Customer Service at Four Winds Nursery

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You were interested in gardening, landscaping, outdoor work, and you got a job after high school at Four Winds Nursery, but you also had talent in working with people. It seems you were almost forced into this realization that you had many natural skills with people, but it took you a while to realize this. You discovered Socrates, but you also had some detours.

JM: Yes, I definitely had some detours. As you mentioned, I got a job at the Four Winds Nursery some time after high school. In the beginning, I was just a general laborer doing stuff like landscaping, shoveling dirt and manure onto and off of trucks, working in the greenhouses, but I was really enjoying it, enjoying being around plants, gardens, soil, that sort of thing. It was a family business and I also enjoyed the people that I was working with. So that was going well, but after about a year or so, I began to feel restless, antsy. I still thought and believed I wanted to be working outdoors with my hands. I loved plants, planting, but I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere at Four Winds. They were paying me decent money and giving me raises, but I thought it might be a dead end, that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with it. Francis Rohr, the manager of the nursery, who I liked very much—he taught me everything that I knew at Four Winds and was a wonderful plantsman—told me all about the New York Botanical Gardens in Bronx, New York. They had a two year program training estate gardeners. At the time, the Botanical Gardens were around 200 acres with a conservatory and beautiful gardens all over the place. They were prestigious, known all over the world for their research and they were also known for their training programs in things like estate gardening. In those days, there were a lot of estates all over the United States where they used many gardeners so I thought that might be a good career path for me. They actually had a long waiting list of applicants, but I went ahead and applied anyways some time in 1938—you needed letters of recommendation which the people at Four Winds happily gave me. But I received a letter back stating they appreciated my application, but they took only twelve men every two years and it would probably be three to fours years before a spot opened up for me. So I was really disappointed. I thought my best option had fallen through. But I remember someone at the nursery saying something to me like, “You’re giving in to that letter.” The letter was from the Chief Horticulturalist at the botanical gardens. So this person—I can’t remember exactly who, maybe it was a customer—told me, “Why don’t you go to New York and try to meet with him? If the Chief Horticulturalist met you, I think he would hire you.” I remember thinking, New York is so far away. I was living in Buffalo at the time. So he told me to find out how much it cost to get to New York—turned out it was about eleven dollars at the time—and so the next time I saw this person, I told him how much it cost and he opened his wallet and pulled out fifteen dollars and told me, “Get the hell to New York!” And then I thought, “Where am I going to stay?” Then I remembered my brother was living in New York and working for the Dunlop Tire and Rubber company. So I wrote him. Phones weren’t very good in those days. The operator would get your number and it might take an hour, two hours to get through. So I wrote instead and he wrote back and he told me that he lived with our uncle in New York and he had a tiny, eight by eight airless room, with no window, but that he would be traveling for business at the time so I could stay in that room if I wanted. He said the room was hot and stifling, but I thought, “What the heck, I have train fare and a place to stay, so I’ll go.” So I headed to New York on the train and got to Grand Central Station. I remember it was overwhelming and I’m standing in the middle of it looking around at the high ceilings, the crowds running to and fro. Finally, I got someone to help me find the subway to where my brother was staying. So once I got to my brother’s, settled in a bit there, I called on the telephone and got the Chief Horticulturalist on the phone and explained to him that I got his letter and that I came all the way from Buffalo to talk to him about it. And he said, “I told you there is nothing for another three years!” And I blurted out, “I traveled 400 miles on the train to talk to you!” And he said, “Why would you do that?” Then, I said something, I don’t remember exactly, but something like, “I really want to be in your program.” So finally he said, “I’ll give you a half hour.” So I took the subway from downtown to the Botanical gardens which I think was around 200 street, way up in the Bronx. The headquarters were beautiful and situated in the center of gardens, and I found my way to the Chief Horticulturalist. I went into his office—picture me, a country boy in New York—and met him. He was a big fellow, not very friendly, but he said something like, “The fact that you had the determination and courage to come here without me approving of it, tells me that you really got the stuff that we want. We will start you July 1st.” So that was July 1st, 1938. So I went into the program and found a place that was close to the gardens where I could get room and board for twelve dollars a month. We got paid around a hundred a month, and I sent about eighty dollars of that to my family back home, so I had little left over. I didn’t do much more than work, and the work was difficult. I began to realize that while they called it a training program—you were getting experience in the gardens and the greenhouses—but really they were also getting cheap labor: twelve people every two years who worked for practically nothing. We did have projects we had to do—every Wednesday, the twelve trainees had to take turns and make a presentation, if I remember, about a half-hour on a topic so that we would all learn something in the field of gardening and landscaping. At that time, I had a big interest in organic gardening which wasn’t very popular then. People were more interested in the latest in agriculture science. I was also very interested in alternative schemes and plantings for traditional things like hedges. One time, I remember when my turn came for the weekly Wednesday presentation, I did a lot of research at the library on this, learning about alternative plants for hedges since I wanted to do a presentation on this. So I got descriptions and pictures of the plants, and wrote up a big presentation on how these plants could make ideal alternative hedges for estates, rather than the traditional hedges that had been used for hundreds of years. And so that was one of the things I presented on Wednesday night. I guess you could say I was “out of the box” in my thinking and I thought the Chief Horticulturalist would be very impressed in the same way he was impressed with me showing up in New York, but it turned out, he wasn't. And I’m sure I upset or annoyed him in other ways that I don’t remember. I think it was around April of the following year, I was called into the office of the Chief Horticulturalist and the Field Superintendent was there also, and they said, “We want you to resign.” I was completely shocked—I remember standing there shaking, shivering. I told them, “I can’t. I’m taking care of my family.” But they insisted I had to resign so I asked why.  They told me, “You’re violating our traditions.” I asked, “What do you mean?” They said, “In your presentations, you are opposing all of the traditions of gardening that have come down over the centuries from England. You’ve done it three times. You’re out.” At the time, the school was really into traditional English estate gardening—that was the emphasis for their training program. And so I’m back on the train back to Buffalo, New York thinking, “Now what am I going to do?” I thought, “Why don’t I just go back to Four Winds.”

