The Hillenmeyer name is synonymous with horticulture and is familiar to anyone who has lived in the Lexington area since, say, the mid-1800s. Celebrating 175 years in business in 2016, the company is now in its fifth and sixth generations of family leadership.
It is the second oldest company in Lexington (16 years younger than Milward Funeral Directors) and the second oldest nursery in the United States, after a nursery in Missouri. The company’s name has changed over the decades – from Hillenmeyer Nurseries to Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services – and business models have evolved from products to services.
While success is not a given for any business, neither is succession for those that are family-owned. However, each generation of the Hillenmeyer family has had a love of the land and horticulture, as well as a head for business.
“My father grabbed me at 10 years old to go in the fields and start picking wild onions,” current owner Stephen Hillenmeyer said. The youngest of nine children, he would ride his bike to the nursery on Sandersville Road in Lexington “and get in everybody’s way” at the warehouse and the office – a building that was once home to Mary Todd Lincoln’s parents and today is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although he once entertained the thought of becoming a professional tennis player, Stephen Hillenmeyer earned a horticulture degree from UK and joined the family business. He worked in the retail center and then the landscape department before running the operations side, becoming co-owner in 1985 and sole owner in 2002.
The growing and selling of trees was a sustainable business model for decades, said Hillenmeyer.
“For years we were ‘order takers,’ ” he said. “We had enough business and didn’t have real plans for growth. For years we didn’t have a budget or plan; it was just another year.”
But in 2003, shortly after he took the helm, Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services branched out and purchased a Weed Man franchise, and became a Mosquito Authority franchisee for Central Kentucky in 2013. A year later the company purchased the Weed Man Nashville franchise.
Stephen’s sons Chase and Seth have joined the business within the past decade, although their father initially discouraged them from doing so.
“I didn’t want them to be a part of the business because it was already complicated, and I thought they should just do something else,” he said.
However, both sons had already fallen in love with business in general, and with the family business in particular.
“We were always around business growing up and it was interesting to me at an early age,” said oldest son, Chase Hillenmeyer.
Chase Hillenmeyer has a degree in business management and entrepreneurship from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He joined the company in 2007 and is vice president of operations for Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services, Weed Man Lexington/Nashville and Mosquito Authority.
Seth Hillenmeyer, who used to help customers carry plants at the garden center, joined the company as an adult in 2013 and is the general manager for Weed Man Lexington/Nashville and Mosquito Authority.
Seth Hillenmeyer studied finance at Miami University. Instead of joining the family business directly out of school, he worked in commercial banking in Chicago.
“I wanted to try something else before I came back,” he said. “After two years, I saw what the business was doing and I wanted to join the two of them.”
Grown from French fruit trees in 1841
The company’s patrilineal ownership started in the spring of 1841, when Francis Hillenmeyer began greening up Fayette County with fruit trees from his native France. His son, Hector, as the second-generation owner, bought 100 acres in Lexington for the nursery, 16 of which are still in the family and are home to the company’s headquarters on Sandersville Road.
By 1910, Hector’s sons, Louis and Walter Hillenmeyer, expanded the business to include ornamental trees and shrubs, as well as a mail-order business through the Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog in the 1920s and ’30s. Their namesakes, Louis Hillenmeyer Jr. and Walter Hillenmeyer Jr., were the fourth generation of owners and carried the company through its 100th anniversary.
In the 1950s they opened a garden center on the property and smaller retail locations across Lexington. Louis Jr. and his brother, Robert Hillenmeyer, became involved in the landscape maintenance of industrial properties in the 1960s and ‘70s. Fruit tree production declined while ornamental foliage continued to expand.
The fifth generation came on the scene in 1985 when Louis Jr.’s sons, Louis III, Christopher and Stephen Hillenmeyer, bought the company. As yet another century – and millennium – dawned, Stephen Hillenmeyer became the sole owner. Hillenmeyer Nurseries had less and less of a growing operation, and he changed the focus to landscape and lawn maintenance services, and changed the name to Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services. His brother Christopher continued to own and run the Hillenmeyer Garden Center on Sandersville Road until it closed in 2005.
From fruit trees to mail order, from ornamental trees and shrubs to retail centers, the Hillenmeyer family has always been involved with horticulture. The current business model is that of providing lawn care, outdoor maintenance and landscaping services, with the help of 75 full-time employees and an additional 165 part-time and seasonal workers during the company’s peak of early spring to late fall.
In addition to having provided services for such clients over the years as Trane, St. Joseph Hospital, the University of Kentucky, horse farms, and commercial and residential projects, Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services will be donating the landscaping design and installation for the renovation of the century-old Fayette County courthouse in downtown Lexington.
“We wanted to do something for the city for being so good to us,” Stephen Hillenmeyer said.
Modern management formula today
Stephen Hillenmeyer and his two sons make up the executive team and believe that taking care of employees and customers is key to the company’s success. Business models may have changed, but a core focus on people remains.
The team follows a performance management formula, implemented four years ago with the help of an industry consultant. The Hillenmeyer executives set annual and monthly SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Individual reviews and accountability meetings occur regularly companywide. On a weekly basis, department heads present results of key performance indicators.
“We are very ‘open book’ with our folks,” Chase Hillenmeyer said of the company’s budget and financial information, which wasn’t always the case.
“I remember when I first started, I wanted to control everything,” he said. Less than a decade later, he has become a big proponent of the “delegate and drive business results” managerial school of thought.
“So much of our time now is spent in a coaching role rather than working in the business,” Chase Hillenmeyer said. “The most rewarding part for me is seeing people reach their goals. We have a lot of success stories.”
He also enjoys working alongside his dad and brother.
“We have such a strong relationship and are so close,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be able to work together.”
In addition to being able to adapt to changing technology and market climates, the Hillenmeyers are proud of offering opportunities for betterment to other people. Hillenmeyer’s has always had longstanding employees – people who spend entire 20-, 30- or 40-year careers with the company. The Hillenmeyer executive team can share one example after another of employees who have started off as an hourly worker and are now in management positions.
“They start at the bottom and work their way up, and they tell those stories to other people,” Stephen Hillenmeyer said. “I think it gives people hope for their future.”
He is also confident in the company’s future and is quick to give a lot of credit to his sons, Chase and Seth.
“They have done a phenomenal job of focusing on our culture,” he said. “This is their generation.”
Kathie Stamps is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].