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100 years a family business: no slowdown planned

Nov. 20, 2013 | 0 comments


A hundred years is a long time for a company to remain in business and it's indeed rare for that company to be owned by the same family.

Klein's Floral and Greenhouses, located just off one of Madison's busiest intersections, fits that description, and be assured, it is not a business that is just "hanging on," for old-time sake. Rather, it is thriving and in floral terms is blooming in all its glory.

Owner Sue Klein is the third generation of the Klein family that dates to her grandfather Frederick, who left Germany in 1909 and found a home in Kansas City, KS. After a few years he moved to Ottumwa, IA, where he met and married Susan Frederick.

13 acres in 1913

In 1913, the young couple moved to Madison and bought a small greenhouse on the far east side of Madison in what was farming country. The 13 acres had a house, barn, chicken coop and a couple of greenhouses. The couple began selling fresh produce — lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and perennials including peonies, iris and delphiniums.

That greenhouse business was and still is located at the now busy junction of Highways 51 and 151 (or Stoughton Road and East Washington Avenue). Part of the original 13 acres later held the popular Midway Motor Inn and now a Walgreen drug store. The current lot has now shrunk to about two acres but the house and a series of greenhouses make up Klein's Floral and Greenhouses.

Frederick and Susan Klein had five children: Gertrude, Elizabeth, Helen, Walter and Oscar, all who worked in the family business in their younger years.

Over the decades the business grew: Other flowers were grown and flower arrangements were added to the business and in 1930, the Klein's, in a pioneer effort in the city, started delivering floral products in a 1929 Model T truck.

Meanwhile, son Oscar, who served in the Marines during World War and the Korean War, met and married (in 1954) Joyce Klopp, a Port Washington native.

In 1955, Oscar and Joyce bought the business from his parents with Oscar running the greenhouses and Joyce in charge of the retail floral business.

With the part-time assistance of Oscar's sisters Gertrude and Elizabeth and Joyce's sisters Margaret and Delores, the business grew as did the surrounding farmland as it turned from rural to city.

In 1966 daughter Sue was born to Oscar and Joyce and literally grew up in the business, living in the house surrounded by greenhouses and making corsages at two years of age.

She worked in the business after school and during breaks, graduated from Madison East High and went on to get a Floriculture degree from the UW-Madison in 1987 and returned to work for her parents in the greenhouse.

Third generation in 1990

In 1990, Sue Klein became owner of Klein's Floral and Greenhouse — her dad Oscar died in 1993 while fishing and her mother died in 1999 — and remains so today.

Sue is also the mother of four children: Jim (20) and Jon (19) both attending UW-Whitewater where they are a junior and freshman, respectively; Michael (17) a senior at Waunakee High; and Megan a sixth grader at Waunakee.

The two careers — motherhood and business — make Sue Klein a multi-tasker to the extreme and she credits her longtime and knowledgeable employees for contributing much to the business success.

Employees that stay

Jamie VandenWymelenberg, greenhouse grower and general manager who joined the company in 1990, is a horticulture graduate of the UW-Madison. Klein gives him credit "through his dedication and passion ... for leading the growth of the business from a greenhouse known only to local East Siders to one known throughout the Madison area for its superior quality products and cutting edge plant mix."

Jennifer Simon, assistant manager, is completing her sixth year at Klein's where she works in the greenhouse and is the major buyer. Raised in Green Lake where her parents ran a bed and breakfast, Jen majored in hotel and restaurant management at UW-Stout. She is also a Master Gardener and says "gardening people are the coolest people around."

Rick Halbach has been with Klein's since 1991 after graduating from the UW-Madison with a degree in German. He never taught in a classroom, rather spent many years in retail management before joining Klein's. Rick is a well-known writer and gardener and serves as delivery supervisor, coordinator of the company's exhibit at the annual Madison Garden Expo, greenhouse worker and newsletter and web manager.

How does a family-owned garden center exist in the face of a myriad of discount and supermarkets selling some of the same products?

"We grow most of our greenhouse plants right here," Sue Klein begins. "Our competent and professional staff makes sure that all the plants are kept in top condition. We also sell a lot of unique plants."

"We are 75 percent garden center," she says. "We continue to grow most of our enormous selection of annuals, vegetables, herbs and perennials on site. Then there are the fresh flowers contemporary, traditional, high-style, silk and dried floral arrangements. Much of our plant product is grown from seed (including one of the largest selections of tomatoes, peppers and ethnic vegetables in the area) and we buy as many of our plants and flowers as possible locally."

She might also have mentioned all the assistance the employees provide in helping a customer select the right plant(s) for the occasion and how to take care of it when you get home.

A next generation? You bet

What about the next generation? Although Sue Klein is not yet 50 years old, she has thought about the future of the family business and unlike many family owned businesses where a next generation might not exist, she does have a possible successor — in fact, probably two.

Her oldest son Jim, a senior business major at the UW-Whitewater, is planning to join the family business after graduation and his younger brother Jon is thinking along the same lines. (Jon won a national first place award in accounting this summer in the Future Business Leader of America competition.)

Sue Klein is proud of having many longtime customers, some of whom drive a long distance to buy the quality products offered at her Klein's Floral & Greenhouses Inc.

The company web site kleinsfloral.com is a marvel in itself presenting a ton of information about the company and seven years of monthly newsletters covering almost every imaginable subject a gardener/flower lover might want to know about.

In addition to Sue Klein's full life as a business owner, floral designer and mother, she is active in Downtown Madison Inc., Dane Buy Local and a host of other organizations.

You must be doing a lot of things right to stay in business for 100 years and Sue Klein is determined to stay on that track as she looks to the now and the future with enthusiasm.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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