Berry and Ruthie Edwards signed the papers on a car hood when they bought a piece of Hilton Head Island 50 years ago. They were buying a nursery in a place they’d seen for the first time three months earlier. The two-lane main drag out front was pretty empty in 1973, but Berry saw signs of growth coming.
Still, it was a dare to quit his job as a textiles executive. He was a 30-year-old Sewanee English major. She was 28 with an art degree from Rollins College. They had two little boys, Berry III, 5, and Lee, 3. And Berry knew not one thing about plants.
“We made flash cards,” Ruthie said, “and the only way he could get a drink at night was to recite the names of 20 plants.”
They named their business The Greenery, and it has beaten tremendously long odds. As it marks its 50th anniversary this month, it joins David Martin’s Piggly Wiggly as one the few existing island businesses to survive that long under the same ownership.
What Berry and Ruthie bought was called Hillside Nursery, with six employees, six lawn mowers and two pickup trucks. This summer, The Greenery expects a staff of 750 to work its locations on the island, Bluffton, Beaufort, Savannah, Greenville, Amelia Island, Jacksonville, and Daytona Beach.
Through it all, the face of the business remains the same: a wood frame building they bought for $600 from Gethsemane Baptist Church in Okatie and barged it to the island.
“We wanted something attractive there,” Ruthie said. “It was perfect.”
That simple, decommissioned church stands as a symbol of a plucky generation of new islanders who dared to be different. They often struggled financially, but found other creative people here, and, as Ruthie says, “We worked like dogs all week and partied like dogs all weekend.”
Lee Edwards now runs the company as president, while his brother owns and operates another venerable business, Island Tire & Automotive Services.
In an interview, Lee Edwards discussed how a family business can possibly survive 50 years on Hilton Head:
Have descendants. Lee took over as president in 2007. Mixing family and business can be hard. Ruthie said: “Berry fired me and I quit. We weren’t compatible business partners.” She opened a Christmas shop.
Add services. They offered tennis court installation for a while; added landscape maintenance, then landscape design, then the design/build concept doing both. Ruthie said business was helped by referrals from legendary landscape architect Robert Marvin, who liked working with Berry.
Adapt. Landscape maintenance has veered away from residential to commercial customers. The retail nursery in the old church building is now a small part of the business. They do more staff training and have moved to robotic lawn mowers and electric leaf blowers.
Take care of employees. Berry Edwards said: “You can achieve sustained, quality growth by finding and keeping the best people at all levels of a company.” To do this, the company has become employee-owned. Employees earn stock, which has increased in value. It pays more, accepting that the minimum wage here is at least twice the government mandate. It provides transportation. Employees take company vans home to nearby communities, bringing others to and from work. It provides some housing for workers. The company owns six to eight condos on Hilton Head and rents some houses in the Hardeeville area. It offers a signing bonus to new hires. It offers a referral bonus to employees who refer new workers. It pays a lot of overtime.
“I’d rather pay a good employee time and a half than pay somebody else who won’t get the job done,” Lee Edwards said.
Give back to the community. They did landscaping for the island’s Youth Center in 1974, the forerunner to the Island Recreation Association, and in 2012 did landscaping for the Spanish Moss Trail in Beaufort. More than 250 employees were involved when they did a one-day tear-down and replanting of landscaping at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Berry Edwards said, “You reap what you sew.”
Grow. They did it by buying businesses. “We grow, not to be the biggest, but to give employees the next step up,” Lee Edwards said.
Work hard. “Dad was a workaholic,” Lee said. He tells about the summer day when he was 14, sitting at home watching television when he told his father there was nothing to do. “Well, there’s going to be something for you to do tomorrow,” he was told, and that was his welcome to the world of landscape maintenance.
By: David Lauderdale, The Island Packet
**Reprinted with permission.