Alice Longfellow always knew one day she would take the family trade out on her own. The lifelong plant professional not only dreamed but expected she would one day own her own garden center. She just didn't realize this ambition would lead her to the Show-Me State.
"I knew I was going to start a business, but I just wasn't thinking it was going to be in Missouri," Longfellow said. "I was thinking somewhere like New Hampshire or Vermont."
Longfellow's Garden Center in Centertown — not to be confused with Longfellow's Greenhouses in Maine, which her grandfather and father founded and brother still owns — has been in business for about 31 years and is doing better than ever. The small staff has been working hard to keep up with demand as fall weather approached Mid-Missouri.
"It's been a fantastic year," Longfellow said. "We have more business and not enough people to do it, so it's been wearing everybody out. These are problems I've never had before."
The center is operated by Longfellow and her partner in life and business, Bob Call. The two grew up in the gardening business — Longfellow in Farmingdale, Maine, and Call in California, Missouri. They met at a Michigan greenhouse conference, and she decided she "really liked him."
Before she met her husband, Longfellow grew up learning the gardening trade with the rest of her six siblings. She knew there wouldn't be enough space for her in the family business for her own liking, so Longfellow set to finding her own way.
"(My family) would have welcomed me to be a part of the (Longfellow's Greenhouses) company," she said. "But I was determined I was going to do something on my own. I wanted to be a little bit different. I'm a very independent person. I like to do things my own way."
Longfellow studied plant science at the University of Maine in Orono and took part in two internships at garden centers in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she returned to Longfellow's Greenhouses and worked with her family four years, knowing it was temporary.
When she met her husband, she realized her long-awaited opportunity had arisen through a kindred spirit. Call's father founded D 'n' R Plants, and the son helped operate the business.
"We both understood the steps it takes to start a business from scratch," Longfellow said.
Longfellow moved to Missouri with Call and started working with area florists until she was able go out on her own, landscaping and doing interior plant maintenance in places like office buildings and hotels.
Longfellow's Garden Center officially opened in 1987 at 12007 Lookout Trail in Centertown. Call retired from his job five years later and became operations manager so his wife could focus on the plants and customers. Business grew steadily for many years, but area residents feared rerouting of U.S. 50 around Centertown would doom Longfellow's.
"It didn't," its owner said.
It wasn't the highway alteration that diminished her business but the Great Recession, which hurt garden centers throughout the country.
"We received a challenge in 2009-14 because that was challenging for most people in business," Longfellow said. "Sales did drop considerably during that time. We learned to scale back, and nobody lost their jobs. Our sales went down, but they did for everyone else in the country. Yes, we went down 25 percent, but we did several things to get creative on how to get people here and remind them (of how to reach the business)," like cleaning up the highway and obtaining a highway beautification sign for the garden center.
Longfellow's held together through the recession and has since regained its momentum.
She encourages women with professional goals not to accept stereotypical gender norms, especially from other women. Longfellow has been accepted in the generally male-dominated garden center industry, but she said that isn't always the case.
"When I first started landscaping, people would raise their eyebrows like, 'You're going to do that?'" she said. "In fact, I get more negativism from older women who don't think I can do it. You can't lift that bag of mulch or soil, and I say, 'I can lift two of them.'"
Q. Who has invested in you and your career?
A. "I'm going to say, no doubt, my husband. He has been a tremendous partner from day one and continues to be. Our kids are very supportive, but I have to give a lot of credit to my parents. Both of them are very supportive of me getting my business started and the steps along the way."
Q. What choices have you made to invest in yourself and your own success?
A. "I did a lot of attending of conferences in my industry as a way to learn and stay current, teaching myself how to be successful in this industry. Also, the fact that I did go ahead and leave the family business, so to speak, and started out on my own in foreign territory and had to meet all new people and vendors, but it was very exciting along the way."
Q. Of what professional achievement are you most proud?
A. "The Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Award in 2002."
Q. What do you see as the biggest issues facing women in the workplace?
A. "I think that a lot of women don't come into the workplace properly trained or given the tools that they need. That was definitely a problem for me, but I know that today's woman is a lot different than what it used to be. But I think women are capable of doing an awful lot of things, so I don't think that the barriers are quite there like they used to be."
Q. What drives you most in life and in your career?
A. "I love life. I love plants. I love nature. I love to explore, and I love seeing and doing new things. I think that's what drives me. I love to work hard, and I love the satisfaction of a hard day's work but a good day's work. That satisfaction at the end of the day, whether it's on my day off and I just went and kayaked a river or I hiked a trail or I moved a lot of mums or I got the books balanced, whatever it is I'm doing, that satisfaction of getting it done and getting it done quickly and efficiently."
Q. What advice would you give to a woman entering the workforce?
A. "Certainly have any education or training that you might need, whatever the job is you're going to do. But the most important is to find something that either is a passion or that you can sink your teeth into. Have something you can really become a part of because that is really satisfying."
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