Tammy Sons was born in 1969 in a small town called Altamont, Tennessee. She was the youngest of four children. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a nurseryman. Tammy’s father and mother were in the lower-income bracket, and many summers, Tammy remembers not having meat for days at a time and living off the family garden in warm months that her parents grew for food. She states, “there was not a lot of meat and junk food, but our mother always made sure we had three hot meals a day.”
When Tammy was 24, she went to beauty school and owned a successful beauty parlor in her small subdivision. She married young and had two children by the age of 24. Her husband Dennis was a logger, and she did hair in the evenings, weekends, and at night while watching their two children. By age 30, Tammy had her third child, a daughter, and was beginning to get bored with fixing hair day in and out. She started peddling nursery plants on the side.
Today, Tammy’s nursery employs many families and people with jobs in the small area of Grundy County, Tennessee, and sells to over 90,000 people and a host of other businesses. Tammy now runs one of the largest mail-order nurseries in the area, and having her nursery near the nursery capital of the world makes her able to source over 350 types of plants, trees, ferns, perennials, live stakes, mosses, and shrubs.
TN Nursery in Altamont, Tennessee. Offering quality plants freshly dug and delivered to your door is what this company has done for over 69 years and three generations.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Tammy Sons: I am Tammy Sons, 52 years young. I am the CEO of Tn Nursery located in Altamont Tennessee. I have 3 children and am married living in a rural town just 2 miles from the homestead where I grew up.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Tammy Sons: I always wanted to be a hairdresser. Never in my life did I want to be a CEO. But, when I grew up with roots in the mail order nursery industry I then realized, there’s a lot more money in growing and selling plants than standing behind a chair fixing hair all day, every day. I also wanted to escape four walls. I have always been a nature lover and this was my great escape to freedom growing plants and selling them. I started out going to larger nurseries and getting plants from their “cull piles” – plants they were going to throw away. I’d bring large loads home, grade through them, and put them in the bed of my truck, and go from nursery to nursery selling the good plants I’d found from trash piles.
The first day I made $140. I was astonished! I thought “man, this is the life, getting to ride and sell plants.” Then days later, I made $343 on one load, 100% clear profit and I didn’t have to stand behind a chair and be a magician and a therapist to earn almost a week’s wages! I was hooked! I saw how my dad bought and resold and I wasn’t even having to buy them.
From there we bought a 75K farm with 12 acres. We were given enough plants from a very wealthy nurseryman to plant all our land. We sold those plants in 1997 for $84k and paid off our entire mortgage. Then my nephew introduced me to the internet world. He sold it to me for $140 and I paid him $50 per week until I paid it off. I started posting ads to sell plants out of state. It worked! I made $1200 with just one single order. From there I had a website built, I learned to code, I took horticultural classes and from there I now run a $3 million a year business. It’s a highly successful mail-order nursery that ships to every state in the US.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Tammy Sons: We are a native plant nursery. We sell old-fashioned-type plants that most upscale homeowners want. They are very popular and that is what sets us apart from other nurseries. We are a mail-order nursery that ships all types of plants to consumers, architects, B2B, and have served some highly prestigious clientele in the past. Examples include- The Battery Conservancy, The Discovery Channel, Trump Towers, 911 Crash sites and many more.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Tammy Sons: #1 You have got to have endurance. Get educated in your profession then put your education to work. Take marketing classes (in my area it was a must to sell online on an e-commerce platform), stay ahead of most people’s knowledge on what you do. I worked weekends, nights, days and slept very little. On vacation, I take my laptop. I worked 60-80 hours per week to grow my business. You have to have endurance through success and failures. Keep your eyes on the prize, always strive to do better, always.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Tammy Sons: The secrets to my own personal success are to stay on top of your business, never depend on anyone else to work as hard as you to to make it just that. Be hands-on, don’t get wealthy and stray thinking someone else will put the attention, care, and agility that you put in the business.
My Dad Roscoe Tate was my 100% inspiration. He thought as I do. Take that chance, leap of faith. Make it happen. I followed in his footsteps and took it a step further with the internet. When he ran a successful nursery, he didnt have technology. He advertised with brochures he snail-mailed out.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Tammy Sons: A CEO #1 should be on top of their business. Focus on quality, always make sure you are selling a good product. Always be on-site during work hours. Skip the schedules, plan meetings and appointments after hours. Manage and be in full control of your employee’s activities and always have a good HR person on-site to control work ethics and keep them on a work level, never personal.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Tammy Sons: Covid increased our sales by 95%. People had to stay home and this made them want to enhance their landscaping and do things they’d long neglected. Since I run an essential agriculture business, we had no shutdowns but there were also downfalls as a result. I could not find new employees to hire due to most being on unemployment and the government offering them more money to stay home (stimulus checks) than to work. This really hurt small businesses and it left me struggling and I as well as my employees had to spend many hours overtime to make sure every customer got their plants.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Tammy Sons: I’ve noticed some business owners and CEOs relax once they get a comfortable income. As for myself, I never lose my integrity knowing this was a blessing and a gift and I never once have lost the memory of standing behind that chair as a hairdresser. My thoughts are to keep motivated, no matter what. Stay on top of your business, build your reputation and grow it each year to be bigger and better. Just because of COVID19, don’t quit as I’ve seen many do, due to fear. Fight harder to stay afloat and persistent.
For myself, I have made mistakes and I have learned great lessons from them. Most of my mistakes have stemmed from hiring unqualified and inexperienced people in customer service and support areas. We live in a small rural town and my struggle has been with hiring qualified people to handle my customers. I increased the pay to find people that were more experienced that were qualified and willing to make the drive to work each day for increased pay.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Tammy Sons: Hired Qualified people in positions (packers, customer service agents, supervisors). Increased pay to get those types of people in the needed positions.
Increased Quality over Quantity. I made sure every plant was ample size or larger, added new packing methods to help with damage in transit, and also offered a 1-year guarantee to help assure consumers to not only purchase from us be fell confident if a plant didn’t survive, wed replace it.
Quality control in all areas and functions of my business taught me if I went the extra mile, I’d have satisfied customers.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Tammy Sons: Finding employees to work. It’s been very difficult recruiting new hires since Covid.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Tammy Sons: Treat your employees in the manner you want to be treated. Listen and have empathy. Don’t be passive but always let them know you appreciate them and reward their hard work.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts
Tammy Sons: My most difficult decision the past year and especially during the shutdown was having my employees come to work knowing that we’d all probably been around people that were contagious. No matter where you go, especially in Tennessee where covid infections were skyrocketing, one has to live a normal life. People would have to go get food, go to the drug stores, etc. I felt really challenged whether or not to keep my business open when everyone else around us was shut down. As an end result no one suffered and went without income, we satisfied all our customers and got all our orders out while offering my dedicated employees greater pay while doing so for their sacrifice.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Tammy Sons for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Tammy Sons or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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