Inside Track: Entrepreneur’s ideas bloom after grounding flight school
Ryan Mast digs into the flower planter industry with acquisitions, new products and retail locations.
When he started college, Ryan Mast intended to become an airline pilot, but instead he took off as an entrepreneur.
Mast said he earned his pilot’s license while still attending Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville. He went on to college at Western Michigan University specifically because he wanted to become a commercial pilot, enrolling in the school’s flight science program.
“I did it for a year and came back (home) that summer, and I realized I didn’t want to live in Kalamazoo,” he said. “I felt more at home here.”
It was during that summer when he first had an idea for a potential new product, which started him down the road to becoming an entrepreneur and eventually led him to found Bloem, the company he runs today.
He said his first business revolved around a single product line that never really took off. Next, he joined his father-in-law and sister-in-law in a new venture selling flowerpots made in China.
“The only way we could be competitive was to produce (the pots) in China,” he explained.
He said the company began by focusing on high-cost, low-turnover flowerpots, but later began focusing on low-cost, high-turnover items.
Eventually, Mast said he decided he was interested in getting out of the importing business; he wanted instead to focus on domestic production.
In 2012, like many a young entrepreneur, Mast launched his new business out of his garage. Bloem manufactures planters and other accessories for plants.
He said warehouse space was an early challenge for the business, which quickly outgrew Mast’s garage.
“Warehousing was always a problem in the early days,” he said. “I worked with Kandu Industries in Holland for a period of time; they helped us through that period. Then I rented a warehouse in Hudsonville the second year.”
Mast said a relationship that developed with Meijer Inc. provided an important launching pad for Bloem.
“The buyer at the time had seen the vision I was trying to build on, and I have to give him a lot of credit for taking the risk,” Mast said.
At the time, he said, “We didn’t even have the tools to make the products. We had prototypes and a photo-shopped catalogue. They signed us up as a supplier based on that, and we were able to get into several key regional chains because of that.
“It was really a springboard to success,” he said.
By year three, Bloem had made its first acquisition, purchasing plastic horticulture product manufacturer Duraco Products of Streamwood, Illinois — a move that elevated the business significantly.
“We weren’t playing a small game anymore,” Mast said.
At that point, Mast had a handful of employees and warehouse space in Chicago, and was filling orders in Chicago and Grand Rapids.
In January 2015, Bloem acquired a brand new Wisconsin-based start-up called BloomBagz.
BloomBagz had developed a series of patent-pending fabric planters made from a material consistent with recycled water bottles. The product line, now called BloemBagz, provide a unique, eco-friendly solution for urban gardening and other situations requiring a portable planter.
The product provided Bloem with its first non-molded-plastic planter, paving the way for the growing company to broaden its product offerings.
At the time of the acquisition, Mast said, “The quality and versatility of the products, combined with the environmental commitment and stylish designs, are aligned with our long-term objectives. Emerging material technology is the future of container gardening.”
The company followed that acquisition with another a year later. In January 2016, it bought American Designer Pottery of Apopka, Florida, which was a division of Fiskars Brands.
That acquisition extended Bloem’s reach from 3,000 retailers to 10,000 retailers. It also made Bloem one of the largest designers and manufacturers of decorative planters, with more than 30 percent of the market.
Mast said between 2012 and 2013, Bloem had grown to eight and a half times its previous size, and then grew another two and a half times from 2013 to 2014. From 2014 to 2015, the company doubled, and this year he expects Bloem to grow four and a half times its size last year.
The company currently has 160 employees.
Today, Bloem’s corporate headquarters are still located in Hudsonville. It has a satellite warehouse in Joliet, Illinois, and its primary facility for production is located in Florida.
Bloem does business with national retailers and garden centers in all 50 states.
Mast said the company does some international business, as well, but he noted Bloem’s products are a tough item to ship internationally, so international markets aren’t a big focus for the company.
He said he doesn’t just want to see his company get bigger, but instead, he’s focused on building a healthy company.
He said some of the challenges Bloem faces include being a seasonal business; having lots of well-established competition within the industry; and the crucial need for inventory planning and operating at a high volume to be successful.
Mast also said it’s important to him that Bloem become an innovator within the industry.
He noted that, in the past, consumers simply looked for a flowerpot that was approximately the right size, but more recently consumers have become much more interested in the design and color of the flowerpots they purchase.
“There is now a more ‘fashionable’ approach to the flowerpot,” he said.
He said that means keeping up with trends and making sure the products Bloem is producing are on trend.
He said Bloem products have shown up on some of HGTV’s design-centric shows and have made some other television appearances, as well.
For instance, he mentioned a planter’s appearance on the NBC sitcom hit “The Office.”
“The little pot that sits by Pam’s desk was one of our planters prior to our acquisition,” he said.
Mast said thus far Bloem has mostly focused on industry branding, but he realizes there is an opportunity for the company on the consumer branding side, as well.
Last year, the company created a concept store at Countryside Greenhouse in Allendale to help it begin to understand consumer shopping and buying habits.
“We learned a lot in our concept store,” he said.
Bloem will once again have its concept store at Countryside this summer to continue its research on what consumers buy.
Mast also expects Bloem to move from an acquisition model to an internal approach to innovation. He said the company would be hiring new employees with an eye toward innovation to support that goal.
He said he hasn’t had any issues attracting the employees the company needs; indeed, he points to West Michigan as a great location for the business because talent wants to move here.
He added there are a lot of individuals who are ready to leave large organizations for smaller ones, and Bloem is a great destination for them.
Does he ever wonder what life would have been like if he’d stayed at Western Michigan University and become a commercial pilot?
“Looking back now, the entrepreneurial spirit was probably the direction I was gifted to go into,” Mast said. “I’m passionate about people and organizational health, and growing and developing a business.
“Had I gone down the path of aviation flight science, I wouldn’t have been happy.”