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People in Glass Houses

Private Garden Provides an Oasis for a Unique Set of Clients

As Hurricane Rita ripped its way through the Texas-Louisiana coast in September, 2005, home and business owners braced for the worst.

The owners of the Timberline Nursery in Hillister, Texas as well as the greenhouse’s designer — Private Garden of Hampden — were among the worried. Indeed, the 650,000-square-foot glass structure was among the largest and most vulnerable buildings in the storm’s path.

But when the skies cleared, the nursery still stood — with minimal damage, and far better off than many surrounding buildings.

And 2,000 miles away in Western Mass., the Hickson family breathed a sigh of relief, knowing their client’s business was safe, and that their product had just weathered the ultimate test.

Joe and Kathy Hickson, who started Private Garden in 1984, have created a name for themselves in the home and garden industry, as one of just a handful of companies that offer high-end glass enclosures for commercial and residential use.

Locally, they are also an example of a thriving family business, one that began with a $200 loan more than two decades ago and now employs not only the Hicksons, but also two of their children, Joe Hickson III and Jennifer Sackrider, who spoke with BusinessWest about the business, its history, and its future.

“We’ve worked in almost every state,” said Sackrider, noting that the wide reach of the company requires plenty of international and domestic travel for its principles; in fact, her parents were on location at press time in Hillister, meeting with the Timberline Nursery owners to finish a final round of repairs. “It’s our job to bring the customers in, and also to design and build the structure they need. We’re involved from start to finish.”

Pane and Simple

Private Garden specializes in the design, sale, and installation of both residential and commercial greenhouses. That includes glasshouses, heated conservatories, and pool enclosures for residential clients, and growing ranges, garden centers, and boutique greenhouses on the commercial end.

Joe and Kathy Hickson first entered the business while living in Virginia and while Joe was working with a local park and recreation department. He hired a glasshouse company for a project, according to Sackrider, and later decided to enter the industry himself.

He has a master’s degree in education and Kathy a degree in occupational therapy, but still, the business that draws from specialties such as architecture, engineering, construction, and horticulture has proven to be a good fit for the Hicksons. The company is at the close of a strong year, and saw one of its best years ever in 2005. Private Garden is also one of just five such companies nationwide that provide these high-end types of glass structures, and even within such a small pool of competitors, the company has carved its own niche to stand out.

The first strength is seen in the customization of orders. Every order is different, especially in the residential sector, and while Sackrider said about 80% of Private Garden’s clients are commercial, many of the more customized aspects of the smaller, residential enclosures are now being seen among corporate clients such as garden centers.

Garden centers are getting creative, she said, to survive in a landscape dominated by big box stores offering similar products at lower prices.

“The big boxes are knocking out the little guys,” said Sackrider. “And if they don’t have something that’s appealing and makes them stand out, those smaller centers are not going to last.”

Climate Control

Those ‘little guys’ include destination garden centers — larger businesses that attract customers from a wide radius; regional garden centers, and boutique garden centers, the smallest of the three and those most threatened by the big box trend.

To better compete, all types of garden centers are adding an array of bells and whistles to increase productivity, such as irrigation and environmental control systems, or adding a little flair to an existing business by constructing a greenhouse that includes cupolas, lanterns, or covered walkways, and in some cases, even added event space, restaurants, or coffee bars.

To offer that customization that is increasingly in demand, Private Garden works closely with a number of European fabricators that specialize in different types of greenhouses, such as Lloyd Hamilton of Belgium, which manufactures wood conservatories and orangeries, and Hartley Botanic of England, which has earned an endorsement from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew for its Victorian glasshouses.

“There are so many different products to choose from that there are limitless things we can do,” said Sackrider.

The structures start at about $23,000, but after pouring a foundation and completing the necessary masonry on their own, Sackrider said most people are committed to upwards of $50,000 to install a residential greenhouse, and much more than that for a commercial model.

“We’re the Rolls Royce of the industry,” she said, adding that the lofty distinction also adds some interesting wrinkles to an already very specialized business.

All Private Garden structures, commercial as well as residential, are custom- designed and built, using a team of architects, designers, craftsmen, and engineers culled from both the Private Garden staff and those of the European partnering companies. They’re also constructed onsite across North America, as local as a few feet down the street from the company’s headquarters at Hampden Nurseries, and as far away as Washington, California, Bermuda, and Hawaii.

But the high-end nature of the product, particularly in the residential market, also creates some intriguing concerns for the company.

The firm has a number of wealthy and, in some cases, well-known clients, so Sackrider explained that staff members, numbering about 20, are trained to value the privacy of their customers as much as quality of craftsmanship.

Beyond that, many affluent areas, Beverly Hills, for instance, have ordinances in place to maintain quality of life for its residents, such as construction bans after certain times of the day and noise restrictions on weekends.

Private Garden also has a strong following in New York City, as the only greenhouse purveyor in the Northeast that uses aluminum frames as well as wood; building codes in major cities often prevent the use of anything other than aluminum when building additions of any kind, said Sackrider, let alone one as unique and fragile as a glass conservatory.

That has created a cadre of clients who have ordered custom conservatories in the logistical nightmare that is Manhattan because, well, they can — one client even had one installed in his 16th floor, penthouse apartment — and making no easy feat out of completing an already complicated job.

Inch by Inch

That’s a trend, Sackrider added, that illustrates the nature of Private Garden’s business. On one hand, it caters to a wealthy set, and on the other, to garden centers that instead of dying in the shadow of big box competitors, are making major investments in their craft.

“In our industry, we see firsthand on the residential side that regardless of the economy, the rich keep spending,” she said. “And commercially, people are either getting out or stepping up.”

The Timberline Nursery in Hillister, however, is simply doing what its customized greenhouse allows them to — standing tall, while the winds of change blow around its reinforced glass and aluminum walls.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]