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Cultivating the company’s growth

For more than three decades, Richard Chamberlin has been planting the seeds for his firm’s growth.
 
Chamberlin, 66, is the president and CEO of Garden Trends Inc., which does business as Harris Seeds.
 
In the Rochester area since 1879, Harris Seeds markets vegetable and flower seeds, as well as plants and growing supplies, to gardeners and professional growers throughout the United States. Customers typically order products from a Harris catalog or the company’s website.
 
Harris Seeds ships upwards of 100,000 orders to U.S. customers each season. It logs roughly $16 million in annual sales and continues to grow, Chamberlin says.
 
The company employees 42 people and hires up to 50 additional seasonal workers, with the busiest season running from January through May. The employment includes staff from the recent acquisition of Rochester-based Ken-Bar, a wholesale manufacturer of agricultural products for growers.
 
Chamberlin started at Harris in the early 1980s and became its leader in 1987. He is active in all aspects of the business, from designing the catalogs to overseeing research on new seed varieties.
 
Throughout the company’s long history, Chamberlin says, the focus has been on quality and customer service.
 
"They are the most important elements to our company," he says. "We focus on building relationships."

Upstate native
Chamberlin was born in Eden, a small farm town south of Buffalo in Erie County, but he spent most of his childhood in Newark, Wayne County, after his family moved there. He graduated from SUNY College at Buffalo in 1968 with a bachelor of arts degree in education and spent five years teaching art to junior high students in the Newark Central School District.
 
But Chamberlin decided that teaching was not for him and found work in graphic design. In 1981, he took a job designing and laying out catalogs for Harris Seeds, after working a few years at the former C.H. Stuart Co., owner of the Sarah Coventry Costume Jewelry Co. in Newark.
 
Chamberlin says he immediately fit into his job with Harris.
 
Harris Seeds began its catalog operation in 1879. It evolved from the efforts of Joseph Harris, an English immigrant who became successful in the selection of strains of vegetables and grains.
 
The company was managed by a succession of Harris family members for 100 years. Joseph Harris, grandson of the founder and the last of those managers, was chiefly responsible for introduction of a wide selection of vegetable hybrids, many of which remain in the marketplace.
 
With no Harris family members to continue in the business, Joseph Harris sold the company in 1979 to a private corporation. In 1987, however, he purchased the four Harris garden centers in Rochester. Those garden centers eventually went out of business, and the Harris Garden Center in Webster is independently owned.
 
The home garden catalog portion of the former Harris business was sold in 1987 to Chicago businessman Byram Dickes. At that time, Dickes asked Chamberlin to manage it.
 
Dickes and his family remain the owners.
 
The company has been housed at its 45,000-square-foot site on Paul Road in Chili since 2000.
 
Chamberlin counts Dickes among his business mentors. Dickes is a smart businessman who is fair-Harris Seeds has an employee profit-sharing program-and understands the importance of building relationships, he says.
 
"I respect people who are kind to other people," Chamberlin says.
 
Those who know Chamberlin say he embodies similar qualities.
 
James Zielinski, a CPA and partner at Bonadio & Co. LLP, has known Chamberlin for more than 20 years as a client and a friend. The friendship grew out of the long-term client relationship.
 
Chamberlin has a passion for the business, Zielinski says.
 
"He is always looking to the future. He is connected with customers, employees and suppliers; he focuses on providing value, managing for long-term success, and he treats everyone ethically and professionally," Zielinski says. "He is a pleasure to work with, both in good times and in trying situations."

Online growth
Harris Seeds releases four catalogs annually and is emphasizing the development of its website. Roughly 70 percent of the firm’s business comes through the catalogs. While Internet sales make up a smaller portion, Chamberlin says it is a growing revenue stream.
 
In addition to its mail order and online business, Harris has a group of sales representatives who call on professional growers in the East and Midwest. Harris Seeds also works with local schools in horticultural education.
 
To keep growing, Harris Seeds works to expand its customer base.
 
The target customer for Harris Seeds is the small to midsize grower, people who cultivate parcels from one acre up to 50 acres. It is a demographic Chamberlin sees as growing, given the recent popularity of growing and buying locally grown and organic vegetables.
 
Chamberlin says new growers may have taken up gardening in retirement or may be farming small parcels and selling their flowers and vegetables at farmers markets. He notes that farmers markets across the country have been growing at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent each year.
 
The company also focuses on new product development. Harris Seeds conducts extensive trials of vegetable and flower varieties at its five-acre site on Paul Road in Chili and at many other places in the Northeast, including the hamlet of Hall in Ontario County. A germination lab at the Chili facility ensures that seeds are of the highest quality.
 
Each year, Chamberlin and members of the Harris Seeds staff travel throughout the United States, selecting new varieties of vegetables and flowers. The group evaluates hundreds of vegetable varieties annually. This year, more than 75 flower varieties were introduced, as were more than 40 vegetable varieties.
 
As the Ken-Bar acquisition might suggest, Harris Seeds is always looking to expand its offerings. Last year, for example, Harris Seeds partnered with Worm Power of Livingston County, the nation’s largest vermicompost facility, to market an organic fertilizer created by using earthworms to convert organic waste. Harris Seeds distributes Worm Power’s products nationwide.

Yankees fan
Chamberlin’s office is filled with personal items. Family photos line the walls and shelves, as does New York Yankees memorabilia. Chamberlin has been a fan of the Bronx Bombers for many years and counts Baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Mickey Mantle as one of his heroes.
 
A long table rests against the back wall of his office, where Chamberlin has been busy working on designs for Harris Seeds’ upcoming catalogs. Each edition is geared to a specific customer-commercial, home or ornamental grower.
 
He also pens a regular company newsletter and blog.
 
At a small company, everyone chips in to get the work done, he says, so it is a good thing that he loves everything about his job-although he does admit to not being a huge fan of budgeting.
 
"Overall, it’s really a fun business," he says. "There really aren’t any downsides."
 
Chamberlin relies on those who work at Harris to keep it a reputable operation focused on quality and customer service. He describes his leadership style as hands-off but says he is there when an employee needs assistance.
 
"I try to find the right people for a job," he says. "I don’t sit on top of people."
 
Philip Ashcraft, president of Stason Farms Inc. in Loveland, Colo., has known Chamberlin for 25 years as a customer, supplier and fellow board member at Harris. Ashcraft says Chamberlin’s industry experience, knowledge, enthusiasm and congenial personality make him a successful business leader.
 
"His love for the company and his people skills, coupled with his determination and persistence, has combined to make him a very good business leader over the years," Ashcraft says.
 
Chamberlin lives in Churchville, where he cultivates a vegetable and flower garden in his backyard. An avid outdoorsman, he also enjoys hunting, fishing and golfing.
 
"I’m pretty simple to please," he says.
 
He also likes to spend time with his family. His adult daughters, Darcy Bernitt, 40, and Ainslie Johnson, 38, and his grandchildren live in the Rochester area.
 
Though he has reached what might be regarded as retirement age, Chamberlin says he will continue to work on growing the business.
 
"I love the job and enjoy coming to work every day," he says. "It’s fun to be here."

Richard Chamberlin
Position: President and CEO, of Garden Trends Inc., which does business as Harris Seeds
Age: 66
Education: B.A. in education, SUNY College at Buffalo, 1968
Family: Daughters Darcy Bernitt, 40, and Ainslie Johnson, 38
Residence: Churchville
Activities: Gardening, hunting, fishing, golfing
Quote: "I respect people who are kind to other people."

6/1/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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