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PODCAST: How does a family business survive for 100 years?

Podcast Description:

In this episode, Tyler Kluck, fourth-generation owner of Kluck Nursery, shares what it’s like to assume the mantle of V.P. of a successful family business, what role 100 years of history has in making decisions, and the impact staff retirement has on the business. Every Christmas, over 5,500 people decorate their homes with Kluck Christmas trees, but their business impacts the community with more than trees.

Links from the episode

Kluck Nursery Website: 

Kluck Nursery Facebook Page:


Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone and welcome back to the Call of Leadership Podcast. So today we're talking to one of those businesses that probably most people would just glance at when they drive by, but these are oftentimes the businesses that I think have the most interesting story, and most people, They probably only visit this place around Christmas time.

Well, we're lucky enough today to be at Kluck Nursery located just outside of Saginaw, Michigan. Tyler Cluck, Vice President of Kluck Nursery is joining me for this interview. Tyler, how are you?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Good. Great. Thanks for having me. I’m very honored and humbled. To be part of your tour here.

Cliff Duvernois: thanks. And I am, I'm honored to be here. You've got a very impressive facility and I know we're gonna talk more about that here in a second. But why don't you tell us a little bit about where you're from and where you grew up?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, absolutely. So, uh, born and raised in Saginaw, uh, right here at the nursery. Pretty much. Uh, we live just down the road. Uh, my parents, uh, and I have a sister who is not involved with the business currently. But we both grew up, you know, kind of living and breathing the nursery, uh, industry. And, uh, went to high school around here and then went to Michigan State University and graduated in 2013 with, uh, my horticulture degree and have been back here on the nursery since 2013 with my dad.

And currently, I'm the fourth generation in the business, and just hoping to keep this thing going. Like it has a lot of shoes to fill, right? Uh, but a lot of great teachers, uh, who have been behind me, uh, my father obviously, and then, uh, our great staff, we have, uh, has been a great start to this, uh, an adventure for me.

Cliff Duvernois: I want to ask some more questions about your past, but before I do that, I'd like to get a little bit more perspective on the history of Kluck Nursery. So you said that you're the fourth generation. Talk to us about when it was founded and who

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Sure. Yeah. So it, we was founded in the 1920s. Don't have an exact date. Uh, but my, it'd be my great grandfather, Walter Kluck He is the one who had this great idea. Um, he started planting some trees basically, and. It was during, around Christmas time and, uh, a, a local guy from Thomas Township came over on a horse and, uh, SL and, you know, said, Hey, I want to cut one of these Christmas trees down and use it as a, in my, in my house.

And, and Walter said, Yeah, that's a great idea. So that kind of got the ball rolling, right? Um, with the Christmas end of things. Uh, and then he had some trees planted on his property. He'd have people coming over us saying, Hey, I wanna buy those trees and plant 'em in my yard. Uh, and so it just kind of started as people literally came out and they dug their own shrubs, trees to take to their yard.

And, you know, he'd start thinking, Okay, as a business, maybe we can do some with this. Um, fast forward some, some years, uh, they had four, uh, Three boys and a daughter. Uh, two of the boys were involved in the business, uh, Ed Clark and my, my grandfather, uh, Gerald Clark, uh, would've been the second generation.

And they also at the time had, uh, dairy cows and had some chickens. So Ed kind of took that side of the business and my grandpa Gerald, took more of the nursery side of the. And was a great combo that way. And then eventually the, um, the cattle and the chickens kind of faded off. It just wasn't feasible anymore.

So they kind of partnered both in the nursery, uh, and kept growing that. Then my grandfather and grandma had, two daughters and a son, Tom Kluck being my dad, and he joined the business with my great grandpa, and really that's when they really started to make the nursery grow.

Uh, and we're now currently up to about 500 acres and I am now involved as the fourth generation. And just love it. I love seeing all that came before me and just hope to keep going on growing, and growing. Being a service to the community, throughout the state, and keeping this thing going.

