A servant’s heart
From Nursery Management
July 6, 2017
With a selfless dedication to any endeavor, whether personal or professional, Skeetter McCorkle exemplifies integrity.
Lessons of humility and honesty have been passed down through the generations of those leading McCorkle Nurseries in Dearing, Ga. As the CEO of a family nursery with a 75-year history, Skeetter McCorkle continues the business traditions and life lessons he first learned from his paternal grandfather, C.S. McCorkle. Known as “Papa” to his grandchildren, he was Skeetter’s first mentor.
“There was a lot of wisdom to glean from at an early age,” he says.
C.S. McCorkle was a farmer, and the Great Depression drove him to the nearby city of Augusta, Ga., to find work to sustain his family. There he connected with Berckmans Nursery (also known as Fruitland), which is purported as one of the first large-scale nurseries in the Southeast. C.S. learned the trade from the Berckmans, and worked in the field, then set up a flatbed truck full of plants to sell on the weekends. Some 10 years later, he rented a small lot in Augusta and started a retail garden center. In 1942, he moved back home — about 25 miles outside of Augusta — and started McCorkle Nurseries. Skeetter’s father, Don, joined the family business in the 1950s, followed by Don’s brother, Jack. Skeetter recalls when the nursery began experimenting with containers, and as a child he’d visit the canneries with his grandfather to collect peach cans to use for planting.
“I remember punching holes in cans and coating them with creosote to make the cans last and keep them from rusting,” Skeetter says.
From an early age, Skeetter felt a connection to the nursery industry and the family business. His Papa and his father both shared with him the practical lessons of hard work, as well as the importance of planning and follow-through. They were also strong in their faith, a foundation on which Skeetter continues to base his life and work goals and objectives.
“Christian values were very evident in the family — Papa and my dad both lived and modeled those values,” he says. “All those disciplines were a big part of life.”
Don encouraged Skeetter to study business, and never forced him into the family business.
“Horticulture, like agriculture, is very practical,” Skeetter says. “Most of the skills are practical and can be learned through experience, and we certainly learned those skills growing up.”
Skeetter started college at the age of 16 as part of dual enrollment program, and he received his associate degree the summer after he graduated high school. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
“I certainly had opportunities to do other things in a different career, but I had a calling to join the family business. That calling was pretty much there from the early days,” he says.
Skeetter, his sister Beverly, and Chris, his first cousin — the third generation of McCorkles — started in the business in the late ’70s through the ’80s.
A family atmosphere. The nursery’s senior management consists of Skeetter, cousin Chris (who is the nursery’s vice president and general manager), CFO Bill Janci, and sales associate Tony Rogers. The four start each day with a quick meeting, covering key stats in the business, what needs to be accomplished and what help each division needs. Weekly, the senior management meets with Chad Rybolt in sales and Tim Rogers, general manager of MNI Direct, a division that supplies trees and plants for commercial and residential landscape projects in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Skeetter says he gets a lot of inspiration and advice from this core group, as well as a much “broader cadre of family-like employees that act as owners.”
Skeetter receives quite a bit of advice and inspiration from Trac 4, a group of CEOs from a number of disciplines that gather for business and personal support.
“There are several industries represented, including retail, construction and manufacturing,” Skeetter explains. “It’s pretty amazing how many things our businesses have in common.”
The CEOs review one another’s business and personal plans.
“It’s an outside scope that adds accountability and encouragement. Like the proverb says, ‘iron sharpens iron,” Skeetter says.
Billy Jackson is a longtime friend of Skeetter’s — more than 40 years — and a fellow Trac 4 member.
“This group keeps us in tune through accountability, and it helps our business and our personal lives,” Jackson says.
Skeetter is known for his organization skills and detail-oriented talents in the group.
“In our meetings, he brings strategy and precision,” Jackson says.
And in their friendship, he’s just as organized and detailed, which is the total opposite of Jackson.
“We own a home together in North Carolina, and he’ll send me a spreadsheet in January with all the weekends that he’s going to be there. It’s done to the nth degree of detail. Me — I go on a whim. It’s amazing we’re such good friends. But opposites do attract,” he says.
“All joking aside, it’s that planning and attention to detail that’s helped the nursery succeed, even during the downturn. He’s smart as a whip,” he says.
He adds that no matter if you’re a friend, a customer, a supplier, or a competitor, Skeetter is loyal and committed to the relationship.
