AUSTINBURG, Ohio – Wee Willie has big potential in the nursery industry.
The tiny boxwood shrub, discovered, patented and trademarked by Bill and Pat Schubert at their Tree Tyme Nursery in Austinburg, is an example of the couple’s attention to detail and a tribute to their persistence in a competitive business.
Their recent introduction of Wee Willie to the wholesale market is the culmination of eight years of paperwork, propagation and promotion.
Wee Willie started off as a “sport” discovered in 1990 on a Korean Boxwood that Schuberts were growing to sell. A sport is a plant or animal that deviates markedly from its parent stock, usually as a result of mutation, according to the Encarta Dictionary.
“It was just a branch growing on a plant, but it was different,” Bill said. “We weren’t sure what to do with it. We started rooting a bunch.”
That turned out to be the easy part of the process.
As they watched the baby shrubs grow, the Schuberts realized they had something new in their hands.
Although they knew patenting was expensive, they didn’t realize it would take almost two years to work through the process with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“It took a lot of research,” Bill said. “We had to prove there were no others like it.”
The questions seemed endless. “They wanted to know every single detail,” he said.
“Does it have hair on its leaves, what’s the shape of the stem – square or round?”
Compact and carefree
Wee Willie has a distinctive, orderly leaf arrangement on extremely vertical stems. Its emerald color holds true through the winter and it can withstand temperatures well below zero.
Wee Willie’s size makes it especially suited for patio planting, Pat said. A regular dwarf boxwood usually grows to 3 feet by 3 feet. Wee Willie stops growing at 2 feet by 2 feet and takes a minimum of maintenance, which is a plus in today’s market, she said.
“Most all plants overgrow,” Pat said, and require trimming or replacement when they start to crowd their neighbors. That shouldn’t be a problem with a properly placed Wee Willie.
Getting the name trademarked also required a lot of time and effort.
They finally determined to the government’s satisfaction that no other nursery plants are called Wee Willie. But they weren’t in business, yet.
“Timing is important,” Bill said. “You can’t introduce it until you have product.”
For several years, Tree Tyme workers have been propagating rows full of Wee Willies, waiting for the patent to clear. At the same time, Schuberts were trying to decide the best way to market the petite boxwood.
Usually, they simply inform the businesses they supply about any new offerings. With Wee Willie, they wanted to make a bigger splash, partly to recover their $5,000 investment in the patenting process.
So Bill took their new addition to Tim Brotzman who owns Brotzman’s Nursery in Madison. Brotzman introduced Wee Willie to a traveling representative of Monrovia, a nursery industry giant in Azusa, Calif.
The marketing director saw the possibilities of the shrub, and Schuberts signed a contract with Monrovia and supplied the company with several thousand “liners” or baby plants for them to grow and sell.
Once sales commence, probably in a couple of years, Monrovia will send the royalties to Schuberts, Pat said.
How long before they see a healthy return on their investment? It will depend on how popular the shrub is, she said.
They also have contracts with other nurseries around the country and are selling to their own customers, she added.
The saga of Wee Willie and its introduction to the wholesale market coincides with Tree Tyme’s growth and its entrance into the Canadian nursery market this year.
As though Wee Willie didn’t require enough paperwork, Pat had to jump through numerous hoops to ensure their product could enter Canada. The process requires all kinds of quarantine and sanitary certificates and will have to be completed every year they have Canadian customers.
Within the U.S. they provide plants to retail nurseries and landscapers in a 500-mile range, she said.
“We do absolutely nothing with the big box stores or chains,” Bill said. “They usually look for big, big nurseries” for stock rather than buying from family-run businesses.
The Schuberts planted Tree Tyme in 1987 at 1919 Route 307 by buying a 16-acre farm east of Austinburg.
Bill’s advancement over 20 years working up from general labor to general manager of Roemer Nursery in Madison gave him the background and confidence to go out on his own. Pat took on the office work and two decades flew by.
When they had filled the acreage on the north side with the plastic-covered tunnels called “poly houses,” they bought 100 acres across the street in 1998 and, somewhere in the meantime, purchased more land behind the original farm and office buildings.
The two properties include four ponds for irrigation, about 12,000 saplings and more than 100,000 shrubs, Bill said. He estimates his inventory at a worth of about $2 million, and said he is done expanding the business.
Schuberts rescued a 130-year-old farmhouse on the west side of the 100 acres, turned it into a home and have surrounded it with a skillfully landscaped yard. Among their 17 employees they count their daughters, Tami Schubert and Becky Strope, as well as Bill’s brother, Bob Schubert, who supervises the whole operation.
In the winter they cut back to about eight key employees who have skills Tree Tyme can’t afford to lose.
As spring approaches, they gear up. Retail customers and landscapers send in their orders and their trucks. Filling both, as well as the constant care needed by the revolving stock, keeps everyone hopping.
About 60 percent of the inventory on the ground at Tree Tyme is designed to be sold during the 2006 season, Bill said.
The vast majority of their product is ornamental. They buy the trees as branched saplings and grow them to planting size, he said, turning them over as quickly as possible.
The shrubs they reproduce asexually by taking cuttings, dividing roots, etc.
Demand for their product is constant. “The landscaping trade is growing every year for us,” Bill said.
The Schuberts cultivate their relationships with customers carefully, changing their product line to accommodate demand and keeping their quality high.
“We’ve made some extremely good friendships with the buyers,” Pat said, and that dimension of the business brings in more customers as word gets around retail nursery and landscaping operations.
“We have a good reputation for quality,” Bill said. “It means a lot.”