Cliff Duvernois: One thing I do like about this story is the fact that this was founded in the 1920s, so we're getting pretty close to your hundredth

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah. It's getting real close. Real close. 

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah.

And during that time, your business has seen boom and bust, your business survived the Great Depression. You have seen more recessions than most people can keep track of.

What do you think has allowed your family business to survive that long? It's rare that businesses break the hundred-year mark, so you're kind of a statistical anomaly here. So what would you attribute to the longevity of your family business?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, that's a great question actually. I thought this morning that maybe this would come up. Um, and I, so I thought about it a little bit and they went through a lot of hard times, maybe even a little bit harder than what we dealt with, with the depression and all that.

Um, but now that we've dealt with COVID and that whole deal, um, I think from what I can tell from way back then to now, it's just a core family business. And through the good times and bad times; I think everybody, especially in the bad times, stepped up a little bit harder and just, you know, look, this is our livelihood.

We need to figure out a way to continue to do this. I never met my great grandfather, but he started the roots, I think, um, of, you know, we gotta figure out how to do it and if, you know, they got through it. And then my grandpa was the same, same attitude. My great Uncle Ed was the same attitude. Um, and then my dad, I think it's basically just been a rolling ball effect that just keeps growing on.

Uh, the at times are tough and times are also good, but when they're tough, you really gotta buckle down. Just really nail it down and try even harder. Yes. And work harder. And then also have a good supporting cast with your employees. And from day one, we've had very reliable employees keeping this business operating.

Um, so, I think it's key to have support from the spouses too. Um, any business, you work a lot. In our type of industry, you know, we have to keep plants alive, so if it doesn't rain, there are some extra hours. So I think from great Grandma Frida, all the way to my wife Tara, all of our wives have been very supportive to allow us to live our dream.

And, you know, there's gonna be some extra stress, extra hardships with any business but you live it hand in. They allowed everybody to keep being successful and to give us support, you know, to do it. So I think that's a really key thing with a family business too, to have the whole team onboard. You're gonna have highs and lows, but you're gonna get through it.

Cliff Duvernois: So for a bit of perspective here, your business started in the 1920s and it was literally two guys selling trees out of their yard. How many people would you say are on staff today?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, we currently have right around 40 employees. Um, you know, obviously not all full-time. Um, in the winter months, we're not as busy, so, we go down to about a dozen. Um, but at our peak season, you know, if we could be about 40 to 45.

Cliff Duvernois: The business started in a yard, how big is Kluck Nursery today?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, we've grown tremendously. Uh, we probably have about 500 acres. Um, and that's enough for now. It's grown quite a bit! I've, I'm 29, um, so I've seen it grow, you know, not as much as my dad or grandpa have, but we have about 500 acres with nursery stock and don't plan to get any bigger right now, but you never know.

Cliff Duvernois: I'd like to dive into the question of how you're able to maintain 500 acres, but before we do that, we're gonna take a quick second and thank our sponsors.

Hello everyone and welcome back. So Tyler, uh, the question I got for you is, I gotta say I love to see the entrepreneur at work and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. So we're talking 800 acres of plants, and some of them you said were in containers, or did you start them off in containers?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: No, we, it's container and field grown. Uh, I don't, I guess I don't have like a percentage of what it is, but it's drastically changed. When the nursery first started, everything was field grown. That’s just how it was. As the industry changed and we needed to figure out ways to produce plants lighter obviously so people can grab them and go. Container nursery production has just exploded throughout the country. So now we have container and field-grown, products because some stuff you just can't grow in a container. It just needs to be out in the field some stuff needs to be in a container versus in the ground.

Cliff Duvernois: Now with all of this container growth that is going on, obviously the first thing that pops to mind is water. I don't think you guys are just sitting out there praying that it rains. You're entrepreneurs, you've got a product that you're selling, and you gotta make sure that you're keeping it alive, and that they look healthy.

