Rick Vuyst harvests success at Fruitbasket Flowerland

May 4, 2009
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When Rick Vuyst’s parents were struggling to survive in The Netherlands during World War II, they were forced to eat tulip bulbs. Now their son has made a career out of selling tulip bulbs, by the gazillions.

Rick Vuyst is president and CEO of Fruitbasket Flowerland, a local three-store chain of garden centers that has weathered recessions and boom times, war and peace, snow and sun during its 60-year history.

Forget March madness: At Fruitbasket Flowerland, between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, May madness is in full bloom. Vuyst oversees the retail business with the same common sense that made him a master gardener, a steady supply of corny gardening puns always at the ready.

“Thank you very mulch” is Vuyst’s favorite and the name of his Web site and blog.

“I provide them what I call a hedge-ucation,” Vuyst deadpans, commenting about those who call in to his Saturday morning show on WOOD Radio. “What we do on the radio show is we make entre-manures of people, and we give them a good, swift kick in the plants.”

Fruitbasket Flowerland began in 1949 as a fruit market at the corner of Clyde Park Avenue and 28th Street SW. “That was considered out in the country. There were no stoplights or that type of thing,” Vuyst said.

The business was started by the Tuinstra family and run for years by the sibling duo of Doris and Bob Tuinstra. Later they were joined by Sid Harkema, who today remains a shareholder in the private company and is the semi-retired chairman of the board.

“It was Doris, Bob and Sid that developed Flowerland into what it is today, with three locations,” Vuyst said.

“Of course, ‘Fruitbasket’ has its roots, so to speak, in our early produce days. Most people who have lived in our community for more than 20 or 30 years refer to us as Fruitbasket, Fruitbucket, the Fruiter — there’s all kinds of little nicknames for the company.

“In the mid- to late-80s, we tried to drop the Fruitbasket and simply be Flowerland. And people would not allow us to do it. And so the Fruitbasket name stuck, even though we don’t sell produce. A Kleenex will always be a Kleenex.”

Vuyst credited Harkema with a keen eye for real estate. Back in the 1960s, the original structure at 28th and Clyde Park was razed and the present building was constructed. In the early 1970s, Harkema established a second store by investing in land amid the rolling orchards and yawning fields along Alpine Avenue NW north of Four Mile Road.

“He was truly visionary, in my opinion, in selecting and developing the Alpine Avenue site. At that time, there was nothing out there. And I mean nothing,” Vuyst said.

“Same thing with our Kentwood store. Our Kentwood store was developed in 1978, opened in spring of 1979, and again Sid was the person who selected that site. I think he was very visionary in that because if you look at the appraisal pictures of the property, there was nothing out there but the Hoffman House. Now it’s one of the busiest retail corridors in the state of Michigan.”

Ninety percent of purchasing decisions at Flowerland are made by women, Vuyst said.

“Our female customers are extremely important in a garden center, where a lot of the purchases are discretionary. Your presentation is very important; the eclectic mix that you’re able to provide — different from what other retailers provide — is very, very important,” he said.

Vuyst, who joined the company 33 years ago while still in high school and today is a shareholder, said he’s watched the stores change over the years, particularly in the variety of merchandise and the way it is presented.

“For example, in the store itself, it used to be that we had rows upon rows of shelving with merchandise on the shelving — almost canyon-like corridors full of shelving,” he said. “Today, there is a much more open, airy feel to the store, tied into keeping the inventory fresh and turning it.”

Other changes reflect consumer demand, such as the garden supply department, which is one of the largest in the U.S. for an independent garden center. Consumer demand is shifting from the chemicals of previous years, both because of new laws and interest in the environment, and is focusing on preparations based on corn gluten, soybean and canola meal, he said.

“The gift lines, the garden center, the nursery: I’ve seen them change rapidly,” Vuyst said. “And yet the basic core of the business still is home and garden, no question about it.”

Fruitbasket Flowerland has escaped the battering the economy has handed to the retail sector over the past year, Vuyst said. In fact, the National Garden Association predicts that 40 percent more households will grow vegetable gardens this year.

“During a period of gloom and doom and economic turmoil, people go back to their roots,” he said. “For our business, to a large extent, weather trumps the economy. We closely track our sales on a daily basis, and one of the key indicators that we track is wind speed, sun and temperature. … I know from other garden centers around the country that even though the economy has an effect on all of us, as business owners in our business — especially from March to June — weather trumps the economy.”

As a seasonal business, the number of employees at Fruitbasket Flowerland fluctuates, Vuyst said, from a low of 40 during the slow post-Christmas months to as many as 125 to 150 at the height of the spring.

Vuyst has never worked anywhere else. He walked over to the Clyde Park store in 1976 and applied for a job while still a student at Calvin Christian High School, and has been there ever since. He grew up in the city of Wyoming, the second child of four born to Chris Vuyst, a carpenter, and his wife, Clara, who married in New Jersey after emigrating from the Netherlands in the 1950s. They moved to Grand Rapids under the auspices of their church sponsors.

While today Vuyst is all over the radio, the Internet and television, he claims to have been a shy child. He credits his roles on the high school stage for teasing the showmanship out of him.   

“My senior year, I played the role of Teddy Brewster in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,’ a deranged man who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt,” he recalled. “The feeling of live acting and the laughter from the crowd, even though it’s dark and the stage lights are bright and you can’t see them, it did something to me. It just was like, ‘I like this; this is great.’ I know it sounds stupid, but what that did to me was amazing. Prior to that, I was an incredibly shy, reserved kid. That had a huge impact on me.”

While he is a master gardener and certified nurseryman and has studied horticulture at Michigan State University, Vuyst does not hold a college degree. He studied at Davenport University, but never finished, he said, becoming too busy with increased responsibilities at work and a growing family.

Still, he nurtures a long-abiding interest in American history, which he even incorporates into his gardening. “I have two loves: one is American history and one is gardening. I can’t get enough of it,” Vuyst said. “Read, read, read, study, ask questions. … I have a tree in my landscape that is a direct descendant of the tree that Abraham Lincoln stood near when he gave the Gettysburg Address.”

He calls Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, “one of my heroes, because he’s one of America’s first great gardeners.” He has discussed the sorry state of the landscape on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers. He has stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg, and in the whisper of the grass, felt the lasting presence of the souls of men who died, wave after wave, in the epic battle of the Civil War. The experience inspired the guitar player to write a song that still hangs in his office.

“Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The greatest contribution a man can give his country is to add a useful plant to its culture.’ Wow. What a statement,” Vuyst said.

Vuyst started out his WOOD Radio show with Hank Prins, a co-worker, partner and friend who died in 1996 just two months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The experience had a profound effect on Vuyst.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about Hank in some way. Hank’s death in 1996 had a huge impact on who I am today and how I deal with people and view people,” he said. “The minute we start to take ourselves seriously is the day I quit doing this. Life is too short … too precious to be so caught up in yourself or to take yourself too seriously.”

Faced with a milestone 50th birthday later this year, Vuyst has been training to “get into the best shape of my life” and intends to participate in Saturday’s Fifth Third River Bank Run, even though he says he hates running.

He’s also quick to credit his wife, Sue, a piano teacher, for putting up with his “long, long, long” hours in retail, especially nights, weekends and holidays when other people are playing instead of working. He said he hasn’t had a Memorial Day weekend or Thanksgiving weekend off in three decades.

“I can honestly tell you that, for 33 years, I have worked every one of those weekends. It’s a retail reality,” Vuyst said. “If I had it off, I’m not quite sure what I would do. I would probably end up working in the yard.”

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