Vision Quest: How Cherrylake Stokes the Fire of Innovation

Vision Quest: How Cherrylake Stokes the Fire of Innovation

Farmers, horticulturists, builders, stewards of the environment – the family that leads Cherrylake wants to be all of these things. 

In 1979, Michel and Veronique Sallin purchased a 500-acre grove in the rolling hills of Groveland, Fla. and founded IMG Enterprises, which would become a multi-million dollar holding company for Cherrylake and IMG Citrus. 

After their citrus groves were devastated by unforeseen freezes in 1983 and 1985, the family relocated its citrus operation to balmier climes and replanted their fields in Groveland with a hardier crop — containerized ornamental trees. They renamed the land Cherry Lake Tree Farm. 

When his parents pivoted from a disaster into a new business, Timothee Sallin learned why it was important to be open to change. Timothee, Cherrylake’s current president and his sister, Chloe Gentry, director of marketing and organizational development, have worked to develop a company culture that rewards innovation. At the core of innovation is change. But change isn’t easy to enact. 

“It’s not natural for people in organizations to change, really,” Timothee says. “There is general discomfort with change and stability is often very appealing. So organizations can become very static. We’ve pushed against that and focused on building the culture centered around getting better every day.” 

Todd Gentry, Cherrylake’s director of operations, says the culture comes from the top down. 

“We have a saying here: ‘If it isn’t broke, break it and make it better.’ That comes up a lot in our meetings and it’s ingrained into the culture of constant improvement.” 

The family further diversified its business in 2005 with the addition of a full-service landscape construction division. In 2016, the tree farm, landscape construction, installation and maintenance divisions were all integrated into the same name: Cherrylake. Choe says the rebranding was the perfect time to take stock of the company’s purpose, values and clarify a vision for the future. 

“We started working on defining our values and trying to define what our culture was at that time and define what the experience was for the customer and the employee,” she says. “And we worked on defining those things at the ownership level, but also at the same time engaging the employees in the conversation because we do feel that while the ownership needs to guide and model those values, we also want the employees to feel engaged in that conversation and have input.” 

Cherrylake’s tree farm in Groveland, Fla.

Small changes add up 

The entrepreneurial spirit and embracing change are crucial to Cherrylake’s success. They represent two of the company’s seven values, and they are necessary for the Lean principles that have become inextricable from the Cherrylake way. 

“What we like about Lean is that it’s not looking for radical change,” Timothee says. “It’s not looking for some sort of home run breakthrough idea where, ‘oh my goodness, we’ve just completely revolutionized the industry,’ but rather it’s small, incremental, continuous good change.” 

The Lean principles neatly dovetail with Cherrylake’s focus on continuous improvement and empowered employees. Timothee and the leadership team want their employees to look for a way to make micro improvements. They want the people who are actually doing a job every day to ask questions like “How can I shave a second off this process?” “How can I reduce one click out of this process?” If it’s a computer process, “How can I eliminate a piece of paper?” 

To fully understand the capabilities of Lean in a nursery setting, you must pull back to look at the whole process. See how tasks flow and how value is created. For a grower like Cherrylake that grows trees and shrubs in containers up to 1,400 gallons, that process could take up to 10 years, spread over 1,500 acres. After you understand the process, you zoom in close to search for bottlenecks. 

One example that Timothee found was Cherrytree’s 3-gallon potting machine. It was an ergonomic problem: how far the workers had to reach to grab a liner and place it into the 3-gallon pot vs. the speed of the conveyor belts. For the solution, Cherrylake’s mechanics built ergonomic tables on which the liners are set at just the right distance so employees can work more efficiently. 

“Save a minute, save a penny, and then that repeats and eventually creates tremendous change,” Timothee says. 

You can find a potential Lean project just about anywhere. For instance, every morning between 100 and 200 people arrive at Cherrylake for work. That process includes parking, punching the time clock, getting water and ice, fueling up the tractors, getting whatever small supplies they need for the day, getting on the tractors and out to the farm. When Cherrylake had the opportunity to design and build a new facility, Timothee and his team carefully observed the routine. 

“We went out there with stopwatches and observed, filmed, talked and looked at what they were doing,” he says. “They were wasting so much time just filling up ice. It was just chaos. And you realize this is happening every day.” 

The layout of the new building, which is called “the hub,” was designed to allow those tasks to take place in a centralized location. The more efficient process supports the flow of the morning routine. Timothee says the changes have saved 10 minutes a day per person. With 100 people, that’s 1,000 minutes per day. If you’re paying each person $15 per hour, you’d be saving $250 per day. That’s $88,000 per year. Over 10 years, you’ve saved almost a million dollars. 

Creating leaders 

Of course, developing a new building isn’t always an option. That’s why it’s important to get your employees to buy in to Lean principles. The Cherrylake leadership team wants its people on the front lines to improve their process autonomously. To enable that, they promote self-management and distribute decision-making authority. They’ve found that if you empower your employees, they will find ways to move through their workday more efficiently. 

