Distribution in full bloom

by Carolyn Gruske

For plants that originated in the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America, being transported from greenhouses to stores to homes during some of Canada’s coldest months can be highly stressful. But that’s exactly what needs to happen for Canadians to use poinsettias as Christmas decorations.

Forest Glen Greenhouses Ltd in Brookfield, Nova Scotia grows poinsettias for the retail market. It supplies plants to over 50 stores in the Loblaw supermarket chain in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The company’s seven acres of plastic greenhouses also produce other garden plants during the rest of the year, including annuals in the spring and chrysanthemums in the fall.

Besides growing the plants, the family-owned and run company also handles most of the logistics and distribution aspects of the business, says Megan Thompson Whidden, Forest Glen’s business manager, and daughter the company’s founders, Judy and Lee Thompson.

Although Forest Glen contracts out some of its overnight delivery runs, the majority of its plants are delivered by eight of its own employees, in trucks rented from Ryder System Inc.

“In the spring, which is our busiest season, we would rent eight of the [five-tonne] straight trucks and four tractor trailers,” says Thompson Whidden, adding that in the other seasons, the fleet is typically composed of five straight trucks and two tractor-trailers.

“We pick up the trucks at the first of the season and we don’t return them until the end.”

She says Forest Glen needs to have a ready-to-go fleet on hand as delivery windows can be very short and very quick to materialize.

“Because our business is so weather-dependent, the stores can change the orders, so we’re always in constant communication with them. If we had an order for 10 racks to go to the store and it was pouring rain for four days, we wouldn’t go with the 10 racks. We try to really work with the customers and do what is best for them,” she says.

“If the sun did peek out, we have to go. We have a small window of time to get the product out. That’s why we do it that way.”

Forest Glen delivers its plants on rolling racks. The racks—typically six feet high with five or six shelves each—are loaded with hand-chosen plants and then shrink wrapped. Forty-one rolling racks fit into a trailer and a straight truck can take 20.

“Because it’s a live product, we try to load and go and get them off as quickly as possible because the plants really don’t like to sit on the truck,” says Thompson Whidden.

At the stores, the plants are sold from the racks, so every time a Forest Glen driver drops off a new shipment of plants at a grocery store, there are empty racks to pick up. At the end of the season, a final trip is made to all the retailers to pick up the remaining racks.

According to Thompson Whidden, Forest Glen started renting from Ryder 18 years ago, but entered into an exclusive arrangement approximately four years ago.

“We just find that works better. They are able to give us great customer service and the trucks are more reliable than others we have used,” she says.

“We try to book our trucks ahead of time so we can get our requests in and they have lots of time to get them for us. We request to have the automatic lifts, as new a truck as possible, and depending on whether our driver has their air brake [certification], we can request an air-brake truck.”

At this time of the year, there is one more feature the trucks and trailers need to have: temperature control. Thompson Whidden says poinsettias can’t be in environments colder than 18C.

Handling live plants requires a bit of attention and care. Thompson Whidden says that’s something Forest Glen’s drivers are well trained in.

“We always give the drivers a little lesson before they go. A lot of them have been with us for ten years, so it’s nothing new for them.”

Some of the drivers are crossed-trained and work in the greenhouses when there are no orders to deliver.

Like many companies, Thompson Whidden says Forest Glen finds it difficult to recruit new drivers.

“Where it’s seasonal work, it is hard to get drivers for just that period of time.”

Just as there are tight timeframes for the actual deliveries, there are correspondingly tight deadlines for getting the orders together. The plants stay in the greenhouse until the order arrives. Then they are selected, moved into the 2,000sqf, four-dock warehouse where they are organized, prepared for shipping, and loaded onto the trucks.

“We thought the warehouse was big when we built it,” says Thompson Whidden. “It’s definitely not big enough. We could probably use twice that.”