Tammy Sons, CEO, TN Nursery


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Tammy Sons, CEO, TN Nursery

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Tammy Sons, CEO, TN Nursery

This interview is with Tammy Sons, CEO of TN Nursery.

Tammy, for those who don’t know you, tell us a bit about your background and how you blossomed into the world of horticulture and business?

I grew up in a family of nursery growers. In 1959, my father started a small backyard nursery. He sold rare and native plants to the local scholars and professors of St. Andrews University, knowing they couldn’t find these plants elsewhere, which led him to all kinds of prospects. He even sold plants to Elvis Presley’s manager in the 1970s.

I went on to obtain a higher education in business and then to TSU for Horticulture. I wanted to do the same thing, but I knew I needed to learn how to promote selling online if I was ever going to excel in business. This led me to study business at Harvard University in Boston.

After completing my education and gaining the necessary knowledge to run and manage a business, as well as understanding plant and soil science, I realized that the missing piece was learning how to excel in search engine optimization (SEO). I returned to Harvard to obtain not only an Entrepreneur Essentials Certification but also a Digital Marketing Certification. That’s when things started to change drastically. In 1988, we started Tennessee Wholesale Nursery, and profits were $70-80K per year. We were thankful, but we wanted to scale, expand, and grow. Today, after spending most of my life gaining knowledge, I have successfully built a $7M annual revenue business online, Tnnursery.net.

Your journey from cosmetology to building TN Nursery into a multi-million dollar enterprise is truly inspiring. Can you walk us through the pivotal moments that shaped your career path?

When I was 18, I earned a degree in cosmetology and worked at the Grundy County Courthouse while also styling hair. I was open to trying different things but had no interest in owning a plant nursery, despite growing up in the industry. During tight financial times, I would peddle plants to local nurseries on my only day off to supplement our income. This experience made me realize that I had chosen the wrong career path. I made more money peddling plants on Wednesdays than I did all week long doing hair and working at the local Property Assessor’s Office combined.

You mentioned starting with a 13-acre farm that has now expanded to almost 400 acres. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while scaling TN Nursery, and how did you overcome them?

We started out with three acres in a subdivision in Altamont, TN, then moved to 13 acres of farmland that a friend financed for us. The first year was tough. We used our income tax refund to buy a tractor, and I sold plants to purchase two plows. By then, we needed more plants to start our nursery, but we had run out of money. My husband, who used to work as a master logger on a salary, and I faced financial challenges. However, things took a turn when one of my dad’s friends, who owned a large-scale nursery in Huntland, Tennessee, called offering us the remaining plants from their cooler. This happened during the prime planting season, and we had the land, a tractor, and the necessary implements. We got down on our knees and planted over 15,000 liners in the rows my husband plowed. We had so many blisters on our hands we couldn’t stand to touch anything for over two weeks, but endurance paid off. We sold every plant we planted the first year and were able to pay off our $76K mortgage that fall when the digging season came. One man who owned a casino from New Jersey came and paid us cash for all our plants.

Many entrepreneurs struggle with balancing growth and sustainability. How have you integrated sustainable practices into your business model while achieving such remarkable success?

The journey was a challenging learning experience for us. Initially, my husband Dennis, myself, our oldest son Philip, and one employee started the business. We worked tirelessly to fulfill orders from other nurseries, and to our surprise, the business grew rapidly. This growth caught us off guard, and we realized that in order to expand, we needed to purchase more land and hire more help. We began expanding our supply chains by purchasing plants from other growers to sell at a profit while searching for land to expand our operations. Our long-term vision was to own 75-plus acres, establish our own nursery stock, and move to a larger farm. In 1999, we achieved this vision by purchasing a beautiful farm with 67 acres, three barns, and a lovely home, where we still live today in 2024.

Your insights on incorporating your state into your business name for online visibility are fascinating. What other marketing strategies have proven most effective in reaching both wholesale and retail customers?

When we launched our nursery, we established an online presence under the name “DNT Nursery.” Recognizing that we operate in the nursery capital of the world, we realized the need to address and register our name for copyright and incorporate the highly-searched term “Tennessee Nursery” into our name in a unique and appropriate way.

Our legal entity is Tennessee Wholesale Nursery LLC, which serves business-to-business (B2B) customers. We also conduct direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail sales under the name TN Nursery. This change resulted in a significant increase in traffic to our site from the outset.

We then expanded from strictly wholesale quantities to a wholesale site and a retail website due to an overwhelming demand from homeowners and consumers looking to purchase one or two plants. This development of a retail website (tnnursery.net) was a game-changer for our business, resulting in a staggering increase in sales and a better profit margin from selling to retail customers as well.

You’ve worn multiple hats throughout your career, from cosmetologist to teacher to business owner. What key skills or lessons learned from your previous experiences have been invaluable in your horticulture journey?

The main lesson I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, if you put your all into it, you will reap the rewards. I have always been a determined learner, even from my early school days. If I didn’t understand something, I would persist until I mastered it. Whether it’s mopping a floor, cleaning a toilet, or running a multi-million-dollar business, I always give my best effort in everything I do.

An invaluable lesson I’ve learned is to treat others as I wish to be treated, whether it’s my housekeeper, life partner, or an employee. Always show them respect, listen to their concerns and needs, and be open to change. This has been the most valuable lesson I’ve learned throughout my journey as a boss and a business owner, and the most challenging as a woman-owned business owner.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those interested in horticulture, what advice would you give them based on your own experiences of building a successful business from the ground up?

Never give up. If you have to return to school, as I did, to learn how to sell a product once you have a degree, do it. Your time, effort, and learning will reward you well. If you sell a good product, care about your customers, and are open to respectful criticism from time to time, it will help you grow as a successful business owner.

Looking back on your journey, is there anything you would have done differently, and what advice would you give your younger self entering the world of horticulture and business?

Always remember this: What seems like a big problem today won’t matter in the weeks to come. Don’t stress over the small things. Your main priorities in life should be your family and then your career. Work from 9 to 5, and when you go home, focus on your family.

What does the future hold for Tammy and TN Nursery? Are there any exciting new projects or directions you’re planning to explore?

I envision a future in which I can slow down, spend more quality time with my family, and work less. I am financially secure and no longer need to constantly pursue money. I also want to devote more time to my 86-year-old mother while she is with us. In terms of TN Nursery, I hope to pass on my legacy to my children. My middle son, Tristan, is now a 15% partner, and my daughter, Bailey, is in the process of transitioning into marketing and learning about the website platform, preparing to take over TN Nursery in the future when I retire.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes! I love this new feature. Interviewing is pure enjoyment, and that’s how I relax.


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