Name: Peter and Leslie van Berkum
Business name: Van Berkum Nursery, LLC
Business website: http://www.vanberkumnursery.com
Industry: A container nursery selling perennials across northern New England
Location: Deerfield, NH
SBDC Advisor: Working with Warren Daniel for 20 to 25 years
When the shutdown began, what was the immediate impact on your business?
That was actually the scariest time. Were we essential? Were our customers (garden centers and landscapers throughout Northern New England) essential?
We were essential in New Hampshire. Massachusetts and Vermont remained careful for a while. Each state was different, and we sell to five states. We normally ship in early May, but we just had to watch it all unfold.
Fifty percent of our sales happens April through June. We wouldn’t survive if we were shut down during those months. It was an…ominous time.
Then, to our surprise, gardening became a craze. We had not yet ramped all the way back up, but we had to call everyone back in, everyone we had in reserve. It was a total reversal. We literally sent the crew home for one day and brought them back the next. We had to maintain half a million plants and we started shipping in May.
It took a while for garden centers in Vermont to open. Massachusetts was restricted. Maine was restricted. Some stayed shut because they wanted to.
And then it became a feeding frenzy. It just really snowballed. We began to joke that plants were the new toilet paper.
Once businesses were able to open in NH, how did you adapt your business, services, products, and/or physical space (from mid-June to the present time)?
First, of course, the whole safety and health thing. We had up to 50 people reporting to work each day. We are just lucky that most of what we do is outside, and each of our office employees—6 or 7— have their own office. Outside we’re pretty spread out across 15 acres. Our production lines, where about 10 people pot the plants, were lengthened to give workers space. We added conveyor belts. We were very religious about masks inside; outdoors we’ve let that go. When we deliver plants, we make sure we respect whatever their rules are.
Will you continue the changes and adaptations you have made once concerns over COVID-19 are behind us? Are you planning to institute more changes in the near future?
We don’t know what to expect next, of course, but we’ve got about the same amount of things growing. We might need to do some catch up in the spring.
We’re reading and analyzing the data every week. I’ve asked staff to be forgiving if things completely change. We watch the marketplace. We changed courses midstream in May. A lot. One trade group told us in spring they expected garden sales would be cut in half. Sales doubled three weeks later.
If you have employees, how has your workforce been affected (number pre-pandemic and current, furloughed, laid off, WorkShare, returned under PPP, etc.)?
We applied in a panic, as soon as we knew what was available and before the (gardening) feeding frenzy. We got PPP money, then wondered if it was right for us to have it once we saw how things turned. However, the PPP helped us last through those very uncertain few first weeks.
As to the rest of the relief programs, Peter says, “We were too busy selling plants to notice, and we wouldn’t have qualified for any. We had the equipment we needed and we just needed the confidence to bring the crews back in. It was a huge relief for us to apply for the PPP. It was a real blessing.
How has NH SBDC helped you and your business, especially in the last year?
Quite a bit, and it’s ongoing. Warren has seen us through a number of storms and this is just the most recent one. He helped us get focus on all the information the government was throwing at us. He had a better handle on where it was all going than I did, so that was great. He has helped us in growing the business, learning all the aspects of what could happen as you add each employee and to manage H.R. and such. We’ve seen 3 to 20 percent growth over 30 years, and it keeps adding up. Warren’s been so helpful, along with this business group that meets together once a month.
SBDC has been invaluable to us and I am always encouraging any new businesses that I talk to to get with an advisor. You have these wonderful, skilled, educated people that are doing it for free. What better way to spend money to support people than to support businesses that can give people jobs?
This client story is part of NH SBDC's ongoing collection of COVID Creativity stories about businesses surviving and thriving during COVID-19.