Bill Gordon was trained as an engineer, but these days he makes a living by stopping to smell the flowers.
A former executive for several aerospace component manufacturing companies, Gordon's long-time friendship with Californian Gary F. Miller helped him land a job several years ago with Miller's Milgro Nursery Inc.Now Gordon is vice president of Milgro and the company's 600,000-square-foot facility in New Castle, about 30 miles west of Cedar City in southern Utah.
But Gordon is the first to admit he is not much of a gardener.
"I haven't got a green thumb," Gordon said. "Everything that I touch dies."
He said he lets the experts worry about tending the thousands of chrysanthemums and other flowers that grow under the greenhouses in this sparsely populated valley.
And those experts will be busier soon, as Milgro nears completion of a fourth, 200,000-square-foot greenhouse in New Castle.
Gordon said this fourth "range" for Milgro will include 20 "houses." A fifth range of the same size, taking the company's New Castle operation up to 1 million square feet, may be built as early as next year.
Milgro started work on the fourth range in June, he said, and each building takes about 12 weeks and thousands of dollars to build. Gordon will not say exactly how much one costs, he said, because he does not want Milgro's competitors to know.
It was the search for a competitive edge that first drew Gary Miller, who founded Milgro in Oxnard, Calif., in 1980, to the New Castle area.
Gordon said another greenhouse in the valley was up for sale in 1992, and Miller put in a bid on it. The greenhouse sold to someone else, but Miller liked the New Castle area and bought about 450 acres of land there. Milgro started building on the site in 1993, and it currently uses about 40 of those acres.
Gordon said the area is great for growing flowers. The elevation of about 5,200 feet provides "high light" that is reasonably constant throughout the year, he said. And the presence of geothermal heat provides a cheap way to keep the flowers warm.
"We have cold water for irrigation, and also hot water, geothermal, for heat in the winter," he said. "You can grow almost anything here. We can control the conditions sufficiently to grow almost any crop."
Gordon said the company's primary products are potted, blooming plants, like chrysanthemums, which are sold to regional grocery and chain stores. It takes about 13 weeks from the time a chrysanthemum is started until it is ready to ship, he said, and Milgro will grow as many as 40 different varieties of chrysanthemums at one time.
New Castle's facility also produces seasonal flowers, like Easter lilies in the springtime and poinsettias around Christmas.
And although Gordon will not say exactly how many flowers the New Castle greenhouses produce, he did say "several million" plants leave the valley bound for a California distribution center each year.
Scott Miller, the founder's son and general manager of the New Castle operation, said even more will head to California once the new range starts operating, because it will produce cut flowers.
"We hope that (the business) will continue to grow," he said. "South and Central America give us a lot of competition for cut flowers, but we feel we can fit in a niche and give fresh flowers that last longer."
Scott Miller said the company has 3 million square feet of production area in California and Utah combined and is the largest potted, blooming plant producer in the nation.
The New Castle operation alone employs about 60 people, he said, and almost all of them were hired locally.
Gordon said customers tell him that privately held Milgro is one of the best flower companies in the nation.
"It's a very hair-raising business," Gordon said. "I've learned to have an appreciation for the difficulties of the greenhouse business."
He said he used to think anyone could grow flowers. But now he realizes that it is not easy to grow them all year, maintain quality and keep prices down.
"It's a very exacting business," Gordon said.
But he said Milgro is ready to expand, and the company may even start an "aqua-farm" to grow catfish and shrimp on the New Castle site in a year or so.
"We've had the challenge of building something from scratch," Gordon said.
"(When we started), this was just a field with no infrastructure. . . . This has been a good experience for me."