Ohio Florists' Association, oversees the company's floral business. Lindsay Clark works with customers.

        “She's by far our best salesperson,” said her brother, Tim. . “We want her to be able to float and work in both the greenhouse and the floral departments.”

        Tim Clark wants to broaden the customer base, too.

        “One of the things we've tried to do with our whole campaign is to make it brand-oriented, not promotion-oriented, not just planning our advertising around holidays,” he explained. “Right now our message is designed to get our name and logo out there.

        “We're getting ready to start the second phase of the campaign. Instead of seasonality, it's "reason-ality,' if that's a word.”

        The goal is to convince customers that they don't need an occasion to send flowers; that flowers produce smiles on holidays and nonholidays alike.

        When customers come to H.J. Benken for garden plants, they come away with as much advice as merchandise, Mrs. Benken said.

        “We go out of our way to make sure we educate you,” she said. “We spend 50 percent of our time talking people out of buying something, usually because it's too early to plant it, or it's not the right plant for the location. We feel you will return to us because we've been honest. We also don't grow plants in flats. All our plants are grown in 3- and 4-inch pots, so their root systems are well developed.”

        “We want people to have gardening success,” her husband said. “Our goal is flowers in every home and a garden in every yard.”


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