Rohrer Seeds Thrives on Adaptability, Diversification

11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — “Prices and economic issues are cyclical in this business,” said Doug Rohrer, the 40-something president of Rohrer Seeds, a multi-generational family business started more than 90 years ago. That includes changes in government regulations and taxes, Rohrer said.

Rohrer Seeds, a southeastern Pennsylvania-based seed supplier, has grown through the decades into a successful business selling $6.8 million annually. But in a highly competitive agriculture business like seed sales, how does a family seed business stay strong generation after generation?

It began in 1919, when P.L. Rohrer put together the first Rohrer Seeds catalogue, advertising “field seeds” like “clover, timothy and other grasses” as well as seed potatoes, seed corn and seed oats. (That same catalogue, updated each year with many new and trusted seed varieties, is still mailed out each year by Jan. 1.) But this was just the beginning.

Long familiar to locals, that small Rohrer Seeds retail seed store is still located in the hamlet of Smoketown, Pa., along busy Route 340 in Lancaster County. However, the store is just a small part of today’s Rohrer Seeds business, accounting for just 12 percent of its sales.

Though the retail seed sales were Rohrer Seeds’ main business in the past, now its biggest arm, 60 percent of the overall business, is a lawn and garden distribution department, which sells seeds and garden and lawn products to retail stores throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond.

Its other branch is a commercial landscape division, which sells seeds, equipment and products to landscape contractors. Turf seed, custom lawn mixes and erosion control products such as mats and hydroseeds are sold in quantities anywhere from 50 pounds to 2 tons at a time, and accounts for 18 percent.

The remaining 10 percent is the company’s ag division, which in Lancaster County is a highly competitive market. Soybeans, corn, alfalfa, grasses, pasture mixes and chemicals make up the bulk of what farmers purchase from Rohrer Seeds.

Many customers have been buying from Rohrer Seeds for a long time and, according to Doug, there is a longstanding loyalty, on both sides.

And, however small, he said the retail store serves as a signifier for other parts of the seed business.

“Having our own retail window gives us a measure of insight into what is happening at other retail accounts,” said Doug, president since 2008 and the great-grandson of founder P.L. Rohrer. “Many customers don’t realize we are a diversified seed company.”

There are some things a business cannot predict — like the weather. Weather has a huge impact on the seed business, Rohrer said. A series of nice spring and summer weekends might mean garden stores are crowded with eager buyers wanting to get outside and beautify their yards and plant their gardens. Cold, rainy weather on those weekends might keep many of those buyers at home.

A Family Business Adventure

While he was growing up, Doug, who has one sister, was not planning to join the family business. As a youth, he didn’t imagine he would have any opportunities there. Instead, he pursued his interests in math and computers, graduating from Grove City College in western Pennsylvania with a math degree and going to work for another company. But a while later, his father asked him to come work at the family business.

It turned out that Doug’s skills were put to good use.

“I worked especially in inventory control,” Doug said about his start with the company. He managed the upgrade of the computer systems, which was needed since the company has 15,000 items in inventory.

Doug has helped the business evolve and stay competitive with the guidance of his father, Gordon Rohrer, and team of key people at the company, including Jim Carpenter, who manages the wholesale lawn and garden department.

“This is a very service-oriented business,” Carpenter said. “There’s a lot of competition.”

The company has renewed its commitment to selling small volumes of garden seeds, in packets, and to improving its efficiency internally as well as its ability to distribute large volumes of seeds.

Jeff Watson plays a big role as the retail store manager. He said the business itself packages 400 varieties of seeds, including a line of heirloom seeds, that are shipped in from mostly out West. Watson said sweet corn, peas, beans, and beets are some of the biggest sellers. Customers like that Rohrer Seeds sells garden seeds in both small and large packages.

Jim Gamber handles mail order sales and answers many questions that gardeners call in with.

“The mail order side is like a business within a business,” he said. Gamber says there are a lot of first-time gardeners ordering seeds, a trend that has been growing over the past few years.

Doug, who had not gardened previously other than helping his grandparents shell peas or do corn, now grows a lush garden at home with his own family. Rohrer and his wife grow many of the vegetables that his family of five eat, and they eat a primarily vegan-style diet. He has three children, aged 5, 7 and 8, and said the family enjoys eating that way for the personal health benefits they feel it brings.

What does it mean to be a family business? Doug Rohrer considers Rohrer Seeds a family business even though it’s just he and his father with the family name in the office. He said the entire office maintains a “family feeling” within the workplace.

“It’s a good atmosphere,” he said, “with a caring culture.”

Being a family business also means that the company can get involved in projects or donate seeds for special needs, such as a recent involvement with a church project in Chicago.

Doug and his father Gordon have a good relationship with each other.

“I enjoy working with my father,” Doug said. “I enjoy coming to work.”

The team of three, Doug, Gordon and Jim Carpenter, generally make key company decisions together.

Doug said he is grateful that his father had the foresight to bring him in as the company president when Doug still would have time to grow into the leadership role.

“I’m thankful to my dad for giving me the opportunity to transition with other key people in place,” he said. The family transitions at times have been more sudden in the past, Doug said.

A majority of the 23-plus employees have worked at Rohrer Seeds for more than 20 years, with key employees there for 30 and 40 years. They have the institutional knowledge base that is a critical component of the business. But along with the commitment of knowledgeable, dedicated employees comes the awareness that Doug must one day be prepared for the future when some of the older employees will want to retire. Then, it will be tough to fill their shoes, he acknowledges.

“It’s a great benefit that a lot of people have been employed here for 20-plus years,” Rohrer said, “but it takes a long time to understand the business.”

Along with a longtime family business comes the aging of old infrastructure. A new 22,500-square-foot warehouse built on site in 1980 now holds contractor supplies and provides easy access to loading docks. In May 2011 the company installed solar panels on its roof. Power produced by the sun via the 142-kilowatt solar system is sent to the local utility’s power grid. The utility gives them credit, and Doug said it will pay for nearly 100 percent of their own electricity costs.

The company is also focusing on other upgrades, including making the warehouse space more efficient and enlarging the retail store. During the store’s busiest months, March through May, the tiny retail store becomes packed with customers. Plans are underfoot to enlarge the store’s square footage from 1,400 to 3,400 square feet by next fall.

As Rohrer Seeds continues to adapt, diversify and maintain its loyal customers, its 90-plus years of successful sales speak for themselves.

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