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Labor Solutions: 6 Ideas from Four Star

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Tom Smith, President of Four Star Greenhouse.

The difficulties of hiring and keeping good employees, as well as rising labor costs, have challenged growers across the country.  We asked Four Star President Tom Smith for some ideas on how growers large and small can improve their labor outlook.

As the United States economy has improved, it has become more difficult and expensive to find and keep good employees at all levels.  Add to that the challenges with immigration, and this becomes even more complicated.

Tom Smith, president of Four Star Greenhouse, has some ideas that may help growers and retailers navigate this issue.

1. Create a healthy work culture

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Creating a healthy work culture takes time and effort but it pays off when employees are motivated and happy.

“We’ve had to work hard to find the right people for the right job,” Smith says.  “We now use DISC Personal Profile System to assess a potential employee’s work style so that they fit into the right job and the team.  When employees are happy, it’s obvious to others and easier to attract other great employees.”

He notes that creating this kind of culture has taken a lot of time and effort over the years.  “But we’ve been blessed with so many great employees, and I can tell you it’s great when that happens.”

2. Automate when possible

Two years ago, Four Star purchased two ISO robotic automated sticking machines with the capacity to stick as many as 2,400 cuttings per hour.  These machines increased production while also freeing up employees to work on other important projects for Four Star.

“Now, we have a third ISO machine, plus a new AutoStix machine for the plants that can’t be done on the ISO machines,” he explains.  “These new machines have doubled our opportunities to stick, which further allows us to save on labor while having the machines run 24/7 in the busy season.”

Additionally, the creation of Four Star’s custom computerized processing and shipping line also has reduced labor time, increased efficiency and made tracking and delivery more quick and accurate.

These automated systems required Four Star to train employees to have higher skill levels. This benefits the employees, Smith says.  “We try to keep the best people, and when we can offer our employees higher pay for more responsibilities and more opportunities, they like it and they stay at Four Star.”

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Automation has allowed Four Star to be more productive as it increases the employees’ skill levels.


3. Simplify your employees’ work

Greenhouse growing has a way of being more complicated than it needs to be sometimes.  That’s one reason Four Star developed the Bundled Combination Kits, which greatly simplify ordering and receiving combination materials for growers.

“The Bundled Kits save growers time and their employees labor,” he notes.  “We select combinations that we know sell really well, based on our proprietary retail bar code data.  Then we package together and label all the elements growers need, so they are easy to unpack and organize once they are delivered.”

Each Bundled Kit makes 52 combinations and includes three trays of liners (one for each variety) plus 52 large combination-specific tags.  Bundled Kit liner trays are clearly labeled so that the growers’ employees keep them separate from other varieties grown for production.  “They also come with hanging basket tags specific to each combination, so the growers don’t have to worry about extra tags,” he adds.

“Bundled Kits really were developed to simplify the grower’s ordering and production processes,” Smith explains.  “We can deliver the liner trays, tags and containers together on the same day.  The tags come organized just like the packing slip they receive, so employees minimize the time organizing the delivery for their production.”

4. Make growing easier

Genetic research and improvements are making greenhouse production easier and more consistent for growers and their employees.  Smith notes that Proven Winners® continues to improve varieties to make them easier to grow, with better garden performance.  “For instance, we’ve really improved Superbells’® growth in Grande™ containers and also in the garden,” he says.  Every year, Proven Winners releases several improved varieties to make growing easier.

Young plant producers like Four Star are also developing ways to reduce labor in production.  Supernova® Liners are a prime example of this. 

Developed more than 20 years ago, Supernova Liners are treated to initiate budding and require shorter crop times.  They are not larger plugs, but are treated to finish faster, have more branching, and exhibit more consistent flowering.

The key advantages are shorter crop times, no need for pinching and PGRs, and the ability to add a crop turn every season. 

“We worked with the researchers at Michigan State University many years ago to develop these,” explains Smith.  “I would see containers of Proven Winners that looked terrible on the bench and wondered how many could we sell if we can get them to look great in the container?  The researchers developed lighting methods and other treatments to make this happen.”

He points out that while other breeders sell products they say are “just like Supernovas,” many do not use enough lighting and treatment to have the consistent results of Supernovas.  For more information on how Supernova Liners save time and labor costs, see “Save Labor with Supernova Liners.”

5. Sell more product and reduce labor costs

Proven Winners’ massive marketing campaigns on the national and local levels have built strong demand for the products, which benefits both growers and retailers.

“The brand awareness has never been higher,” Smith notes. Retailers selling more product will automatically benefit from reduced labor costs as part of their overall picture, he says. 

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Increasing sales can help offset higher labor costs, so take advantage of the strong brand marketing PROVEN WINNERS® offers to help you sell more plants in 2019.


For retailers, Proven Winners’ free annual Retail Certification program educates employees to help them be more effective and also gives participating retailers listings on the Proven Winners website.  This training helps employees understand the selection and care of Proven Winners plants more fully so they can be better salespeople and advise their customers.

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Understanding the true costs of labor is the first step to becoming more profitable.

Social media marketing by Proven Winners has also made a huge difference in helping retailers sell more products.  The “Garden Answer” series of videos have an enormous following – more than 400 million views – which is larger than Proven Winners, Martha Stewart and other large websites, Smith says.  This spurs interest and demand for Proven Winners plants. “When you’re selling more plants per square foot of retail space, you’re saving on your labor costs.”

6. Understand your true costs

“Many growers prefer using URCs over liners because they think that saves them money, but I wonder how many actually know their true labor costs,” he asks.  “You need serious labor tracking software to get a handle on the costs involved with every changeover of genera, grown with different levels of fertilizer, heating, lighting, PGRs, etc.”

“Because we are a large producer of liners, we are able to grow very efficiently and save growers all the time, effort and labor costs involved with growing from URCs,” he says. 

Four Star’s new 104 liners were also developed with labor savings in mind. “Compared with our previous 84 liners,” says Smith, “each tray has 20% more plants. This reduces a grower’s shipping costs by 20% and also means handling a lot fewer trays.  And, these liners have no difference in production times or techniques than the 84s.” 

“I’m a firm believer that we need to give the customer what he or she wants.  Our mission is to make things easy, successful and inspiring for our customers and that’s what we try to do,” he explains.  “When you compare the costs and benefits carefully, you realize that price isn’t everything it seems.”

He recommends growers look closely at their labor situation and analyze the costs involved, as Four Star did:  “Having a full understanding of your labor costs allows you to look at the options and choose the best ones for the future of your operation.”

For more information about Four Star Greenhouse and solutions that may work for your operation, visit, call 734-654-6420 or email