How did you overcome the challenge of getting enough water to sustain hundreds of acres?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, that's a great question, because with quite a bit of container production can't just sit there and do a rain dance, or we'd be going backward. So, uh, we have two large irrigation systems. Uh, there's the Swan Creek, which runs right by us and we're thankful we've always been able to irrigate out of that.

Uh, and then I'd say in the mid-two-thousands, uh, there was a lake right by the property that became for sale. So my dad and a gentlemen purchase that together. And it's like 60 acres of water so we use that now to irrigate all the container stuff. We have overhead water, which is simply just whizz, heads that spray out water that falls down like rain.

Then, there are certain plants that need more direct water at the base instead of the top. So we have what's called drip irrigation. They're black lines of water and then they drip out of emitters directly onto the plant so you can get more of a slow water release down to them. It's a lot of water that we go through.

Cliff Duvernois: I can imagine. The 600-acre lake that you're talking about. Uh, you were mentioning before that it's fed by a natural spring.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: yes, it's spring fed. Yep. Which is great because it's never going to go completely down, or dry on us. So it's. It's a very good blessing that we were able to have the lake. We can irrigate from Swan Creek, but that has gone dry before. I remember, as a kid, you literally could walk across it.

Nowadays if that would happen, we'd be in some serious trouble. So having this lake, a spring-fed lake was an added bonus. As far as irrigation goes.

Cliff Duvernois: And probably solve one of your biggest problems too probably.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Absolutely. Yeah. You don't have plants if you don't have water.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah, exactly.

So what I'd like to do is I'd like to go back to your story you said that you graduated from college back in 2013, and then you jumped into the family business. What is it about Kluck Nursery that made you say to yourself, You know, I really wanna be a part of this.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, it's a great question. And I guess I wanna start out with, I was never forced to do this. My parents always said there were a lot of options. Obviously, my dad highly suggested it having me grow up in the nursery business, but it was never set in stone. It wasn’t hey, you gotta do this. Which I think is very important because, you know, I feel maybe if some kids grow up in a family business, they might have the thought of, man, if I don't work in the family business maybe my family won't be happy. And that's not the case in our business at all. We had the option to go do whatever we wanted. Since I was little, I knew I wanted to do this and be part of this. So, growing up, I'd ride around in the truck with my grandpa, during the day, and then I would, as I got older, you know, after school, I'd work pull weeds, or anything that I saw needed to be done. This is something I really wanna do, the people before me were very successful, and I love being outdoors. You can truly make a difference in this work and in people's lives with trees and plants by making their houses look nice.

Being able to see your product at a business or at a house and being able to say you were part of that is great. We put a lot of time into growing that and making it a beautiful landscape. While you're working, you can literally see your hard work paying off by the trees and shrubs growing.

Um, so I never had a doubt that this is what I wanted to do. Two years ago, I officially started buying into the business with my dad. So it's real now! There’s no turning back now, but yeah there's real skin in the game, which obviously makes you think a little bit differently.

Like I said, was never forced into this and just truly enjoy each day being able to come into work and to drive around to look at our product and keep it going.

Cliff Duvernois: I think it really shows, and you bring up an excellent point. It's different when you want to be here versus when you feel like you have to be here. And uh, I mentioned the word before about it being an obligation because that is something that ultimately, brings with it a kind of resentment after a while.

So it's really nice hearing that you wanna be a part of this and it seems like you are more than ready to be a bigger part of this too.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, absolutely.

Cliff Duvernois: Let's talk a little bit about some of the offerings that you have here because you told the story about how somebody pulled up to your hours, it was your great-grandfather’s house, right? And said, Hey, I wanna cut down that tree!

Cliff Duvernois: So do you still sell Christmas trees here?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yes, absolutely. It’s a big part of our business. And you asked earlier about, uh, you know, how we're involved in the community and I think that the Christmas trees probably stand out the most, as far as being a service of the community.

Uh, before I get too into it, a lot of the Christmas tree customers have no idea that we're a nursery. They think we just grow Christmas trees until they look more into it and then they say, Wow, you know, never knew you had all these landscape plants and shade trees. It's just a funny story because we see it every day.