BW: So by now, you knew you had an interest in organic gardening, and alternative ways of gardening and landscaping, but still no glimmer of a realization that you worked well with people.

JM: No. Not yet. That realization came gradually. And so I went back to the Four Winds Nursery. That was in ‘39. So I worked there until I was inducted into the war—in October of ‘43. When I was working for Four Winds, in the beginning, as I said, I was just a laborer. On the landscape crews, which was usually two to three men, I seemed to get along well with the men and also the customers. Francis Rohr, the manager, noticed it, and Mr. Boocock, the owner of the business, also noticed it, and so gradually they began to use me more and more with the customers. When they would get requests for somebody to come out and give a quotation on designing and landscaping a garden, a backyard, or a front lawn, bit by bit, the owner and Francis began to send me out on these calls. At first, I went out with Francis, who helped me to learn, but eventually they had me doing these calls by myself. And I can still remember my first call by myself for someone’s yard—I was scared and feeling uneasy, not really sure if I was doing it right. I remember finally coming up with a quote of eleven dollars and being frightened telling them the quote, but the customer accepted it. So I went back to the nursery with the order, and Mr. Boocock said, “You did a good job.” So that experience built up my confidence a bit. They began to use me more and more when calls came in, and most of the time, I didn’t know what to do. And more and more they were turning me over to bigger opportunities. One job—I remember meeting with a man and his wife—I can still remember because I was so nervous, but I can’t remember their names—I met with them in the evening around 5:00, 5:30 pm—they wanted a lot of work done in their back garden. Something in me told me, “You’re going to have to learn a lot about them.” After I looked at the backyard, the general orientation, conditions, the soil, all the basics of the land and what would ideally grow there, I then asked that we sit at the dining room table. I told them, “I’d like to ask you some questions.” And so we sat around the table, having some coffee or tea, and I went into inquiry. It just seemed natural. I had recently discovered Socrates and was having some basic realizations. I wasn’t operating out of knowledge of what I thought they should like or of designs I had seen or what was in fashion at the time, but some sensing. And so I began to ask them many questions. I can still remember, questions like, “What is your life like? How would you like to use your back garden? Do you go out and sit there in the evenings? Do you eat there? What sort of plants do you like?” I asked a lot of questions in general, not just about the garden, but nothing nosy or pushy, just general questions about what they preferred, what their everyday routine was like, what they valued in life. After some time I began to realize we’re connected, and I knew what they were trying to create in their backyard and what they really wanted. I was able to say to them, “I think I’m getting a real good idea of the kind of garden to design for you.” And they were happy, thrilled, because I had been genuinely interested in them, and drawing them out. We had been sitting there for about an hour, and the whole time, I was not trying to sell them anything. So after I finished meeting with them, I went back to Four Winds. Back then, Four Winds had a landscape architect that came in occasionally to work on some of the bigger jobs, and he had taught me a lot about drafting a landscape plan. He knew that I was interested in art, design, and also landscaping so whenever he came in, he would usually show me some things. And he had a big drawing table in the office with all of his drafting equipment and colored pencils which he let me use when he wasn’t there. So when I came back from the inquiry session with the couple, I thought, “Why not? Let’s sketch them out a plan.” And so I sat down at the drawing board and had a wonderful time using all the colored pencils and I laid out a garden design based on everything I learned about the backyard and them. I had all the plants sketched and labeled using different colors. I think I spent six hours doing the plan which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I thought the plan was pretty nice. And so the next day I took the design out to them along with the quotation. And I remember the quotation was pretty high for those days, my biggest quote up until then. So I was nervous. I remember making it a point to arrive about the same time, in the evening, since I was hoping both of them would be there. They were, and I asked them to take me back to the dining room table. And there I unrolled my design. They just gasped. They said, “This is beautiful. This is exactly what we want,” and they bought the proposal. So now they are serving me a snack along with some tea. They told me, “We’ve had three other landscape companies come in and make proposals, and you’re one of the higher ones, but we definitely want you.” And I can still remember how good that felt. And then I asked something like, “What gave you the courage or faith to go with my plan even though it cost more?” And she said, “Because you cared about us. The other landscape companies were just trying to sell us something.” So I went back and put that order on Mr. Boocock’s desk, and he said, “Holy smoke. I figured you’d never be able to get that job.” So I was doing well getting new business. And also, in the meantime, if a customer called and complained about something, more and more, they sent me over to talk with them. Mr. Boocock would call me in and say, “Mrs. Jones is very upset over what our men did with XYZ planting and she won’t pay her bill. Would you go out and talk with her and get this customer settled down?” At first, I said to him, “Bill, I don’t know how to to handle problems like this or talk with a person about a problem like this.” And he said, “Yes, you do.” And I said, “No, I don’t.” And he said, “You probably don’t know it, but you’re a natural at it. You’re good with people. Besides, I can’t do it, Francis can’t do it, and I’m paying you. So you’re going to do it.” So finally I remember going out on the first one—she was an irate woman whom we had done a lot of work for. On the way out I said to myself, “I don’t know what I’m doing. What are some possibilities? I suppose what I better do is just listen to her. She’s angry. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about everything she is angry about—I don’t have a clue how to resolve this—but I wonder if I listen to her we could get this settled. Okay. I’m going to go out and listen.” I had no clue that it would mean anything. And so I got to her place and I remember it so clearly. I can even see the woman’s face now. She was ranting and raving. And I stood there and listened. And listened. And she ventilated. She kept ranting and raving. And I remember that she must have ventilated for a half an hour or forty-five minutes at me, just poured out her anger. And then all of a sudden, she settled down inside and she said, “Well, you’re really listening to me and I appreciate it.” And I said, “Oh ma’am, you’ve been through a lot.” And you could see, she almost had tears in her eyes. And she said, “You understand.” And I said, “Well, you got a major problem here, but I don’t know what to do. What are the things you would like for us to do to correct it?” And she said, “Well, I want your men to come out and correct all this stuff.” So now she was settled down and laying out, “Well, if you do this and this, I’d be happy and pay my bill.” Now my point is, I was twenty-two years old then and I seemed to have a natural ability so I learned from it. Looking back on it, I began to realize this angry customer and I were connected in an authentic way. And I was having realizations about Socrates and inquiry at the time and also about listening, this whole thing of listening seemed to work magically and so I thought I should do this more, pay attention to this. I can remember it as a definite realization. And from that point on, as they used me more and more for complaints, orders, that sort of thing, I became better and better and one day, sometime I think in 1941, Mr. Boocock handed me a check for $1,500, and he said, “Here’s a bonus. You have brought in more new business than any of us.”

