Interview with a Plant Advocate: Kathryn O’Donnell, New York
By Mary Golden
In 1971, Kathryn O’Donnell was recruited by her former husband to help convert a florist shop into a retail plant shop. The company grew, acquiring greenhouses in New York and Florida, developing an interiorscape division, and teaching horticultural seminars.
Today, in addition to providing leadership for a thriving Botanicus, Kathryn is a GPGB Registered Trainer, and the author of the new GPGB CEU program, Living Walls – Advanced Case Studies.
If you could start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Two things: I would have converted our retail stores to “plant marts”, which would have used a warehouse model. We would stock the warehouse with plants from our local greenhouses or ship our plants up from our greenhouses in Bonita Springs, Florida. And I would have continued to explore franchising Botanicus. We have built wonderful systems for achieving operational excellence and I would have liked to have shared this with other, like-minded entrepreneurs.
What have you learned from being in a room full of architects and talking to them about plant benefits?
I found out that we need to regularly inspire architects with the visual art of nature indoors. Our industry has grown and nurtured a wonderful collection of inspiring spaces and the use of plants has evolved. Architects have so many responsibilities in their profession. We need to refresh their enthusiasm for plant-based designs with our own enthusiasm, presentations, knowledge, experience and commitment!
What are you passionate about?
I love people and I love data. I love technology. And I am passionate about operational excellence. Being an entrepreneur has allowed me to work with all the things I love and express my passions.
What’s the most fun you’ve had with plants lately?
Watching the R+D happening on living green walls and working with a variety of living green wall systems. Going on the road and touring impressive installations like the Nedlaw walls in Canada and Patrick Blanc’s walls in France. People are excited about the beauty these walls are bringing into their lives and it is fun to be a part of that. I feel these walls are part of a horticultural renaissance that will last.
Do you feel the same way about green roofs?
No, the opportunities for people to get excited about green roofs are limited by the variety of site-specific roofing issues that exist. Installing a green roof is complicated by so many issues related to roof construction.
Most valued book on bookshelf?
I’m constantly reading. Perhaps my all time favorite is “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, because it is applicable to my business and my personal life. Its premise is that being effective in attaining goals means living a life based on specific principles, such as trustworthiness and kindness, as well as the more obvious principles such as good time management.
Currently, what is your favorite software program or app and why?
I love what we are able to do with our smart phones. From GPS, route mapping and traffic alerts, to sharing onsite photos, the technology tools just get better and better. Just recently we developed a process to deliver and submit route sheets that uses our smart phones. Now its 4 weeks later and we’ve eliminated 90% of the paper associated with our former route sheet process.
We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” the principle being that management success depends a great deal on what you are measuring. What do you measure which you feel contributes to your company’s success?
We have sku numbers on each plant that allow us to inventory plant age, vendor, size, price code, etc. This is great info which we use in making a number of decisions. I run every department as a separate division with its separate P+L. When hiring new staff, I use the data from an assessment program to help ensure I put the right person in the right position.
How do you involve your staff when an important company strategy decision needed to be made?
Well, you know I love data. Strategic decisions are made based on data we’ve collected and I share that data with my team. I get them involved. Frequently, they’ve been involved with the data collection.
I also try to see things from their perspective and I ask them “what I can do to help you”? I deeply believe in the philosophy of “servant leadership”.
I know volunteerism is important to you. Tell us a little about this.
My life is enriched by my volunteer activities. I have learned as much from my volunteer activities as I have from participating in the terrific business groups I belong to. I worked to develop a private/public partnership for the Buffalo Botanical Gardens that secured the long-term viability of the gardens and learned about non-profit management and the public/private governance model. During the recession, this model has been used to preserve public resources in many communities.
I’ve been a lifelong figure skater. I love spending time on the ice and I’ve taught blind and handicapped children to figure skate. Watching them employ their skill sets to become confident on the ice has been a transforming experience.
In my company we expand the concept of volunteerism, which aligns with the concept of servant leadership. At Botanicus, we are all volunteers. I know that my team members, although they are being paid, they are also choosing to invest their time and talent with Botanicus, in essence volunteering to be on our team. They could work elsewhere. As far as our relationship with our customers, our customers are choosing us/ volunteering to invest their resources with us. For our part, we are choosing to work with that customer/volunteering to invest in their project. If we discover that a customer does not honor the business relationship with truthfulness and respect, it may be time for us to leave that relationship and invest our time and talent elsewhere.
You mentioned belonging to some business groups. Could you tell us more about this?
Locally, I belong to an entrepreneur CEO group. I also belong to National Interiorscape Network, which provides me with the opportunity to share best practices and benchmarks among leading companies in my industry. Participating in these groups has given me the fortitude and courage to move my company forward. If I am working with a specific issue, for example, migrating from a 1 week schedule to a 2 week schedule, my colleagues in these groups are great resources.
You recently returned from a trip to Italy. Did you see them doing anything interesting with plants?
Although the historic buildings were breathtaking, I was amazed by the fact I saw little floral color being using. I compare this to the floral color I saw in Alaska which was gorgeous and bountiful. Perhaps this is because Alaska’s outdoor season is so short and creates a pent-up demand for the containerized color-riot. The plants are grown indoors until the weather is right and then the hanging baskets and planters come out in all their glory.
What’s your super-vitamin?
Good genes and Hot yoga. I’ve practiced Bikram yoga for the past 15 years. In a room heated to 105 degrees I stretch and mediate. This practice makes me stronger physically and spiritually, and preserves my energy.
Thanks so much Kathryn!
Mary Golden (firstname.lastname@example.org) works with GPGB to help interiorscapers communicate plant benefits and put more plants in every room.