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Secrets of a Successful Exporter

The only way to beat cheap imports is to not compete with them

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Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery

Photos by Karin Kovalsky

Touring Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery with its president David Fell is a wild ride. He drives his golf cart at breakneck speed, but stops suddenly to tenderly introduce a visitor to one of his plants, which he considers his “children.” He’s even named one of them, a bromeliad with bright red, branching flowers that he developed, after his daughter. Fell’s business, which he runs with his wife, vice president Sandy Kasman, sends these blooming beauties all over the world.

Fell started the company in Pupukea, on Oahu, in 1978, and now has nurseries in Waimanalo and on two properties in Hilo. The three sites total about 26 acres on which Fell, Kasman and a staff of 60 cultivate more than 100 varieties of tropical and exotic plants, including anthuriums, ginger and ferns. Each year, the nursery produces more than 200,000 individual plants, which are sold locally, on the Mainland, and as far away as Costa Rica, Japan and parts of Europe. Plants from Hawaii may be shipped outside the state as long as they are not carrying insects or disease, and Fell’s company, as a participant in a state certification program, follows requirements for safety and sanitation.

Earlier this year, Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery was named Small Business Exporter of the Year by the Small Business Administration for the region that includes Hawaii, California, Arizona and Nevada. The company’s business mix has evolved over the years from all export to export as about a quarter of the total now. Fell’s goal is to have a 50-50 split between local and out-of-state export.

The nursery’s continental U.S. accounts are dispersed from Alaska to Florida and tend to be clustered around major metropolitan areas. European business is significant. “The European [plant] market is the largest and most sophisticated in the world,” Fell says, which he attributes in part to cultural differences. Europeans spend much more per capita for plants than Americans, he explains.

Last year, Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery earned $4 million in gross revenue. Fell estimates that was about a 10 percent increase over 2006. Local clients range from all of the major hotel chains to stores such as Star Market and The Home Depot. “We sell to everyone, direct and through a broker … anyone who has a buck wholesale,” he says.

One of the criteria for the SBA award is for the company to provide volunteer assistance to other businesses entering the export market. As director of the Big Island Association of Nurserymen and a member of several other organizations, Fell’s influence reaches beyond his own company, says Jane Sawyer, SBA spokeswoman in Hawaii. “Instead of seeing other companies as direct competitors, he sees them as partners,” she says.

While the cut-flower market in Hawaii has been battered by international competition, Fell has made a point of trying to stay out of product lines such as roses, which are subject to repeated price wars. “That happens with commodities. I try to avoid commodities. If you deal with commodities, whoever has the lowest price wins. [Instead] I develop proprietary products so there’s no competition.”

Hawaii Sunshine Nursery's garden staff

A staff of 60 cultivate more than 100 varieties of tropical and exotic plants on 26 acres spread over Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery's three sites.

Diversification and Balance

Fell didn’t always deal with plants – far from it. He served in the Army for four years starting in 1968, a year of which he spent in Vietnam. He earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service and a commission as an infantry officer. He relocated to Pennsylvania, where he obtained his real estate license, but, after a year in real estate, he realized that he’d rather work the land than sell it. He started his own business transporting plants between nurseries and retailers, then owned and operated a company that bought from nurseries and sold to retailers. He and Kasman married in 1977 and moved to Hawaii. Fell eventually graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in horticulture.

Fell started out selling a variety of Spathiphyllum, a white Chinese anthurium, sometimes called a peace lily, and quickly found it difficult to drum up interest at trade shows with just one product. “We elected to diversify the product line so we could say yes to more people: ‘Yes, we have it.’” Fell began hybridizing plants and finding new ones to grow. “At one point my landlord gave me a bromeliad. Now we’re the largest bromeliad grower in the state,” he says.

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