Left to right: Todd Gentry, Timothee Sallin and Chloe Gentry are part of Cherrylake’s leadership team.

“This philosophy allows your organization to be more responsive because you’re allowing the people who are closest to the work to think strategically, analytically and creatively about the work that they’re doing and to go ahead and make changes,” Timothee says. 

To give people the autonomy to make decisions, you have to give them a framework. Cherrylake does this by communicating its values, purpose and strategic goals — along with a bunch of metrics. 

“If people know what the goal is, they know what the score is, then they can see for themselves where they stand and how they’re performing and what they might be able to do to adjust or make changes to their workflow,” Timothee says. “Then you can really trust them and unleash their innovative potential. Because innovation can’t be monopolized in the small place where one leader or a group of leaders are trying to come up with all the innovation. The more we can tap into our employees’ innovation and creative energy, that’s what will allow the company to really take off. And that means the people that we bring over from Mexico on H-2A visas and the people that are operating the tractors and people who are in the field — everyone is hopefully able to contribute some degree of innovation to what we’re doing here.” 

One way Cherrylake empowers its employees is through creating crew leader positions and by providing the training they need to become more than just the best at their specific job. Whether it’s horticultural classes, sessions with a life coach or a leadership seminar, the organization takes professional development seriously. 

“It’s easy to take one of your best performers and make them crew leader,” Todd says. “Just because they’re the best pruner doesn’t mean they’re the best leader. A lot of them don’t have that education, so we need to give it to them.” 

One of the challenges the leadership team faces is how to get meaningful goals to filter down to the front lines without stifling the creative thinking that leads to innovation. Each Cherrylake work team has a daily huddle in which they are asked to set a clear goal and to discuss their work plan: What they’re doing, how they’re going to try to achieve this goal, what tools they will use in what sequence. They cover any safety issues and then they have a “lightning round” in which other team members have the opportunity to comment, ask questions or challenge the plan. 

The tough part is setting a good, smart goal. Cherrylake’s team leaders aim for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based goals. 

A leader might say “We’re pruning trees in section 71 and our goal is to do 22 trees per hour.” Or “Our goal is to do six rows by lunchtime.” Or “We are staking trees in section 28; our goal is to do the whole section by the end of the day.” 

Cherrylake also uses financial metrics like sales price, volume and margins. They conduct customer and employee surveys. But when you want to measure production efficiency in the workforce, it’s tough to beat a metric like trees per hour, such as trees planted per hour, trees loaded on a truck per hour, pruned, staked, etc. 

“I know that what’s important is profitability, but how do you translate that into something that can help somebody know how they’re doing today?” Timothee says. “Usually it’s going to be something like trees per hour.” 

One way Cherrylake keeps its people on track is through “Task on Time,” a program built in-house that allows them to input work orders, follow a schedule and use dashboards to ensure a particular task is being done when it should be. The methodology is simple but effective, Todd says. 

“It doesn’t have to cost us more money to grow a higher quality tree if we do our task on time,” he says. 

The program uses a calendar-based events and dashboards to track tasks like tree staking, pruning and fertilizing. There are production advantages to doing these tasks on time. If you prune on time, you’ll be pruning smaller branches, making you more efficient. If you fertilize on time, you’ll be providing the necessary nutrition to the tree right when it needs it. It can be very wasteful if you do it ahead of time or if you do it too late. 

Finding their “why” 

Prior to the 2016 rebranding, the executive team engaged the company to truly define their organization. They felt that if they could get their purpose down on paper, they could find their “why words.” The concept was from author and speaker Simon Sinek: “It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.” 

Cherrylake’s workers stretch twice daily to reduce strain injuries.

In looking for their “why,” Cherrylake found five words: sustainable, vision, beauty, life and community. 

Cherrylake’s vision is the knowledge that they are stewards of the land and aim to provide benefits for generations to come, through continuous improvement and innovation. Sustainability and life are important because they want their products to create environmental sustainability. They also want financial and economic sustainability for their partners, customers and employees. Beauty is what their products add to the world, from enhancing the look of a property with landscape designed in-house, using their own trees, shrubs and palms. And community simply means that as a large employer with nearly 200 workers for the bulk of the year, Cherrylake feels a responsibility to use the shrubs, trees and landscapes it grows, designs and installs to positively impact its community. 

For instance, Cherrylake partners with local elementary and high schools to share their passion for horticulture — and to share career opportunities. A project manager tells fifth graders how math and technology are used in landscaping. Cherrylake also partners with nonprofits throughout the U.S. to donate and plant trees in protected conservation areas to help build ecosystems. Through its “1,000 Trees for 1,000 Years” program, the company has helped plant keystone species at Lake Apopka in Central Florida and the Audubon Nature Center in New Orleans. 

