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Green Business

Working for himself is like a walk down the garden path for Ed Read

mad_lead.tif Since 2001, Ed Read and his wife, Trish, have watched their business, Mad River Garden Center on Vermont 100 in Waitsfield, grow from a small plant shop to a full-blown, one-stop shop for a gardener’s every need, plus landscape contracting and a property management service.

by Keith Morrill

Ed Read likes to make light of his achievements. For starters, he insists that he screws up daily before most people are even out of bed. “If I haven’t messed something up by 6 in the morning, I haven’t done my job right,” he says. It might be easier to believe him if he could tell it with a straight face.

Since assuming ownership of the building on Vermont 100 in Waitsfield now known as Mad River Garden Center, Read has transformed the operation from a modest place to pick through perennials to a one-stop shop for a gardener’s every need. Mad River Garden Center seems to have its green thumb in just about every piece of the gardening pie.

Besides selling gardening supplies, the center boasts a full nursery, greenhouse, florist, landscaping contractor, and a property management service. He and his employees see plants from seed to finished garden. While this might seem like a lot for one business to handle, Read welcomes it all. “The bigger the better,” he claims. By offering services for every stage of the gardening process, Read says, he has been able to create his ideal workday.

“I spend half my day doing business work and financial work here, and half my time outside getting dirty,” he explains. “Any time you can go home dirty at the end of the day, that’s a good job.” Read’s office at the garden center is planted between the retail floor and landscaping garage as if to acknowledge that.

mad_group.tif In the greenhouse are Jeannie Sargent (left), gardener; Kelly Aiken, florist; Sarah Zschau, perennials expert and landscape designer; Laura Caffrey, the business manager; and Jen Soucy, garden center manager.

The entire facility, inside and out, is amazingly clean for a business that spends so much time playing in the dirt. According to employees, the aesthetics have come a long way from when the business opened. There are new greenhouses, a new florist in the back, and a completely new layout for the retail space that did away what they describe as “a 1950s shop look.”

A lot has changed since Read purchased the business in July 2001. He had been vice president of mountain operations at Sugarbush, then owned and operated by American Skiing Co. It was a gig he had for 11 years. He confesses he may have some issues with authority. “I don’t take direction too well,” he says with a grin, adding, “except from my wife. I told them I was ready to work for myself.”

He learned that Jerry Tucker, the owner of Tucker’s Garden Center, was looking to sell his business, which consisted primarily of the plant shop and a small-engine sales and service garage. The small-engine work has been Tucker’s primary source of business.

Read continued the small-engine sales and service, but found it didn’t suit him. “It was a strange mix,” he recalls. “We’d have tables full of annuals out here, and people driving up through to come into the shop. There’d be mechanics smoking cigarettes while a grandmother picked pansies nearby. It didn’t work so much.” He adds with a laugh, “It didn’t really make money much, either. And I wasn’t all that good with it.”

After a few years, Read dropped the small-engine work and focused his extra energy on what was quickly becoming a lucrative and dominant part of his business: landscaping and property management. He provides services running the gamut from mowing and plowing to garden and tree installation, and even stone wall and patio work.

Most of the company’s contract work is done on second homes in the area — about 60 percent second homes and 40 percent residential and commercial, Read says. The commercial work includes some up in Read’s old stomping grounds at Sugarbush. The contract work has grown so much that he’s increased his staff from a single man to a seasonal crew of 15 landscapers.

That’s not to say that the grass has been nothing but green. Advertising has presented an interesting challenge. Because landscaping management represents the majority of his business, and most of those clients are people with second homes in the area, traditional radio and newspaper ads often fall on deaf ears. “I’ve cut back on it,” says Read. It’s the sort of thing that’s taken him a while to figure out, but he’s found what works for him. “The best advertising we do is the signs on the trucks and the little workplace signs at the end of driveways.”

It might all be too much without a solid team backing him, he says. Despite his constant good-natured jabs at himself, Read does seem willing to concede on this one strength. “The success of this business is very much tied in with the people I hire,” he boasts. “The best thing I can do is hire good people and let them do their thing.”

Mad River Garden Center has five year-round employees including Read’s three managers: Laura Caffrey, business manager; Jen Soucy, garden center manager; and Joel Conant, landscaping manager.

Todd Farnham, another full-timer, is the landscape foreman, with his hand in a bit of everything outside the retail shop, including landscaping, plowing, and acting as mechanic for the equipment. Kierney Gaboriault works in the retail shop. These five have been invaluable in keeping the place going, says Read. “I give them the basics, and they just do it all.”

mad_river3.tif Mad River Garden Center boasts a full nursery, greenhouse, florist, landscaping contractor and property management service. Todd Farnham (left) is a landscape foreman; Joel Conant, landscaping manager; and John Hayes, landscape foreman.

Martin Patterson, who has a home in the area, sees things a bit differently. “Ed is a hands-on guy,” he says. “We had a really large project last summer. It involved my ideas, but he worked with me. We did a stone retaining wall and a full patio with patio lighting in it, all new slanting, and did a hillside next to a pond.

“Any problems, he’s there,” Patterson continues. “He checks in. I was completely happy with the final product.”

Read takes on seasonal employees in warm months to help meet demand. During the busiest time, in May and June, he generally adds 25 employees to help in just about every aspect of the business.

He confesses that having employees has shortened his days, despite the increased business and workload. This leaves more time for family. His wife, Trish, co-owner, does a few behind-the-scenes things, including the advertising and marketing, but her primary job is as advertising rep for Kids Vermont family newspaper.

The two met while Read was studying business at UVM, but didn’t hit it off until they encountered each other working at the former Chequers restaurant in Richmond. Trish waited tables and Read tended bar. They were wed in 1995. Read calls it “the only over-achievement” of his life. “Some women are just naturally attracted to big fat guys,” he says with a smirk. “Go figure.”

They reside in Fayston with their two children. Ben, a baseball player and avid sports fan, is 9 years old, and Sally, an equestrienne, has just turned 8. Both attend Fayston Elementary. As a family, they enjoy outdoor activities like skiing and snowshoeing. “As long as its outdoors, it’s for us,” says Read.

The typical day will find Read up before dark taking a walk to organize his thoughts for the day, trying to avoid “too many mistakes.” Once he arrives at the garden center, he and Conant get crews ready and trucks loaded and on the road to job sites by 8 a.m. That’s when the retail shop opens for business. This, Read says, helps to avoid tangles in the parking lot between departing service vehicles and arriving customers, and just creates a better atmosphere for everybody.

“It’s a fun place,” says Read. “It should continue to grow. There’s no reason we can’t be the biggest landscape/property management place in central Vermont. I can’t see why not. We’ve got the physical location, and I’ve got good people. So long as I don’t mess it up. I’m the only one standing in the way. That’s the way I look at it.” •

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