Business

A Vashon nursery takes some risks and discovers a new path

Kathy Wheaton says she had to change course or shutter her business. - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
Kathy Wheaton says she had to change course or shutter her business.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

After more than 40 years in the nursery business, Kathy Wheaton, owner of Kathy’s Corner in the heart of Vashon, is experiencing her 15 minutes — and then some — of fame.

Last month Wheaton and a heartfelt letter she wrote about her nursery business appeared on the front page of Green Profit, a trade publication well known in horticulture circles. In it, she spelled out some of the challenges of her years in the profession, particularly the last few, when the recession caused a multitude of businesses to close. But she also wrote about the revitalization efforts she and her staff undertook last winter after Wheaton took a serious walk around her property, scrutinized what she saw and set about making changes.

Since Green Profit published her letter — exactly as she wrote it — beginning on its cover, hundreds of business owners and customers have contacted Wheaton, and Chris Beytes, the magazine’s editor, said he received positive comments about the story as well.

“It struck a chord, I think, with a lot of readers,” he said, noting that that the topics she dealt with were the same issues many of his other readers were thinking about and feeling.

Wheaton and her store first came to his attention this spring, he said, in response to his weekly email newsletter to some 20,000 businesses owners, asking them to rate their spring weekends, when retailers typically do the majority of the year’s business, on a scale of 1 to 10. Wheaton, he said, kept reporting 10s, including a note one weekend in April saying that the store had broken its record for the best weekend ever.

A few weeks after that, Wheaton said, she sent him a long, unsolicited letter — the letter that is now in print — after she had learned of another nursery closing and needed to vent.

In an interview last week at her desk in her hoop house office and out amidst her fall plants for sale, Wheaton recounted how this story came to be.

Last January, she recalled, she was shivering in her unheated office, feeling like spring was a long way off. Recent years had included health problems, financial stress and downsizing of the shop, both in people and products. She had not drawn a paycheck in three years.

“It was probably the closest I’ve come to shutting the gate,” she said about that January day.

She knew she was faced with a choice: say “enough” and shut the gate or rise to the challenge.

She then embarked on her pivotal walk around her rows of plants and the rest of her grounds and did not like what she saw. “It looked tired, empty, dirty, understaffed and like nobody gave a damn,” she said.

What she saw made her realize she was not finished. “I am not going to go without a fight,” she recalled thinking.

With that, she and her staff got to work; they put new cloth down on the walkways, swept and — also imperative — adopted positive attitudes.

“I was determined it was going to be like it used to be,” she said.

With no cash and no line of credit, she decided she could forgo a paycheck for six more months, hired two new staff people — people she could not afford, but whom she could not afford not to have either, and she worked with vendors to bring in new stock. She raised prices and added to the landscaping crew, an aspect of her business that has kept her retail shop afloat during the recent lean times.

And, she wrote in her piece, they made another important adjustment as well.

“We quit being afraid,” she wrote. “We had been dying a slow death; it may have taken two years or 10, but we were slowly and surely declining. And now, well, it’s a long road with a many miles to go, but we are back to enjoying the trip.”

In fact, Wheaton said, after the changes were in place, business began to turn around.

“It was like we had turned on a valve. People have been fantastic,” she said.

It was a good spring, Wheaton confirmed. April this year brought in 80 percent more money than April last year, and the landscaping business, up 300 percent, is so busy she has had to turn people away.

“We’d changed,” Wheaton said about the springtime boom in her business. “And we hadn’t spent a ton of money doing it.”

After May, when she sent Beytes her letter, business continued to be strong through summer, apart from a soggy June, and regardless of what comes next, Wheaton said she knows she made the right decision.

“If we didn’t really go after it, we weren’t going to be here for the long-term,” she said. “You can’t sit on your laurels and do nothing. … I couldn’t not give it everything I had.”

Over the coming weeks, Wheaton said, she hopes to sell one-half to two-thirds of her stock as she empties the store for winter, holding sales to help the process along.

Despite this year’s success, Wheaton said, she does not know what will come next for her business, but she’s at peace with her decision. Indeed, she said, she believes the path she and her staff have travelled is not just about business, but about life as a whole; everyone, she said, can make similar choices — small decisions that could alter one’s course.

“We can all go sweep a floor. We can all smile. We don’t have to growl at our husbands. We don’t have to growl at our kids,” she said.

Out among her plants, Wheaton said she is engaged again but has worked harder in the last nine months than she has in a long time. Though tired, she is stronger for it, she said. People say to her, “Gee, you look good.”

Wheaton knows why. “I feel alive,” she said.

 

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