(Crystal A. Proxmire, The Ferndale 115 News, April 1, 2012 ed.)
It’s hard to picture Green Thumb Garden Center owner Kris Lieber donning a suit and punching a corporate clock every day, but that’s what life was like before he opened the budding garden supply business at 22963 Woodward. The 33-year-old entrepreneur used to be a clinical engineer responsible managing the Biomedical Engineering department at several hospitals for a large corporate health system.
“I’d wake up every day, look in the mirror, get my tie ready and take a deep breath, and think ‘why am I doing this?” Lieber said. “Being in the corporate world was not for me.”
After suffering complications from a Functional Neuro-Hormone Disease, Lieber was unable to work in the hospital system. The illness is caused by a hormone imbalance that is rare and not well-understood. He left his corporate job, but was not content to sit at home. He took the negative circumstance of his illness and used it to cultivate a positive business of his own that he could tend to and grow.
Thus in March 2010, Green Thumb Garden Center put down roots in Downtown Ferndale. Unlike big chain garden centers, Green Thumb offers customers high quality expertise, multiple options for organic cultivation, and a beautiful setting complete with many indoor plants and large bright windows looking out at the bustle of Woodward Avenue.
The store offers multiple lines of fertilizers, seeds, soils, hydroponic equipment, indoor growing equipment and even live insects to help with the growing process.
The inspiration for Green Thumb came from helping his grandfather on his half acre farm near Toledo, Ohio. “He grew everything organic and had a great respect for nature,” Lieber recalled. “I wish I could say that he taught me everything I knew, but looking back I think the extent of my helping was helping hands type stuff – pulling weeds and making compost, stuff that kids would do. But it did get me addicted.”
Now with a store of his own, Lieber relies a lot on his business partners and employees to contribute their personal knowledge to the business. Lieber’s medical equipment expertise makes him a natural at setting up hydroponic gardening systems, and working with clients to set up large-scale gardening projects. He immediately hired on soil remediation expert Jonathan Pavley, who is now a partner in the business. Another business partner is Lieber’s father, Mark. “My father has experience on the business side and I’m proud to have him on board. Between the three of us we make a great team.”
Lieber now has eleven employees, including Trevor Johnson, who is a well-known Master Gardener who has done community farming initiatives in the community.
The teamwork aspect is important for Lieber. “I think it’s important to look at decisions with a committee perspective. It’s not fair to put large-scale decisions on yourself,” he said.
One of the stressful things about owning his own business is the responsibility of having employees depending on him. “It’s hard having folks working for you. I’ve got eleven employees. Eleven people count on this place for income. If I’m off-budget it can affect people’s lives. And when you’re a little guy like this, small mistakes count.”
So far, Lieber and his committee have done well. The store has increased not only in sales, but in size – expanding into a 2000-squre-foot vacant storefront next to their original 2000-squre-foot location. “We had no idea we would grow this fast,” Lieber said. “People are really supportive, and the feedback we get suggests this is because we have the expertise and will take the time to educate our customers. We’re not just here to sell them whatever, we’re here to make sure they know what they’re doing so they can get a good result.”
Clientele come in with many different indoor and outdoor growing needs. From homeowners who need to care for their lawn and flowerbeds, to neighborhood farm cultivators, to people growing medicine, to prize-winning flower and garden enthusiasts, Green Thumb has products and staff that can give any nurturing consumer a growing edge.
Lieber says he and the guys take a lot of care to reach out to local garden clubs. Jonathan goes out and does composting demonstrations, and Lieber will give discussions on planting tips and gardening. Though many customers request it, Green Thumb does not hold classes due to space and scheduling issues. But in the back corner of the store there is a booth where employees and customers can sit comfortably and get one-on-one education about products and growing techniques.
Green Thumb’s continued growth and success are a tribute to Lieber’s insistence on doing something positive after his 9-5 gig ended. In addition to exemplary customer service, Lieber’s commitment to Ferndale shines like the sun, helping others grow their dreams as well. He sets aside a portion of his profits for helping community projects like The Ferndale 115 News, as well as causes that are important to him like “health care reform and other progressive issues.” He and his wife Kate, who has been with him since they were sixteen years old back in Toledo, Ohio, are enjoying Ferndale life and plan on staying. They purchased their home here in 2005 and had no intention of opening a business anywhere but their chosen hometown.
Visit The Green Thumb Garden Center’s website at www.greenthumbferndale.com to find out more.
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