Toine Overgaag Of Westerlay Orchids: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Find the one or two things that make your business special and what you can do better than anyone else — and focus on that.
As a part of our series about how companies are becoming more sustainable, we had the pleasure of interviewing Toine Overgaag.
Toine is a hands-on executive who believes the best way to inspire team members is by encouraging personal engagement through empowerment. He has been Owner/President of Westerlay Orchids since 2009, a period in which the company’s sales volume has quadrupled and relationships with Trader Joe’s, Kroger and Safeway in the Pacific Region have been mutually beneficial for all partners.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m a third generation greenhouse operating business. My grandfather grew tomatoes in the Netherlands. My father, and all three of his brothers were also greenhouse growers. My father started in the Netherlands with one of his brothers. They grew Chrysanthemums in the late 70s. He then emigrated to the United States and started growing roses here in Southern California. When I graduated college, I worked for him briefly and took a detour for several years, but I’ve now been back in the business for 20 years. When I rejoined the business we converted to orchids. We saw a lot more opportunities there as more and more cut flowers, specifically roses were being imported from South America.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
We ultimately want to be the most consistent, highest quality brand in houseplants in the Western United States. That’s the mission for us at Westerlay. We think there’s a lot of opportunities to bring beautiful tropical plants specifically into people’s homes. We grow 4 million plants a year and we think the market will potentially double in size over the next five years. Our slogan is “Every Orchid Has A Story” and we believe every plant has a story too! We’re really in the business of building connections. Ultimately, people develop a relationship with their orchids, and they build relationships with other people, friends, family and with strangers around the plants that they have and gift. We love being the catalyst for that.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
We are a relatively small business but believe we have a real opportunity in our space to be sustainable. The technology is evolving really rapidly, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to get more efficient. We operate in live products, we’re bringing something beautiful into the world, but that’s not without a footprint. And we all know long term, we have to head towards sustainability, and ultimately a zero carbon to the world. I think the We’ve already made some pretty big steps over the last several years in terms of being able to recycle 100% of our water at one of our facilities and hopefully rolling that out in the next year or two at our other facility. We have converted to solar power for about 80% of our electrical usage at one facility. And in the next few years we are looking at building a new facility. That facility is predicated on using heat pumps instead of hot water boilers. Heat pumps are powered entirely by electricity as opposed to boilers powered by natural gas and if that electricity can be generated clean, real carbon, then that takes a huge piece of carbon out of the production process. Those are good steps forward in sustainability.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
We pride ourselves on producing the highest quality orchids, and that’s what our customers have come to expect from us. To be able to deliver on quality standards and environmental sustainability marries the two biggest priorities of our brand and has been a wonderful tool to become more profitable.
At Westerlay we regularly invite the international organization MPS for environmental inspection and certification, to ensure it follows the best environmental practices for sustainability. MPS issued the highest grade to Westerlay in each of the past four years. While Westerlay regularly reports to local and state regulators, MPS certification goes above and beyond those requirements and ensures that Westerlay will always be in compliance while voluntarily maintaining standards that exceed the letter of the law.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
In our own home, we are making lots of effort to reduce our carbon footprint. All three of our kids are relatively young (8 and 10) but are very aware of these initiatives and hope that these changes help them to become more engaged in the environmental movement. Here’s a few things we’ve done and involve the kids in:
- We drive an electric car.
- We are fully solar powered at home.
- We installed a battery and now this battery cycles in such a way that we are able to use almost no electricity at peak hours, which I think is a huge relief on the grid.
- We plan to install a heat pump for our house when it was built.
- As much as possible we are also immersing our children in travel and nature. My daughter is starting to get interested in surfing with me. And we use this time to talk about what’s happening in the oceans — the ocean is getting warmer and acidification is occurring. These are things that she’s starting to think about.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Hire for character not for ability. I would rather have someone that fits in really well with a team that maybe doesn’t have all the skills but learns along the way.
- Slow down when making big decisions.
- Get eight hours of sleep, practical but so very important.
- Build a network or find a network of peers.
- Find the one or two things that make your business special and what you can do better than anyone else — and focus on that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
First and foremost my father, and the example he set for me is what I’m most grateful for. I’m also extremely grateful to be a part of a formal peer group for the last nine years. When I first joined that group,I felt very alone and that no one understood my problems and then being in a room with with a dozen or more peers, and realizing that everybody’s struggling with the same stuff, and meeting people who were further along in that entrepreneurial journey than me and being able to learn from them was a huge value. I really learned from my peer group, and also found implementation through my peer group. And it’s been a huge defining moment and led to improvements in the business.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think the greatest amount of good that we can do as an organization is to set an example. I didn’t necessarily know what’s possible with greenhouse technology to reduce carbon usage but if we could lead the way we could set an example to show our peers, our government and regulators what’s possible. Perhaps even provide incentives where possible. I believe that’s where we can make a big difference.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“Make decisions or decisions will be made for you”. When I was going through a difficult time 20 years ago, a friend told me that and it resonated so much I wrote it on a card and kept it in my wallet for a few years.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
You can follow us on @WesterlayOrchids and learn more about our company at www.Westerlay.com
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Toine Overgaag Of Westerlay Orchids: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.