They don't see it. So, uh, yeah. So as far as the Christmas trees, we still do that. Um, you know, we sell right around 5,500 trees a year, and that's solely to retail choosing a cut. We don't do any wholesale Christmas trees. So it's a lot of work in about three weeks’ time. We open the day after Thanksgiving and usually by the middle of December people have their trees up.

And each year it just seems to get earlier and earlier that people want their tree. So it's about three weeks of chaos basically, is what it is. By far, the nursery is the biggest part of our business financially. But the busiest and shortest amount of time is the Christmas tree season. It's just a bunch of people in one spot.

And to be able to provide that service of a Christmas tree has been awesome for our community. We hear it at our church, we hear it at events, and everywhere we go. Kluck Nursery, the Christmas trees, you know, that's what people think about us. So the thought of Christmas morning, you know, thousands of houses around us.

The central focus in their living room is a Kluck nursery Christmas tree. We'll take it, we have good pride in that because it's a long process. It's about eight to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree. So there's a lot of thought goes into it. A lot of work goes in. And then just to see how happy families are leaving with their tree and that we had a little part in that! It makes you feel great at the end of the day. When you've worked so hard and you're tired and you just think about Christmas morning when they're looking at a Kluck Christmas tree that came from Saginaw, Michigan, I think it’s great.

Cliff Duvernois: One of the things that I personally have always enjoyed when I go somewhere to pick out my Christmas tree is that it always seems like there are other events. It becomes a big event. Do you guys pull out the carpet for that stuff too?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: We do this in a small way. We don't go crazy about that. Uh, We just kind of focus more on the Christmas tree end of things. But on the weekends, we have a little concession stand where we sell donuts, hot chocolate, cider, and cookies. We have a bonfire area that we have going for the customers and a straw fort that we build for the kids to climb and play on, which is always a hit. And wagon rides around the property.

All of the preparation of the tree, shaking it and wrapping it up, is free of charge. We will help tie trees on cars if people need a hand too. So from the time you pull in to the time you leave, you know, we're just here to help. And we offer wreathes, garland, and some other decorations too.

We've been doing this for almost a hundred years and it's working really well and we've changed things along the way like you have to. Right.

We do class field trips during the week for the local schools. So that’s another way that we are out in the community. We don't charge for the field trip. A lot of the teachers, like it, when they find out they can bring 40 kids here for free. You know? So that's nice to get these younger people, kids, and their parents to come out and see. We have a Christmas tree farm and a nursery too.

It all goes back to our founders, they didn't just throw this thing together, they put thought into it. So, you asked how it's transitioned, I'm very thankful that a lot of this was put in way back in the day, and now I can continue to try to keep it going and make improvements cuz there's always room for improvement.

One thing I forgot to mention about the Christmas trees is the popcorn ball. If you ask somebody about Kluck Nursery and getting their Christmas tree, they’ll probably forget about the tree and they'll ask, “Did you get your popcorn ball?” We give out free popcorn balls to all of our customers after they pay. And it's been a tradition we've always had. The kids obviously love it, but we think the adults like it a little bit more sometimes. They're always asking, where's the popcorn balls at? You know, you're going to get it when you pay!

Cliff Duvernois: I can imagine a lot of these adults out there had that same experience when they were kids.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Absolutely. That's a great point. You know, we've, had people coming out for generations! Which is another really cool thing to see and hear. There are grandpas out there with their kids and then their kids, and it’s a spiral effect. Someday they're gonna be doing the same thing. So, It's just a good feeling to see all the different ages and the generations of people who have been coming, and getting trees for 50-plus years or so.

Cliff Duvernois: The term that you said before was tradition, and I love this term. When you sit back and think about how somebody said, hey, you know what? We should have a real Christmas tree. Then they come over here with their kids, they experience the popcorn ball and straw fort that you have built, and they want to have the same experience with their kids.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Well, probably yes, it’s a really good possibility.

