Nurserymen's new owners merge company cultures

Half Moon Bay Review, by Lily Bixler

The relatively new owners of Nurserymen's Exchange and sister business Rocket Farms say the companies have successfully merged. Parent company Monterey Peninsula Horticulture has spent the last four months or so integrating the greenhouse growers.

"The puzzle has come together quite well," said Nurserymen's President Justin Dautoff. The businesses retain their core products but owners are working to meld company cultures, he explained. Nurserymen's Exchange will keep its name for now, but Dautoff said the local greenhouse grower plans to address branding in the future.

Before the sale in July, Nurserymen's Exchange was the largest Coastside flower grower and among the Coastside's biggest employers. Salinas-based Floramoda Inc., a subsidiary of Monterey Peninsula Horticulture, spent about $4 million to buy property, equipment, contracts and patents from Nurserymen's after the local company's bankruptcy. The joined companies employ roughly 250 employees, with equal numbers coming from Nurserymen's and Rocket Farms.

Since the sale in July, Dautoff said he and Chairman/CEO Charles Kosmont have focused on bringing new, innovative products to market. For now, Nurserymen's and Rocket Farms are selling the same products, including Nurserymen's Bloomrite brand and its potted roses and other flowering plants like campanula and sun star. They'll also continue focusing on potted Christmas trees.

Now, in addition, they're growing more orchids, a specialty for Rocket Farms.

As part of the sale, previous Nurserymen's owners - now under the name Tally One Inc. - kept ownership of 407 acres of open space land and a 28-acre property off Highway 1. That smaller property could be sold for a future subdivision.

Meanwhile, after several appeals in an obscure boardroom of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, an administrative law judge has issued a decision that gets parties in an old Nurserymen's labor dispute a bit closer to resolving the issue.

The dispute started in summer 2010, when Nurserymen's Exchange laid off 135 of its more than 300 employees, citing financial hardship associated with the recession and a changing market for wholesale flowers. Salinas-based United Farm Workers responded to the staff cuts by organizing the company's workers.

An election was held to decide if workers wanted to unionize. Ballots were challenged and some were never counted. For several months afterward, a legal battle simmered over which employees should vote and therefore which ballots should count. In the end, when most of the votes were counted, nearly all of the ballots indicated that workers wanted union representation.

In December, the judge sustained Nurserymen's objections and the election was overturned.

Owners of Floramoda Inc., the company that bought Nurserymen's Exchange following the previous owner's bankruptcy in May 2011, asked to intervene in the matter as "an interested party."

"We wanted to make sure that we continue to facilitate preparation on the case," Dautoff said. "We thought it was important because the implications impacted our workforce ... Our remaining employees overwhelmingly voted against unionization."

The parties have until Jan. 31 to file an appeal.