“We love the idea that some of these trees outlive us,” Chloe says. “The Bald Cypress can live a thousand years. So the simple act of planting these trees today is connecting us to the future. And I think our team finds a lot of purpose in that and what we do.” 

The proceeds from “The Farm Races” — a 5K, 10K and duathlon that takes place on the Cherrylake tree farm — is donated to local schools’ agriculture programs. There were 400 participants last year, and Cherrylake donated one tree for every runner to one of those conservation areas. 

Cherrylake grows a mix of shrubs, palms and trees in containers up to 300 gallons, some of which can take 14 years to reach maturity for market. The company’s most popular product is the live oak, a keystone species in many of the states to which Cherrylake sells. Rounding out the inventory are magnolia, crape myrtle, holly, maple, elm and Leyland cypress. Its customers are wholesale commercial landscape contractors, theme parks and PGA golf courses. 

The Task on Time system improves efficiency for jobs like pruning or staking trees.

A place people want to work 

From yoga Wednesdays to walking meetings, Cherrylake’s commitment to wellness is not just for show. Chloe noticed that employees were taking time off from their lunches to walk the farm in an effort to be healthier. Chloe believes a healthy work-life integration is critical for employees to contribute to their full potential. 

“We really believe that in order for them to do that, they need to be well: healthy mind, body and spirit,” she says. “So whatever we can do to help their wellness, we believe it’ll pay back the company in their productivity and potential at work.” 

Cherrylake has also supplemented their health care with a bilingual personal life coach and implemented a 24/7 phone service that allows employees to access a doctor. The company is currently building a housing complex for its H-2A workers on-site at the tree farm. It offers better amenities than the local hotel in which they usually live, including kitchens and large outdoor spaces to improve their quality of life. 

The company brings in about 80 H-2A and 25 H-2B employees each year. Cherrylake is an E-Verified employer and has been working with the program for seven years, but 2019 was the first year they felt the possibility they wouldn’t receive their workers due to the H-2B cap. 

“The irony of the program is that you have to prove that you have the work in order to apply for these visas,” Chloe says. “So we have to submit to our customers that we can do this work without having the guarantee that we’ll be able to get these workers.” 

Though they love their workers who return year after year, that element of risk makes it difficult to heavily rely on H-2B and H-2A help. 

“We know these workers,” Chloe says. “They’re trained, dedicated, committed and their culture fits. Still, we also recognize that the program is not stable. We can’t rely on it too heavily. So we worked really hard to try to find creative ways to attract domestic employees. Our culture and wellness programs, we believe, are part of that solution. It’s not just about competitive pay, it’s about creating a place where people want to work.” 

The Task on Time system improves efficiency for jobs like pruning or staking trees.

It’s difficult to measure return on investment on culture initiatives. Cherrylake uses an employee net promoter score survey as a metric. The survey asks employees how likely they are to recommend Cherrylake as a place to work. Over the past five years, it’s steadily increased, culminating in a five-year improvement of 20 percent. 

Chloe also sees the wellness programs as a way to get out ahead of skyrocketing health care costs. 

“We can sit back and feel like there’s nothing we can do about it and just take these rate increases or we can try to make our people healthier and well,” she says. “That’s the approach we’re taking. It’s hard to really measure, because with healthcare costs, a lot of those costs are out of our control. But our hope is that we can better understand our employees’ health needs so that we can provide wellness programs that address them and make them healthier, which we hope will help us reduce our healthcare costs.” 

Cherrylake’s culture of wellness crosses into the realm of production in a few areas. About five years ago the nursery got serious about improving safety. To keep safety on the forefront of everyone’s mind, they established a committee and forced themselves to meet weekly to discuss safety issues. There was resistance at first, including workers who complained about having to wear safety glasses, for example, but the team made it clear that ignoring the mandated safety protocol would not be tolerated. Todd says the crews are performing better, and an improved experience mod rating with their insurer helped reduced the amount the company had to spend on workers’ comp insurance. 

The company’s safety committee developed the slogan: think safe, work safe, go home safe. The team drills the importance of safety into their employees. Todd starts by asking them the question, “Who are you being safe for?” 

“Not just yourself, but it’s your family,” he says. “It’s your friends, it’s your kids, who you want to go home to each day because the work we do can be dangerous. You know, it can be a broken bone or a sprained ankle, but you could also lose a finger or your life.” 

The nursery began a stretch and flex program to reduce potential work-related injuries. In the morning and after lunch they do a routine of stretches. The safety committee brought in trainers to show the crews the proper way to stretch. 

“When we really started focusing in on safety and doing the stretch flex routines, the employee morale skyrocketed,” Chloe says. 

Todd says the employee surveys began to show comments about safety and that program in particular like, “Thank you for caring about us and our safety.” It was eye-opening. 

“The bottom line is we’re trying to do what’s right,” he says. “We want to be responsible land owners and farmers and do well with our employees.” 

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