Cliff Duvernois: And I would also like to think that when you're over there experiencing it because it's like you said, it's three weeks of chaos and obviously you're in the middle of it, but to have somebody look at you and say, You know, I remember when my grandfather brought me here. And now I get to do this with my kids or with my grandchildren. That has to be very satisfying.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: very satisfying every time you hear the story, you know, it never gets old cuz each, each person's perspective is a little bit different. We've learned a lot from our customers, you know, and as I said, there are always things you can improve on.

Cliff Duvernois: Now you and I met through the Stevens Center, and one of the things that have come up periodically in my interviews when we're talking about multi-generational businesses, obviously, is transitioning the business from, you know, perhaps somebody who's getting ready to retire to the younger generation and the way you're going to, at some point in time, be handling this or handing this off to somebody else.

Why don't you talk to us a little bit about how that's been influencing you? How has it been helping your business and how you've been able to contribute?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, as I mentioned to you earlier, the Stevens Center, it's a wonderful thing to be a part of. We don't get to go to all the events, but when we do, we've walked away with a lot of different ideas. It's a good thing to be a part of, it’s great to see what people are doing, and what other people did that didn't work. You know? Cause you, you must look at that too. The speakers that they bring into these events, who have seen it all, help a lot. And you mentioned the transition. Uh, we're going through quite a bit of that right now.

We've had some of our key guys who have been with us for 40-plus years. They're retiring. So the Steven Center helps.  he is helping us try to build this next phase of the nursery. Um, especially for me, cuz you know, I'm gonna have to bring in, you know, a whole new look of things because a lot of these people who are retiring are going to be replaced with young good people, and the Stevens Center has been a great tool. I guess we'll say to listen just to how you plan for succession in a family business. Um, we've even had some of our employees, uh, listen to some talks or podcasts that, that the Stevens Center give out. Instead of it just being Dad and me there, um, we include our employees with it, and they've been thankful to listen to what the Stevens Center brings to us.

So, and just to hear. You know, all the history and success stories of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland and Zehnder’s. Um, just to hear all those stories, it's pretty cool. To say that we can we’re a part of the group that the Stevens Center is, has made a difference and so we're very thankful to be a part of it.

Cliff Duvernois: One thing that you brought up before is the fact that you've got a lot of people here who have been here for four decades getting ready to retire, and one of the things that I know that has directly impacted me throughout my career is when somebody who's been here for 40 years, they retire and you lose that knowledge.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yes, for sure.

Cliff Duvernois: So there's this. Yeah, you're, you're scrambling to say to yourself, Wow, we need to get that knowledge transfer. Cuz like you said, these new people coming in don't have four decades of experience. Some of them probably have four minutes of experience. So what does that process look like to go back and say, hey, let's capture, that.

What do you do to make sure that we've got your experience like we were talking about before, going through the recession, right? And being able to trap that information. And like I said, you know what work, what didn't work and you know, what does that process look like?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah, it's a scary process, you know, especially for me cuz I'm, you know, just kind of coming into like the management ownership at the same time during these key retirements.

Uh, but we have hired a handful of younger people to build it back up. Um, you're not gonna replace 40 years with one person.

Right. Very rarely will you find that so our plan right now is kind of get a group of core younger people to split up these tasks that these guys did for 40 years, that is hopeful. They will do it for 30 more years, 40 more years to have the same experience. I'll be honest, it's been a tough transition.

Throw COVID into all of it, the lack of labor, price increases on top of everything, and wages, you gotta put all this into effect, but you still gotta have employees as well. So what we've done with retaining employees is a good feeling for us. We feel we're doing something right too if they wanna be here every day and they wanna be here for 40 years.

Um, so it's, it's been tough, but we are going in the right direction and I'm very thankful for the younger core that we've brought in within the last five - 10 years. They’re dedicated and willing to help me as much as I do, and we want them to help us. So, you know, overall it's been pretty good and you just gotta keep working hard on getting good people and having good people around for all of the employees too.

You know you don't wanna work with people who have bad attitudes and, uh, so. Good family, I guess we'll call it, instead of employees, we feel that they're family to us.