“I’m a lot better person for having him as a friend,” Jackson says.
“We’ve built a great team that owns their role and cares for the business and our customers. It’s a culture, and culture is huge in any type of business. It has to be set with the leadership all the way through the organization,” Skeetter says. “As Jim Collins said in ‘Good to Great,’ it’s getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. We’re blessed to have so many good people in our company — they make the difference.”
Skeetter says one of his biggest accomplishments is building a strong team, giving them the tools to succeed and “getting out of their way.”
“Seeing others succeed is more important than money,” he says.
Tony Rogers, who’s worked with Skeetter for 36 years, calls him a man of integrity and a visionary.
“He does what’s right for his employees and our customers. He certainly likes the team approach, and accepts input from everyone, and he delegates responsibilities. The bottom line: he’s fair,” Rogers says. “Skeetter is an entrepreneur and has developed and surrounded himself with a good team and he allows them to do what they do best. He has developed consistent habits, running the business by the numbers and measuring everything. As a leader, he has instilled these habits in us and set accountability standards.”
Ben, Skeetter’s oldest son, shadowed him prior to his senior year at college. Skeetter shared much of the same advice with Ben as his Papa and father did with him, including the importance of planning and reviewing that plan often; setting clear expectations and following through; and maintaining a caring attitude.
“We designed the whole summer around exposing him to as much as possible of how the business operates. It was a good learning experience for both of us. I learned that I need to be more of a teacher or coach, and have a better understanding of the learning style of millennials.”
A foundation of trust. Skeetter’s personal and professional mission is to build trust. The nursery’s mission statement is parallel: “Build America’s most trusted plant nursery through innovative products, brands, and services while following Christ-centered business practices — treating our customers, coworkers and suppliers right.”
Skeetter learned from his Papa and his father not to let people down and be a company people can count on.
“That’s our endeavor every day. It’s bigger than growing plants. It’s bigger than making money,” Skeetter says.
If it sounds a lot like The Golden Rule, it should, because Skeetter models that principle, says Brent Marable, assistant director of plant licensing at the University of Georgia’s Innovation Gateway.
“He embodies The Golden Rule. And he’s fair, he always keeps his cool, and he has a knack of relating to people — putting himself in their shoes,” Marable explains.
Marable works with Skeetter and his team because the nursery is one of the licensees of cultivars developed at the university. Skeetter is also a mentor to Marable.
“Whenever I’m with him, he makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world. He’s mentored me not just in business, but in my personal life, too. He keeps me grounded, and he keeps up with what I’m doing, not what I’m doing for him,” he adds. “When I come to him with a situation, he doesn’t tell me how to respond. Instead, he helps me get to the core of the situation. He’ll often ask, ‘If you were king for a day, what would you do?’ It’s very introspective in a way to help me clarify the root of the problem. You know, if I were king for a day, I’d want to handle it the way Skeetter would, because he’d do it fairly, tactfully and respectfully. That’s the way he treats customers, employees, competitors — everyone.”
Building relationships is central to Skeetter’s business and personal life. And the best way to build those relationships is through face-to-face contact. He hops in his 1997 Suburban with more than 600,000 miles on it and takes road trips throughout the year, and typically visits at least 100 customers each year.
“I really like to see our customers’ place of business. And I can look them in the eye, thank them for their business and listen to their needs, which includes asking what we at McCorkle Nurseries can do better,” Skeetter says.
He also observes the consumer in the retail setting to make sure the nursery’s products align with the marketplace.
“I look to see if we’re selling the right plants at the right sizes, and how the tag and container impact the consumers’ decision. There are so many nuances, that if I stayed on the farm in the office, I wouldn’t see them,” he adds.
A longer reach. Skeetter works for the betterment of not only the nursery industry, but agriculture in general through his leadership role with the Georgia Farm Bureau. It’s part of his propensity to selflessly give his time.
Skeetter has also played a pivotal role in tax reform in Georgia, explains Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association.
“Appointed to a taskforce by then Gov. Sonny Perdue, Skeetter helped shape tax policy that replaced a patchwork system of exemptions with a visionary program that exempts all inputs used in the production of agricultural crops,” Butts says. “Not only did this consolidate several exemptions that applied to the green industry, it did the same for all of Georgia’s agricultural producers. The Georgia Agriculture Tax Exemption program now saves producers across the state money and makes Georgia competitive with its neighboring states. Most importantly, the program provides a concise and easily understood system that means these inputs are not taxed multiple times throughout the production cycle.”
