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Mast Literally A Growing Business
WALKER — If you purchased an Easter lily from Wal-Mart, you supported a local firm — even if you bought it in Missouri.
Neal Mast & Son Greenhouses has supplied the world's largest retailer with holiday floral plants since, well, before Wal-Mart became the world's largest retailer.
The greenhouse, on Four Mile Road in Walker, began providing Wal-Marts in Illinois and Missouri with Easter lilies and Christmas poinsettias in 1989. Fast-forward to 2004 and Mast Greenhouses will tell you that they just finished supplying 1,600 Wal-Mart stores in 35 states with its traditional "Nellie White" Easter lilies.
"The couple of weeks before Easter is our biggest shipping week," said Ann Browneye, human resources manager for the greenhouse. "It's pretty big."
Although the plants are for national holidays, Mast Greenhouses works on the order all year. The lilies, for instance, come from California. After blooming in August, the plants are dug up and sent to the local greenhouse in October. Mast then stores the lilies in its coolers for 1,000 hours, or roughly 42 days, to simulate winter.
"Then we plant them and they go out on the floor as the poinsettias are being shipped in mid-December. It is a year-long process with the planning, cooling, planting and getting them shipped," said Browneye.
The contract Mast Greenhouses has with Wal-Mart, however, is for more than Christmas and Easter plants. Browneye said her company ships floral products to the retailer 45 weeks each year.
In addition to the holiday plants, which also include Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and St. Patrick's Day, Mast supplies Wal-Mart with potted spring and summer annuals, garden mums in the fall, and indoor foliage plants.
"We're like a promotional vendor. We're not their weekly or monthly vendor. Grocery stores and retail stores have weekly vendors for their indoor floral," said Browneye.
The business from Wal-Mart has helped the greenhouse grow, literally.
Mast has expanded its facility from 120,000 square feet to 510,000 square feet in stages over the years, with the last expansion in the summer of 2002. The greenhouses now cover a dozen acres and the company also has another 15 acres for outdoor growing.
Wal-Mart has a reputation for using local suppliers as often as it can. But the retailer also is known for demanding that its suppliers cut their cost by 5 percent each year so it can maintain its status as the price rollback leader. Often that chapter of the Wal-Mart story has made the company look disloyal and overbearing to some suppliers, who lost their contracts with the retail giant because they couldn't meet those cost-reduction demands.
Browneye, however, told the Business Journal last week that having a relationship with Wal-Mart isn't as troubling as some reports have indicated.
"Wal-Mart is pretty tough. But they are very fair and they will help with innovative ways of reducing your costs. And you do have their volume," she said, while adding that Wal-Mart was the only retailer that Mast supplies.
There isn't anything Mast can do about the royalty on a cutting or the price of a cutting for a particular plant or bulb, as Browneye said those charges are outside of the company's control, and Wal-Mart is aware of that.
"But they do challenge you to fine-tune the efficiencies within your own company," she said. "Our owners have said that the buyers for Wal-Mart are the fairest group of buyers that they have ever worked with. They are fair and ethical, and they stand by what they commit to."
Jim Mast bought the business from his father, Neal, in 1987, 15 years after Neal started growing geraniums to sell to local cemeteries. Jim serves as company president, while Jim Raterink is CFO and a co-owner of the firm. Other members of the Mast family are also growers and have their own businesses that are independent of Mast Greenhouses.
Mast Greenhouses has 100 fulltime employees, six part-time workers, and from 15 to 20 temps during heavy planting periods.
"We do a very large, spring, pre-finished bulb promotion and we plant millions of bulbs that get potted up into our coolers, and our coolers are as big as a barn," said Browneye, who has been with Mast for two years. "We have four of those and we also rent additional cooling space with some local fruit farmers. I was very surprised when I came here."