While old man winter may still give us a fit or two before Spring, we can take comfort that soon the frost will give way to the morning dew and summer will not be far behind. We’re just a few months out from one of my favorite past times, planting the garden at our farm in Rock Hill (South Carolina). I’ve been a gardener since I was just a little tike with my Granddaddy Russell instructing me on how deep to dig holes in which to plant my watermelon seeds. Actually, both my Grandfathers had a garden each summer. Granddaddy Feemster took special pride in his tomatoes and peppers while Granddaddy Russell planted plenty of corn, beans, and melons. There were also lots of other goodies like peas, cucumbers, beets, and peanuts! Later in his life, I spent many afternoons with Granddaddy Feemster as we tended the rows, weeding them out, and later sitting back in a chair seemingly watching it grow. It’s funny how much you learn from someone working side by side in the garden. I perhaps learned more about Granddaddy Feemster in the three or four seasons we worked together in the garden than all of our years together as his grandson.
I can still remember the anxiousness I felt as we visited my grandparents each weekend as a boy. I would tear down the pasture to the garden, slipping through the gate, to see how much my plants had grown. It seemed to take forever for the plump melons and juicy tomatoes to find their way to my belly. Later in the summer, I would awake to find Granddaddy Russell had swung by our house and deposited several juicy Congo watermelons on the back doorsteps on his way to work or mom had a big bag of fresh squash and tomatoes from Granddaddy Feemster’s garden. Through the years, my work in the garden became a little more intense with the disking, tilling, and weeding that must be done. Tying up tomato plants, taking hoe in hand to rid the garden of pesky weeds is a task. But at the end of the season you enjoy the bounty and your hard work is rewarded.
This past month, the Lake Norman Chamber recognized an outstanding business in our region with the Cashion Business Person(s) of the Year. Instead of a single business owner, the Chamber recognized a family. A family who has had a profound impact on our region. Tom VanWingerden, who was born in Holland, immigrated to the United States in 1971 and rented a 20,000 square-foot greenhouse on three acres in Charlotte. Four years later, he moved to Huntersville, opening a 40,000 square-foot greenhouse on 50 acres of land. Metrolina now employs over 600 full-time employees and 200 part-time employees and was named Lowe’s Vender of the Year in both 2005 and 2009.
It’s a business that mixes science and art with precision and patience. Metrolina finished growing 4.8 million poinsettias across 120 acres in just four weeks for the Christmas holidays. Forty percent of the business is raised during the peak of the growing period from March to June with tens of millions of mums, marigolds, pansies, petunias, dahlias, begonias, and zinnias. Metrolina is also in the final stages of a three-year expansion to 150 acres from 100, at an investment of $1 million per acre. This expansion has added over 150-200 new jobs in the last 3 years. To be completed next month, the facility will span 5.8 million square feet. That’s a footprint larger than four Concord Mills malls, more square footage than the former Sears Tower in Chicago, and a bigger floor area than the 4.3 million-square-foot Boeing plant in Everett, Washington.
Tom, who tragically passed away this December in an accident, had turned the operation of the business over to his family. Abe runs sales, marketing, IT, and the company’s sister company, Plant Partners which provides labor that goes into the retail outlets like Lowes and Wal-Mart and assures the product is maintained, positioned, and managed. Plant Partners alone has over 800 employees across 11 states. Art runs daily operations at the greenhouse and heads the main operational divisions of the company. Michael heads shipping and distribution, and Thomas is in charge of construction and maintenance. Sister Helen handles information technology and analysis duties for the company and another sister named Rose opted to become a teacher (now retired). Her husband, Joey, is responsible for materials tracking at the greenhouse.
Tom passed down two main philosophies which drive the success of Metrolina: “Get one percent better every day” and “If your memories are bigger than your dreams, then you are falling behind.” Tom VanWingerden left far more than dreams at Metrolina – he left the community and our region a legacy of leadership.