Skeetter says there’s “much to learn and gain” from his alignment with the ag community and building those relationships.
An agent of change. The planning discipline passed down from Skeetter’s grandfather and his father is a major focus of the business.
Sharing knowledge with the industry
McCorkle Nurseries was instrumental in creating the Center for Applied Nursery Research (CANR), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization which provides funding and facilities for the green industry, and needs-driven research under an operational nursery setting.
In 1996, the McCorkles approached the University of Georgia with the idea of a horticultural experiment station of sorts.
“As a nursery, we knew we couldn’t hire PhDs to do research internally, so we looked for ways to leverage the assets we did have, such as a location, staff and money to invest in the project,” says Skeetter, who’ s also chairman of the CANR board of directors. “It was a collaboration with the university.”
When the center began operations in 1997, it identified the needs of the area green industries, evaluated those needs, prioritized them, and pitched them to not only the University of Georgia, but to other horticulture schools in the Southeast.
Through the years, the center has identified pest and disease problems and control solutions; created proper water management plans; researched water quality, reclamation, and recycling; evaluated new cultivars; and investigated marketing tactics for the industry.
“The CANR was created to provide growers across Georgia and the Southeast with information about breeding, evaluation and production techniques of ornamental plants. What sets the center apart is that it encourages researchers from across the country to conduct studies under real-world nursery conditions right the within the confines of McCorkle Nurseries,” says Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association. “And while Skeetter and all the MNI family is humble about their role with the center, Skeetter remains the lifeblood, pushing the work forward.
“The center is open to all visitors and encourages the sharing of information to any who can use it. That’s a pretty unique M.O. when you consider it’s right in the center of their family nursery.”
Influential industry folks like Mike Dirr and Allan Armitage were involved during their stint at the University of Georgia.
“Dirr was on the original board when the center was formed,” Skeetter recalls. “When he first discovered the Endless Summer hydrangea at Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota, he brought it to the center and proved the remontant trait, which has had such an impact on the industry since.”
To learn more about the center, visit CANR.org.
“We set expectations then conduct inspections to make sure those expectations are being met — that’s a big part of planning, and I’m a firm believer in written plans,” he says. “It’s easier to plan but harder to make sure you stay on track.”
The nursery’s planning and review requirements, have helped the business succeed during the good times and created a hedge of protection during the tough times.
“Our values and our bedrock practices of being very prudent with our business management and financial practices laid the foundation to work our way through the Great Recession,” Skeetter explains.
It wasn’t the first time the nursery had faced a challenge.
“During my granddad’s tenure, the nursery was bankrupt three times on paper — primarily from deep freezes and learning how to grow in containers,” he says.
The McCorkles (left to right): Chris, Jack, Beverly, Skeetter, and Don. The family has lunch together every week, which helps with communication and fellowship, Skeetter says.
Photo: Steve Bracci
Skeetter, who’s sometimes called the “change agent,” has lived through a few incarnations of the business, responding to market needs. The nursery started as an independent garden center/landscaper/grower, and transformed into a landscaper/grower, then to a grower/rewholesaler focusing on sales to IGCs, landscape professionals and big-box stores, he says.
“We’ve been evolutionary. We follow the market and opportunities, which sometimes means making hard choices to follow those opportunities and expand,” he says. “The expression, ‘change or die’ comes to mind. I don’t change just for the sake of change. We make prudent changes and are sensitive to whatever the environment brings. My dad taught me that a rut is a grave with both ends kicked out of it and not to get sedentary or set in our ways.”
Skeetter encourages his employees and his peers to move forward, and not get stuck in that rut his dad warned him about, says Doug Walker, co-owner of Cold Creek Nursery and Garden Center in Aiken, S.C., and a customer of McCorkle Nurseries.
“Skeetter is always looking for the next best product or new way of improving something,” Walker says. “He has helped the industry by doing things a better way, rather than just keeping with the same old ways. And he’s helped individual businesses like ours by sharing information on where to get products and services, and sharing the latest industry improvements.”
It should come as no surprise that Skeetter has a positive outlook for the industry and its enormous potential.
“We’re a relatively young industry, we’re still going through adolescence. There’s so much potential for us to grow in our importance in the marketplace and the environment by making our world a better place with plants,” he says. “The value of our product is a whole lot more than just aesthetics. We need to harness that potential and build our future.”