Mike Sutterer of Bonnie Plants: “Have a clear vision and make sure it’s constantly communicated up, down, across and out of the organization”

Have a clear vision and make sure it’s constantly communicated up, down, across and out of the organization. Everyone wants to know what they are working towards and what the company is building towards. It’s not enough that just the leadership team understands — everyone needs to understand fully all the way down to your front-line associates. […]

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Have a clear vision and make sure it’s constantly communicated up, down, across and out of the organization. Everyone wants to know what they are working towards and what the company is building towards. It’s not enough that just the leadership team understands — everyone needs to understand fully all the way down to your front-line associates. If not, success will be nearly impossible.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Sutterer.

Mike Sutterer is President and CEO of Bonnie Plants, the leading brand in the United States of live vegetable, herb and flowering plants for home gardeners. Mike joined Bonnie in April of 2019 as President and assumed the title of President & CEO on January 1, 2020.

Prior to joining Bonnie, Mike spent 19 years at Scotts Miracle-Gro (NYSE: SMG), most recently as Senior Vice President and General Manager Gardens Business Unit. In this role Mike was responsible for the largest division of SMG — products and services that delivered over 1 Billion dollars in revenue.

Throughout his career, Mike has focused on solving challenges with creative solutions including co-founding the unique public-private Texas Water Smart education initiative to help solve chronic water shortage issues in the state of Texas. Most recently he initiated the Grow More. Feed More. campaign partnering with nonprofit AmpleHarvest.org to help solve food insecurity through gardening.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota as the son of a minister and a schoolteacher — talk about the daily double of discipline — ha! For as far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated by business and marketing. My friends and I would spend hours coming up with business ideas in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade that we could put into practice at school. Video games were huge then, but you weren’t allowed to have them in school, so we came up with the brilliant idea of drawing out the video games like PAC-MAN and then charging a quarter to “play” them — which people actually did! We also came up with the idea to sell frozen pizza slices at lunch, but that one lost steam when our moms questioned why there were so many frozen pizzas on the grocery list each week. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was learning was a key principle of business — if you can unlock a need that people have and deliver a solution — you can be successful in business.

You are currently leading a social impact initiative that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Bonnie Plants has partnered with the nonprofit AmpleHarvest.org for the Grow More. Feed More. initiative. The goal is to tackle local community hunger by encouraging home gardeners to donate surplus vegetable harvests directly to more than 9,000 local food pantries across the U.S. Unfortunately, food insecurity in this country is a chronic issue that has only become worse with the economic impact of COVID-19. The focus of the Grow More. Feed More. initiative really harkens back to victory gardens from World War I and World War II — where neighbors would plant gardens to help feed their friends and neighbors when food was scarce. We’ve got the exact same opportunity today — but on a much bigger scale.

At Bonnie we’ve put a lot of energy into creating awareness around the issue and we’ve gotten engaged on many levels. Our marketing efforts for Grow More. Feed More. have generated over 100 million media impressions. In addition, we’ve donated 5% of all online sales at bonnieplants.com directly to AmpleHarvest.org and we transformed our company test gardens into “harvest gardens” that generated over 6 tons of fresh vegetables donated to local food pantries. Our Bonnie associates have also really embraced the cause by planting vegetable gardens at our facilities around the country and donating their harvests to people in need in their communities.

It’s one of the things I love about the Grow More. Feed More. effort — people can engage to help at so many levels — and ultimately the food you are harvesting is helping to feed the people in your own community. There’s an immediate positive benefit.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Bonnie Plants has a deep history of giving back to the communities in which we live and work. This has been core to who we are for our 103-year history. It really started with our founder, Bonnie Paulk (yes, there was a Bonnie who started Bonnie Plants), who back in the early 1900s would set aside acreage of the company’s vegetable crop production specifically for local charities. Connecting gardening and growing vegetables with feeding those in the community who need it most is as important and passionate for us today as it was way back then. The Grow More. Feed More. campaign is a natural evolution of that commitment.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

