John Pound is the Owner and Founder of Agra Tech, one of the world’s leading commercial greenhouse manufacturers, with its headquarters in Pittsburg, CA. This interview is Part #2. Click to read Part 1.
Q: What are the biggest changes in the commercial greenhouse industry since you began?
JP: There have been multiple changes from when I started, but the biggest thing that comes to my mind is the way the market has evolved. When I started in this business forty years ago, the biggest users of our products were the cut flower companies. At that time, we did large greenhouse projects for rose and carnation growers. The work was very seasonal and revolved around holidays like Easter, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. So it was a fairly predictable market. At the end of the season, the growers knew if they had made enough money to invest in another greenhouse. They would call us and say “We need another greenhouse and we need to get it done in time to have flowers to sell for Christmas”, for example. It was pretty straightforward with very simple greenhouses.
That market eventually fell apart when the US signed a free trade agreement with Columbia, who now supplies over 80% of our cut flowers. They can produce a cut flower in Colombia and air freight it to the US cheaper than a local company can grow it. So that market literally went south.
Then the market started to focus on house plants, or Interior Landscaping. Ferns, orchids, and other types of house plants became popular so there was a lot of business in that market for us during that time. These were mostly small family businesses just like us. At the same time, the need for bedding plants for landscaping was also on the increase.
Today, our business is focusing more and more on agriculture, including seed companies and transplant growers. We are working with big corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow and that has been a real change for our company.
The newest development in the agricultural market is food production for the local community. There is a cultural shift to buying local foods in response to concerns about the environment, the economy, and health. Greenhouses providing a controlled environment are the answer to growing produce year around. Smaller growers are producing tomatoes, vine crops, lettuces and leafy greens for restaurants and farmers markets. We started Agra Tech working with family businesses and we’re happy to be back working with this type of grower again.
Q: Agra Tech is a family business. Please mention the names and positions of all your family members that work for Agra Tech, with a brief description of their backgrounds, etc.
JP: Anita Pound my sister is our greenhouse engineer and also the Chief Operations Officer. She’s the brains of the outfit if you get right down to it. She’s been here 40 years and has learned the business from ground zero. Anita has done it all–she can weld, fabricate and she’s done installation—everything to build a greenhouse. She used to be out on the road as a foreman and she knows this business inside out. Anita is married to Craig Miskel and he has been our Production Manager for 38 years.
Adam Pound, my son, is in sales and he’s been with us for seven years. He handles our Monsanto account, which he earned after working here for a few months. So he’s grown the Monsanto account and other accounts and done an excellent job for us.
Eloise Pound my wife works as our Controller, handling the legal end of the business. She does contracts; handles personnel issues, financing, insurance, and much more. She worked in banking before joining us and she’s extremely detail-oriented. Eloise and I met while we were both students at U.C. Davis and we’ve been married for 40 years.
My younger brother Ray Pound worked for us for a number years and then he decided he wanted to go out on his own. He was doing all our construction as an Agra Tech employee, so we sold him the construction division of Agra Tech and it works out very well. His company is called Ag-Con located in San Jose, CA. He does most of the local construction for us. Ag-Con.
I also want to mention some other people, including Jim Bergantz one of our sales engineers, who is very good. He came from the industry and he’s an important member of our team here at Agra Tech. There’s also Tonya Pitcher in the office doing inside sales and James Roberts who does the lion’s share of our customer service. When customers call with tech support questions, James Roberts fields them. He’s very knowledgeable having worked for here for more than 17 years.
Q: Please mention some of your leading strategic partners and how you work with them?
JP: In addition to Ag-Con, we’ve been working with American Hydro for 15-20 years. They specialize in the actual growing of the plant material through hydroponics and they’ve sold some of our greenhouses. We sometimes make parts for them and it’s been a great relationship.
We’ve also been working with our Engineer, Rob Shaffer, the owner of Shaffer Engineering for several years. All the structural engineering, building permits and engineering-related issues are handled by Rob’s company. We show him the design and then he makes sure that it meets the actual building codes. That way, it’s done right and to code. We are glad to be partnering with his company.
Q: What does the future hold for Agra Tech?
JP: We feel we are just at the very beginning of greenhouses being a major factor in agriculture, for both large and small scale growers. This is fueled by the need to use fewer pesticides, conserve water, and to grow more crops on less land. Seed research companies are continuing to work toward developing plants that can produce more with less water, fewer pesticides, and for a variety of climates. More and more small growers are starting up to respond to local markets. We are fortunate that we saw this coming and are already experienced in the AG market.
The second generation of Pounds my son, Adam and his wife, Leslie are learning the business so they will be ready to take over and run Agra Tech in the future. Adam is involved in cutting edge uses for greenhouses to help feed more people and even aid in reducing world hunger. It is an exciting time to be in the greenhouse manufacturing business.
Q: If someone is thinking about entering this industry, what would you tell them and what is the best way for them to learn more about greenhouse growing?
JP: The first thing I would tell them is to know your market. Find out what people in your area need and grow those things. Once you have determined what your market is, learn everything you can about it, because if you can grow food or plants that people need, you can succeed. You can grow the most wonderful plants but if there is no market for them, you can’t make a profit. It’s common sense. Knowing your market is key, and some growers lose sight of that.
Written by Ed Attanasio