March 26, 2010

Johnny's Selected Seeds business of the year

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WINSLOW — Lainie Kertesz has worked for Johnny’s Selected Seeds for about 20 years. She first started in the late 1970s, when the company had just six employees and was in Dixmont.

Kertesz, 58, of Freedom, said she met the company owner, Rob Johnston Jr., through the Peak Mountain Co-op in Troy.

“I was a back-to-the-lander; I had just moved to Maine and had a lot of gardening experience,” Kertesz said. At Johnny’s, “I wore just about every hat there is — research, shopping, sales and now purchasing. There’s a lot of opportunities to move within the business. I’ve really seen it change over the years.”

And although the company has changed over the course of four decades — now operating out of headquarters on Benton Avenue in Winslow, employing 120 people full-time and selling worldwide — Johnny’s has held onto its core principles even as larger and larger seed companies dominate the industry, Kertesz said.

“I think the product we’re selling is quality, the group of people work well together as a team, and I hoped it would stay independent, which it has,” Kertesz said.

And those are among the reasons Johnny’s Selected Seeds is worthy of the Business of the Year award, according to the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

According to a statement from the chamber, Johnny’s “stays on top of new agricultural methods, technology, and ideas to help customers in even the harshest of climates extend their growing seasons and optimize their crops.”

“That commitment to quality and the loyalty of its customers has allowed Johnny’s to expand and prosper,” the chamber’s statement said. “A bright future lies ahead for Johnny’s as it remains true to its roots and mission: helping families, friends, and communities to feed one another by providing superior seeds, tools, information and service.”

Johnston, 59, of Albion, said it was a “big honor” for Johnny’s to receive the award.

“There are so many good businesses in the region that I couldn’t help but be a little humbled and pleased by that kind of recognition,”

Johnston said. “It’s a complicated business. We have over 1,000 seed products and everyone is living and needs to be delivered to the customer ready to grow and healthy, and there’s a lot to that.”

Johnny’s Selected Seeds was started in 1973 years ago when Johnston, then 22, worked at a small farm in New Hampshire and wanted to start a business supplying high-quality seeds and good information for growers. With $500, Johnston began a new seed company in the attic of the New Hampshire farmhouse and the next year moved the firm to friends’ land in Dixmont, Maine, where he experimented with growing different seed varieties and published Johnny’s first customer catalog.

As sales increased, he purchased a 40-acre dairy farm in Albion and set up a research farm, production fields and business office.

In 2001, Johnny’s moved its headquarters and warehouse from the Albion farm to a larger facility at 955 Benton Ave. in Winslow, consolidating business offices, a retail store, customer service representatives, a seed-testing laboratory, shipping and more.

Johnny’s has garnered numerous awards for its seed-breeding work and has expanded its products to include vegetables, flowers, herbs, cover crops, fruit, gardening tools and growing supplies.

The company has customers in every U.S. state and international clients, and says almost 70 percent of its sales — more than $15 million annually — are now generated through its Web site, johnnysseeds.com. Johnny’s also has an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, in which employees now own 30 percent of the company and are scheduled to fully own it in five years.

Johnston said tough economic times present challenges, but haven’t dampened Johnny’s sales.

“Demand for products hasn’t been reduced because we’re involved with food production and that’s happening no matter what,” Johnston said. “It’s made the customers more careful with what they buy. But it isn’t affecting us like it would the consumer goods and services sector, and that’s fortunate.”

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