The impact of COVID-19 was really the trigger. I remember very distinctly back in the first days of April 2020 being a period of high anxiety and extreme uncertainty. At that point, I wasn’t really sure how our company and our associates would fare. The country was shutting down, retail stores were closing doors and there was uncertainty around which sectors of the economy were essential or not. I recall waking up one morning and seeing on my newsfeed a picture of huge lines of people waiting at a food pantry to get help. I immediately thought, “I have to do something here to help! We’re in the business of growing fresh vegetables — there’s got to be a way to get them to those people who need them.” I found the nonprofit AmpleHarvest.org and connected with their founder and executive director Gary Oppenheimer that very morning with the idea of partnering. We were off and running in a matter of days after that initial connection.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new initiative. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Start with something you’re passionate about, find one or two like minded people to collaborate with and then don’t wait until you’ve got all the answers figured out before you start running. There are always a million reasons to wait and get more information, but we got the ball rolling and things came together as the project started to get momentum.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This one is part personal, part business. Two years ago Bonnie Plants sponsored an edible garden at Fenway Park in Boston, home of the Red Sox. The vegetables and herbs grown in the garden were used for some of the stadium concessions. I was invited to throw out the first pitch at a game between the Yankees and Red Sox. The most storied rivalry in baseball at the oldest stadium in baseball — how amazing was that?! They invite you down on the field before the game and they try to give you some pointers. They kept telling me over and over, “don’t bounce it, don’t bounce it”. So I’m walking out to the mound for my big moment and all I keep hearing in my head is “don’t bounce it!” Thankfully, I didn’t bounce it! The best part was I got to enjoy the moment with my 82-year-old dad, a lifelong baseball fan. The Red Sox treated us very well the entire day. We ended up watching the game from the owner’s box where they had all the World Series trophies displayed and other memorabilia — what an amazing experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I’m going to go way back to the very first night of the very first job I ever had. I was a stocker at a local grocery store. I was 15 years old and working with my supervisor the first night when he told me to go get a hand truck (dolly) and restock the Coke. In those days, the bottles of Coke were glass. I’d never used a hand truck before, but I figured, “how hard can it be?” I wheeled it into the back room and loaded it up with probably 100 glass bottles. When I tried to move the hand truck, the bottles all crashed down — there was broken glass and Coke spurting everywhere. I thought I’d be fired on the first day of my first job! My supervisor came running to see what happened and as soon as he saw the scene and the horror on my face — rather than getting angry — he burst out laughing and then proceeded to help me clean the mess up. I learned two really valuable lessons that night: 1) never to be afraid to ask a question if you don’t know something, the consequences can be harsh if you pretend to know and really don’t and 2) the importance of giving the people that work for you grace when they make mistakes trying to do the right thing. These two lessons have stuck with me through my entire career.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve had many great mentors and cheerleaders — I guess that means I needed a LOT of help! Jan Valentic is one coach and mentor that sticks out in my mind. Among other things, she made my personal and professional development a big priority during the time I worked for her. It wasn’t just about giving me tools and training to be a better business leader, but it was also about personal balance, health and wellbeing, too. I’ve tried to pay that forward through my career by investing in others as well to help them grow holistically versus just growing as an employee.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes, community engagement is a huge part of the solution to food insecurity. Neighbors helping neighbors is an extremely efficient way for us to help solve this. In many cases, vegetables that are harvested from a home garden can be transferred to someone’s dinner table who needs it in less than 24 hours. EVERYONE who grows vegetables either has surplus harvests they can’t consume themselves or can plant an extra tomato, cucumber or zucchini plant specifically to donate to their local food pantry. Our goal is to make this behavior a natural part of what people do as gardeners. Over 20 million first-time gardeners started growing vegetables in 2020. I’d love to teach them all that donating some of their harvests to those in need is another rewarding benefit of growing vegetables at home.

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?

It’s amazing how many things in our business are both sustainable and profitable. We’ve had many examples of this at Bonnie Plants. We recently moved to a container that was made from recycled plastic and was also itself recyclable. The move resulted in a cost savings, but also used what would have been waste material and incorporated it into our containers. Now instead of throwing the empty containers away, they get recycled into new containers. Another great example is how we’re designing our new headquarters building which will open later this year. One of the principles was creating a design that would require zero supplemental lighting during the day. The building captures enough natural light that the use of traditional fluorescent lighting in an office setting will be unnecessary. It creates both long-term cost savings for us and a more sustainable/better working environment for our associates.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Have a clear vision and make sure it’s constantly communicated up, down, across and out of the organization. Everyone wants to know what they are working towards and what the company is building towards. It’s not enough that just the leadership team understands — everyone needs to understand fully all the way down to your front-line associates. If not, success will be nearly impossible.
  2. Assume nothing and teach everything. I learned this from an excellent coach. As a leader we need to be constantly teaching and coaching — repetition is important.
  3. Effective communication requires different approaches for different situations. Everyone is unique in how they process information. It’s amazing how the exact same words can be “heard” differently by different types of people in different situations. It is the responsibility of the one doing the communicating to recognize this and tailor the tone, delivery, style and content of the message to ensure that it’s received as intended. This takes a lot of work and a ton of practice. Enneagram is a great tool I use to help with this — I wish I’d have found it much sooner in my career.
  4. Talk less and listen more. Some of the absolute richest ideas have come from inviting people to share their ideas. I’ve learned it doesn’t need to be structured. I love to just leave some dead air in the midst of a meeting and it’s amazing what people start sharing. There’s a lot of gold that would never surface without allowing for that dead space to just listen. It’s also an amazing tool in negotiating — just letting the other side talk can produce some incredibly valuable insights that have helped me close many deals.
  5. Pace yourself! I love to work and love what I do but it is unsustainable to maintain a constant high level intensity non-stop for multiple years. The job will always take whatever you give it and it will always seem like you need to give it more because there’s always more you can do. Falling into this trap only leads to burnout because at some point something will break — your health, family, social life or all three.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Do it! Even if you can make a difference for only one person, that impact can be life changing for them and you.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A favorite of mine and I reference it literally every day is “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create it Yourself”. It’s been attributed to many people including Abe Lincoln. It is so applicable both personally and professionally. It helps quiet the anxiety and uncertainty by focusing on the things you can control, having a clear vision of where you want to be and building a plan to get there. It’s empowering and reminds me that I shouldn’t just sit back and accept outcomes, but influence and lead them. We start every planning session at Bonnie with this quote to ground the team.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

At this point, having breakfast or lunch with anyone given COVID-19 would be amazing 😉 — but I would love to sit down with Vice President Kamala Harris. In my mind she’s the most influential person in Washington right now — and maybe ever — given her unique position of extreme influence over shaping both the Executive and Legislative agendas of this country. It’s clear she will carry more power in the White House than other historical VPs have, and her position in the Senate means she will personally cast the deciding vote for most or all significant legislation for at least the next two years. What an incredible opportunity for her and this country. She’s got a big mountain to climb — helping to navigate through a pandemic, restoring the strength of our economy, providing help and hope for people who need it and trying to repair what’s clearly a fractured country, just to name a few. I may not agree with all of her policy stances, but I’d want her to know we’re all ready to work together to tackle these meaty issues, and I’d ask for her commitment to working with business leaders of companies both large and small to understand where and how we can help. On a personal note, I’d also want her to know what an incredible influence she’s been on my 16 and 18 year-old daughters.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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