Stan Vander Waal knew he needed a new management style by the time he had hired more than 70 employees at his greenhouse.
“Even 15 years ago, I was quite involved in every function of the business — maybe not in a completely controlling way, but very, very actively involved,” he said.
“I can remember saying to my wife that my next 10 year goal has to be to find a way to run this business without Stan being here.”
Vander Waal and wife, Wilma, started Rainbow Greenhouses in Chilliwack, B.C., 30 years ago and now have more than 200 mostly year-round employees, three locations in two provinces and 2.5 million sq. feet of greenhouse space that produces flowers and potted plants for the country’s leading big box retailers.
The production and infrastructure side mostly happens “without Stan.” His method for empowering employees is simple and can work for any farm business of any size, even those where the employees are family members.
However, simple doesn’t mean easy. Personnel management never is.
In fact, it was a fairly basic thing that held Vander Waal back for many years.
“I had to start recognizing that the people around me did have skills, and sometimes they were better than mine,” he says.
“But they didn’t have the experience, and in order to get that experience, I had to learn to give up some control and give over the responsibility to them.”
It’s a tricky distinction.
At the time, Vander Waal ran his business with a couple of supervisors, but he was the one who made most of the decisions, from fertilization regimes to building maintenance schedules. He couldn’t just hand off those jobs because his staff didn’t have the experience.
So he tried to look at people with fresh eyes. Did they show an aptitude in certain areas? And just as critically, how much did they care?
“I look for a person’s attention to detail and a willingness to look for a better way,” he says.
The next step was to spend time with the prospects: walking through the greenhouse, asking their opinion on how to deal with a problem and discussing options.
Then came a gentle handing over of authority.
For example, one employee showed good potential but was “used to following the day’s orders and just following a work list.” So Vander Waal asked him to create his own work list to prioritize what needed doing and how it should be done.
This is another tricky bit.
“Sometimes a person can be overwhelmed,” says Vander Waal.
“People get very comfortable with the workload being passed out, and so at 4:30 you can go home and not think about it. But when you ask people to take on a higher role, it’s amazing how much of that work goes home with them in their head.”
To get over that, Vander Waal put them into a position where they had to make decisions.
“That’s how they start building experience,” he says.
“And then you have an opportunity to build on that. Let’s say, it’s a less-than-perfect decision, then you’ve got the chance to have a conversation and say, ‘hey, have you ever thought about doing it this way?’ ”
It’s not a quick process and sometimes it doesn’t work out and “you have to go on to another person.”
But overall, it’s been a success.
Stepping back from the day-to-day allowed Vander Waal to expand the business, including piloting a recent $8.5 million expansion and making his company a leader in the use of robotic technology.
There is also time to volunteer, including serving as chair of the B.C. Agriculture Council and vice-chair of United Flower Growers.
The surprising part is how personally rewarding it’s been.
“I really enjoy it when you find someone who is keen and wants to find a better way that takes less time or results in a better outcome,” he says.
Vander Waal doesn’t claim his system is best or that it will work for everyone. But one thing is for sure.
“If you say, ‘I could have done it faster or better myself,’ then you’re stuck in an endless trap,” he says.
“You’ll simply be doing it yourself forever. That’s an absolute.”
And that’s OK if that’s how you want to run your farm business. Just don’t use the excuse that no one can take your place. Usually, if you step aside to make room, someone can.