You know, they're giving up their time throughout the week to work for us and them. We give them time with their families as well. It’s very important that they have their time too.

Like I've said multiple times today, we're just blessed with our team.

Cliff Duvernois: Well, I think that's a direct reflection on your family because I thought I had the wrong location when I pulled up because this place doesn't look like any nurseries I've ever seen. And trust me, I've seen like a bunch of 'em. But when I pulled up here, I really thought this was somebody's house.

Because this place is just immaculate, and that says something about the employees that work here, that they care that much because obviously, this is not the result of one person. When you're talking about 500 acres, you were showing me these aerial photos of the farm and everything is just lined up perfectly. Like you could almost put a straight edge to all these different plants. Because that right there is because employees care, which is not something that you can buy.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Absolutely not. No, that's a great point that you brought up. As a nursery, you're selling plants. You're selling trees. If your stuff doesn't look nice in your sales yard or as you enter our nursery, would you feel comfortable buying a tree if it looked half dead? No. So that's very important to us and my family. I remember my grandpa, would constantly be telling me, “You gotta make sure that the front entrance sign is always looking good. Why would someone want to pull into your business if the sign didn't look good?”

And at the time you're young, I'm young, and it's, Oh, alright, grandpa.

But when you sit back and think, and that's a simple thing that is very important. You know you don't want it to be a mess. Um, and then as you mentioned, I appreciate the comment of, you know, your first time being here and how you noticed that right away. We take great pride in making everything look as best as it can, and the employees, you hit the nail on the head, they care.

They care about the tractors, the golf carts, the trucks, the tractors, the big tractors. They drive the semi-trucks. They take pride and they take care of them so that they look nice, and so that we can keep this for multiple years instead of having to continue buying. Trucks, tractors, which you gotta wait so long for now anyways cuz it's hard to get.

So our employees for sure take pride in keeping our nursery clean. So it's great to have that part of it cuz like you said, one person can't take care of 500 acres or all the tractors, and everything. So everybody takes care of what they do and it keeps it all looking good.

Cliff Duvernois: Tyler. If somebody's listening to this and they're now convinced they've gotta get their Christmas tree here, or they just want to come by and check out your facility, because it really is wonderful, what's the best way for people to be able to connect with you?

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: They can visit us at our website, uh, or you can find us on Facebook or Instagram. We do a lot on Facebook, uh, as far as telling our story. That's one thing I'm trying to do a little bit more of is, you know, okay, they come here and they see the plant, they see the tree, but how did it get to that point?

So I'm trying to push that a little bit more to make it feel more of, uh, you know, like they were involved in the purchase, especially for Christmas as far as that. So those are the best ways to find out about us. Stop on out, we're located in Saginaw at 1020 Van Warmer Road, and we'd be happy to have you come out and just walk around and take a look and see what we have to offer.

But those would be the best ways to find out about what we have going on here at our nursery.

Cliff Duvernois: Wonderful. And for our audience, we will have all of those links and the show notes down below. Tyler, it's been awesome chatting with you today. I've learned a lot about, uh, Kluck Nursery

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Great

Cliff Duvernois: Tyler, I really gotta say this. It really is beautiful. So thank you.

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: Yeah. Thank you very much for coming and again, and the Stevens Center too. I was honored for this opportunity. We hope to keep having conversations like this in the future as my wife and I are expecting a little baby boy in February.

Cliff Duvernois: Congratulations, you didn’t say anything about that earlier!

Tyler Kluck, Kluck Nursery: I was saving it for the end, you know, So we can end on a high note.

Yeah. Just honored that there's the potential for a fifth generation.

To maybe continue this, again, he won't be forced into this either, but, we're very excited to have five generations of the Kluck family around. You know, as you said, you don't see many businesses get past the hundred-year mark.

Real excited about that. So maybe you'll be doing an interview with, my son, sometime many more years down the road.

Cliff Duvernois: Oh, you never know. You never know. Thanks again, Tyler.


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