April 20, 2006: An interview with Todd Bachman

  • Article by: TERRY FIEDLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2008 - 11:10 AM

For the fourth-generation CEO of a 121-year-old family business, the past often explains the present.

For the fourth-generation CEO of a 121-year-old family business,  the past often explains the present.

When people ask Todd Bachman why Bachman's, the well-known Minneapolis garden center and florist, selected purple as its signature color, he takes you back to 1943, a time of paper rationing because of World War II.

Given the choice of brown craft, green or purple paper, Bachman's uncle took purple because it wasn't as popular, and he could stock up on it. In keeping with its new color for packaging, Bachman's delivery trucks were painted purple beginning in 1953.

As much as Bachman and his cousins in senior management respect history, they've now decided to make some breaks with the past after two years of flat sales (revenue was $81 million for the year ended in January) and break-even results.

The company is undertaking a "rebranding" that does away with the purple packaging and trucks, and introduces a new gift boutique within the garden centers, called Wink, in the hope of attracting and keeping younger female customers.

The Wink rollout will be completed by Monday in Bachman's six full-service garden centers and a seventh location at U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. Meanwhile, changes in Bachman's packaging and signs, to go along with a new logo, will be completed in the next few weeks.

Most of the delivery trucks have been converted to a white botanical pattern on a chartreuse background. A few vertical bars are all that remain of the traditional purple.

Bachman, 60, who has worked at the company since 1968, said that "it's important we have a fresh look," while his cousin Paul, 54, who heads marketing and merchandising, noted that the company needed to reinvigorate its floral and gift business, which represents 40 percent of sales.

Research done with women between age 35 and 49 told them things they needed to know, but were hard to hear.

"It hit pretty close to home when some of them said they think of Bachman's as their mother's store," Paul Bachman said. "Wink will add some of that whimsy that has been missing at Bachman's."

The price tag for the makeover - about $250,000 - wouldn't be much for a Fortune 500 company, but it's a major, and necessary, investment for the Bachmans.

"In 121 years, we've had to reinvent ourselves more than a few times," said President Dale Bachman, 55.

Vegetables to flowers

Begun in 1885 as a four-acre vegetable farm in south Minneapolis, Bachman's now has retail stores in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, including six full-service floral, gift and garden centers, 12 small retail floral stores and Cedar Acres Garden and Landscape Center. The company also operates a 629-acre growing range near Lakeville and runs a landscaping business and a wholesale nursery division.

Bachman's employs 1,600 workers during its peak season in the spring and summer, and about 1,100 the rest of the time. The company expects sales to be $82 million this year.

Selling plants and flowers in Minnesota can be a tricky, unpredictable business - 46 percent of Bachman's garden and landscaping business comes in the six weeks ending Memorial Day. Cold or rainy weather can clip sales by 5 percent or more.

"It makes you wonder why you would want to be a horticulture entrepreneur in Minnesota," Dale Bachman said.

The bigger picture is that total U.S. garden and lawn sales were down 4 percent in 2005 over the previous year, to about $35 billion, according to the National Gardening Association, which noted that the industry has "not seen significant increases in the last three years."

Still, Bachman's consumer research in 2004 found that its garden centers were well accepted, with sales continuing to grow. Late last year the company held a focus group to get a handle on its floral and gift business, which had been struggling, mainly because of the softening market for collectibles and a product mix that was out of step with younger women.

Department 56 Villages and Snowbabies had been mainstays and continue to be good sellers for Bachman's. The Department 56 business was so successful that Bachman's was able to spin it out as a separate company in 1992 and sell it for $284 million.

As the 1990s waned though, so did enthusiasm for collectibles such as Hummels. One of the reasons was the big aftermarket created by eBay for limited-edition products.

"Before, you said `limited edition' and it worked like a charm," Paul Bachman said. "Now people say, `I'm not falling for it.'-"

Girlfriend factor

In general, the women in the focus group said that Bachman's lacked what they called "girlfriend gifts."

To fill that niche, Bachman's has introduced the Wink boutique within its garden centers. A Bachman buyer suggested the name, and the concept was developed with the help of Black Design of Minneapolis.

The department's dominant color is chartreuse with pink chandeliers. About 70 percent of the Wink merchandise is priced at less than $40, and 50 percent is less than $25. Items range from novelty products, such as doggy jewelry, to Mother Teresa breath mints to frames and stationery. Collectibles account for about 5 percent of the merchandise, down from 20 percent before holiday periods. Bachman's also opened a children's gift area to provide a diversion for kids and an opportunity for women to browse for inexpensive gifts.

The research also told the Bachmans to fix other little and not-so-little things in their floral offerings. Some women complained that they couldn't see flowers through the purple plastic wrap when bouquets arrived, and that it was difficult to rewrap the flowers if they did sneak a peek. Bachman's is switching to clear plastic.

The women also wanted more unusual flowers and more stylish arrangements, instead of the old round mounds of carnations and baby's breath.

Finally, the women were adamant about the color scheme.

"Basically, the focus group said, `Why are you hitting us over the head with the purple?'-" Paul Bachman said.
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