BW: Interesting. And you had no clue regarding any of this based on your experience in high school.

JM: Correct. What I was learning and realizing at Four Winds had little to nothing to do with what I learned in my schooling up to that point, which was purely academic. So over the years, until the time when I was drafted into the war in ’43, I took care of most of the customer complaints. So those experiences helped me a great deal. And I realized I enjoyed it. I was learning about human nature, relationships, basic conflict resolution, problem solving, symptoms. Also that appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes when someone was ranting and raving, they were actually angry or upset about something else that was going on in their lives. So these were early lessons about many things. So that was the basic beginning of what later served me in my consulting career, along with what I learned in the war.

BW: So your customer service experience at Four Winds were early clues of the general direction you were headed. You were clearly good with people. And also your interest in organic gardening. It didn’t translate literally into your future career, but the basic mindset did. Organic gardening is often thought of as just not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which is just one aspect of it, but it’s a holistic approach which takes into consideration everything: the land, climate, flora and fauna, and so on. The emphasis is on whole systems and the health of the whole system, rather than isolated parts and divisions. There was definitely that in your work. You look at the whole picture, as well as the details. Rather than just focus on symptoms, you investigate the cause of symptoms. You view an organization as a whole system. Some things that are viewed as beneficial or at least neutral in business—such as ego and greed—you’ve found are actually toxic to the whole system.

JM: That’s true, but I actually had no clue in my head at the time to the extent you talk about it or even where I was headed at the time. I was just having these basic realizations. I had recently discovered Socrates, I was working in customer service, handling new orders and irritated customers. When I was working at Four Winds I don’t think any of this was clear like that. In hindsight it was. I was just slowly having some basic realizations, making connections, and learning. That even if you’re dealing with a customer, that you need to connect with them, be genuinely interested in them, care about them, get to know them, and shift the focus away from just trying to sell something. I was also realizing I was good at certain things, that I was able to build relationships of trust quickly, tune into what was really going on with people, but it wasn’t that clear in my mind. It definitely wasn’t something I was thinking about in terms of a career. It was more of a feeling and sensing that whatever this is, whatever I am doing, something is going on that is pretty good, it is working, and I better keep doing it.