Picture this: Dutch immigrants grow a giant greenhouse empire

 In October 2019

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Photos by Alex Cason

 

The enormity of Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville is nearly impossible to comprehend, even while standing smack dab inside its 170-acre indoor growing compound. Hundreds of potted plants glide by overhead, like a cartoonish ski lift just for flowers. Workers whiz by on everything from motor bikes to golf carts to tractors, transporting huge, looming carts of greenery. Employees clad in gardening gloves plant small seedlings as conveyor belts full of soil-filled pots teeter along. Robots straight out of the Terminator franchise pick up and transport potted plants from one area to a spot better suited for the sun-thirsty shrubbery. It seems as though everything is in constant motion, a reflection on how the family-owned wholesale plants and se​rv​ices company has been run since its founding nearly 50 years ago.

Thom and Vickie VanWingerden immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands with their two small sons in 1971 with $500 in their pockets. They moved to Charlotte and rented a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse before moving several miles north to Huntersville to establish what is now Metrolina Greenhouses.

Over the years, the company’s infrastructure has expanded to include the Huntersville location’s 170-acre indoor greenhouse — one of the largest of its type in the U.S. — and another 40-acre greenhouse that opened this year. Metrolina boasts a second location in York, S.C., that has 275 acres of outdoor growing space.

Between both locations, the company produces more than 70 million plants a year, generates about $230 million in sales and employs more than 1,500 people year-round. An additional 1,300 seasonal workers are hired in the spring and fall.

“This is one of our treasures in North Carolina,” says N.C. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who visited the site in May. “A lot of people don’t know about Metrolina Greenhouses. But most have probably flown over as they were coming in or out of Charlotte, wondering, ‘What is that giant greenhouse, and what do they grow down there?’ It’s a spectacular place.”

Thom, who passed away in 2009 at 63, always had a fascination with advancing technologies and automation and started incorporating machinery into the greenhouses early on. “Look for the jobs that people hate to do, and find automation,” he often said, according to his son, Abe, now co-CEO with his brother, Art.

“Because people won’t stay at those jobs long if they don’t like doing them,” Abe says. “A lot of it was done just out of sheer need because we have so many jobs that can be really difficult, such as bending over constantly and things like that. So through automation and technology, we were able to move those people to better, higher-paying jobs that they like, and then they stay longer.”

Metrolina’s experience shows that automation doesn’t necessarily reduce employment, he adds. “It actually keeps our employees here.”

Three generations of VanWingerdens have worked at the greenhouse. Abe and Art’s four siblings, Helen, Michael, Rose and Thomas, also serve in a variety of leadership roles within the company. Greenhouse Grower magazine ranked Metrolina as the sixth-largest U.S. grower in 2018, with 7.4 million square feet of environmentally controlled space.

Abe says that Metrolina remains a family business, “just a little bit bigger than we used to be.” And they want to treat their employees like family. Earlier this year, the company raised its starting pay to $11 an hour, and after 25 days, the rate bumps up to $12. “We do this because it’s good for business. It allows us to bring a higher talent pool into the organization.”

The VanWingerdens “care about their employees,” says crew leader Angie Jones, who has worked at Metrolina for 17 years. “We have a lot of innovations, machines and everything. But they still offer that personal touch. I can see Abe or Art or Michael or any one of them come through the greenhouse, and that means a lot to employees. They acknowledge us.”

Abe marvels at how the immigrant family that started with virtually nothing has grown Metrolina Greenhouses into a sweeping grower’s paradise.

“That’s the American dream.”

 

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