The enormity of Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville is nearly impossible to comprehend, even while standing smack dab inside its 170-acre indoor growing compound. Hundreds of potted plants glide by overhead, like a cartoonish ski lift just for flowers. Workers whiz pass on everything from motor bikes to golf carts to tractors, transporting huge, looming carts of greenery. Employees clad in gardening gloves plant small seedlings as conveyor belts full of soil-filled pots teeter along. Robots straight out of the Terminator franchise pick up and transport potted plants from one area to a spot better suited for the sun-thirsty shrubbery. It seems as though everything is in constant motion, a reflection on how the family-owned wholesale plants and services company has been run since its founding nearly 50 years ago.
Thom and Vickie VanWingerden immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands with their two small sons in 1971 with $500 in their pockets. They moved to Charlotte and rented a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse before moving several miles north to Huntersville to establish what is now Metrolina Greenhouses.
Over the years, the company's infrastructure has expanded to include the Huntersville location's 170-acre indoor greenhouse--one of the largest of its type in the U.S.--and another 40-acre greenhouse that opened this year. Metrolina boasts a second location in York, S.C., that has 275 acres of outdoor growing space.
Between both locations, the company produces more than 70 million plants a year, generates about $230 million in sales and employs more than 1,500 people year-round. An additional 1,300 seasonal workers are hired in the spring and fall.
"This is one of our treasures in North Carolina," says N.C. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who visited the site in May. "A lot of people don't know about Metrolina Greenhouses. But most have probably flown over as they were coming in or out of Charlotte, wondering, 'What is that giant greenhouse, and what do they grow down there?' It's a spectacular place."
Thorn, who passed away in 2009 at 63, always had a fascination with advancing technologies and automation and started incorporating machinery into the greenhouses early on. "Look for the jobs that people hate to do, and find automation," he often said, according to his son, Abe, now co-CEO with his brother, Art.
"Because people won't stay at those jobs long if they don't like doing them," Abe says. "A lot of it was done just out of sheer need because...