And The Blue-Ribbon Winner: Watters Garden Center

Back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when Prescott was starting to grow and was approaching 8,000 population, Harold and Lorna Watters opened Prescott’s first garden center — the only one in the area.

Family tradition has it that they started with a family station wagon, a borrowed trailer and a few shovels, hoes, rakes and other tools. In the 60 years since, that then-raggedy garden center has grown into a nationally known treasure — and that’s not an exaggeration.

Just this spring, following intensive research of more than 15,000 garden centers across the United States, the Best Companies Group named Watters Garden Center “the best garden center to work for in the country.”

It’s not the first time Watters Garden Center has won the Blue Ribbon for excellence, so to speak. In 2010, Today’s Garden Center magazine named the “Revolutionary 100 National Winner” — and it was Watters Garden Center.

Current owners Ken Lain and Lisa Watters-Lain take pride in the success the garden center has generated over the years. They direct that pride and praise at their staff, staying none of the success would have been possible if it has not been for dedicated, loyal, highly motivated and knowledgeable colleagues.

They also credit loyal customers who come from throughout central and northern Arizona. They believe customers deserve constant attention and service, no matter how small or large the purchase.

The garden center relocated three times — once on Miller Valley Road, then on property across the from the Prescott Bowling Alley and finally at the current location of 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, on a 2-acre site on the northwest border of Prescott city limits.

Today, it is estimated there are more than 100,000 loyal customers within a 20-mile radius. Still others from farther away communities stop by at the garden center for random shopping.

Both Ken and Lisa agree part of their success is the result of having Prescott as their hometown. Lisa worked with her parents in her childhood and teen years. Ken became a part of the ownership in 1992. Ken used his teenage experience during high school and later Yavapai College to gain jobs that gave him broad experience. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in business management at Arizona State University, which he says made possible his upward success when he became an owner in the garden center.

The couple say they believe they were fortunate to get to know local residents during their high school and college years and later working careers.

The Lains also stress they value partnering with local nonprofit and other organizations working for the benefit of the greater community. Among them are the Prescott Fine Arts Association, Rotary International, Soroptimist International, the Yavapai Humane Society, the Chamber of Commerce, the NACOG Labor Work Force Investment Board and other similar organizations.

Ken and Lisa and their family also are quite public in their beliefs. “We want to be positive, happy and uplifting in our community efforts and to make a difference in our community — not just our staff but throughout the community,” they say. “A company that’s really engaged should carry the light for their town and make it a better place to live.”

Prescott LIVING: Lisa, first, tell us a bit about you. Then we’ll talk to Ken. Are you a Prescott native?

Lisa Watters-Lain: Yes. I went to Prescott High School. I took some classes at Yavapai College, then went to Arizona State University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in special education in 1987. Many years later, I attended Northern Arizona University, where I earned a master’s degree in education in 2009.

Prescott LIVING: How long have you known Ken?

Lisa Watters-Lain: We met in a church choir in high school. So that’s been what — 37 or 38 years?

Ken Lain: It’s been a lot. We’ve been married 33 years. Thirty-four in July.

Lisa Watters-Lain: We have four children. Katelyn is our oldest. She and her husband Jeremy are interested in learning the business so they moved back here in March to start taking on the business with us. Our son James is married with three kids and currently lives in El Paso. He’s an Army captain, a physician’s assistant. We have twin girls, Meghan and McKenzie, who are 25. McKenzie is finishing her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Meghan is still experiencing life. She hasn’t settled down on what she wants to do, but she loves business and she’s thinking about moving to Colorado. She just has different things she wants to do.

Prescott LIVING: You’ve turned Watters into one of the most successful garden centers in the country. You said you want to be the best in the nation. How do you define that?

Ken Lain: When we make a difference in our community. For example, when our staff wants to come to work and enjoys it. When they feel like family. When you’re not just a boss, but you work alongside staff and make a difference. Most important, I think companies are influencers. They can make their town a better place to live. They’re truly doing what owners have in mind for their customers. Here, that’s a halo effect of making Prescott and the surrounding cities better.

I ask, if Watters Garden Center were to go out of business today, would it be missed? That’s a question all business owners should always ask. I ask myself often, “How do we make sure that we’ll be missed if we ever go anywhere?”

Prescott LIVING: I like that — “Will we be missed?” That’s a key defining phrase — helps define what you are. Tell readers about your relationship with Bright Consultants and how they help you define Watters.

Ken Lain: Bright Consultants are industry leaders that are well-respected in the retail garden center business industry. They consult in different aspects of a company. Often, a garden center business is mainly family-owned from the grower level to the landscape level, all the way up to the retail level. Family is great. It’s a great place to be, but sometimes we feel isolated. We do this thing on our own. In small towns, we don’t have the resources that bigger companies or a franchise might have.

That’s why it’s important to reach out to other garden center owners. Ask questions. Hire consultants. Have them come on site. Walk the property, advise you for a week. Usually it’s a week visit. They just might suggest, “Hey, you might want to think about this for your checkouts. You might want to spread your aisles out. Here’s your marketing piece. Here’s finances. Take a look at this option.”

Prescott LIVING: How do you track your customers? You say you really don’t do that. Yet you guys have defined your audience very well. You direct your radio programs, your articles and your marketing toward a well-identified audience. How did you determine that?

Ken Lain: After college, I was a marketing director for Equifax, a credit bureau. I also was in banking. I learned from a corporate level how to market and advertise, use sales teams. It was then pretty easy to transition from corporate, huge companies with hundreds of employees, down to the Prescott family business. We take those same skills and talk to locals about gardening.

Prescott LIVING: You do say you have a “secret formula” that tracks people from as far away as Sedona, Verde Valley, Kingman. In other words, you attract central and northern Arizona clients, right?

Ken Lain: Correct. Part of it is that Costco and Trader Joe’s in Prescott appeal to out-of-town buyers. People come from out of town. While they’re here, they also stop at Watters Garden Center and we get to know them. We market to them.

Prescott LIVING: Do you know a lot of them by name?

Ken Lain: That’s part of the secret formula, the secret sauce. There are many aspects to it. We know what they buy. Computers track all this stuff. But really, our staff likes people. The staff likes to bring people and plants together. That’s their passion. That’s what we do all day long. That’s why we go to work every day. And when customers truly appreciate that, it turns from fun to a delight for staff.

Prescott LIVING: How many employees do you have? Can you give me a round number?

Ken Lain: About 20 or more. It flexes a little bit, but 25 during busy season.

Prescott LIVING: When is your busy season? Do you really have a slack season other than when it’s snowing?

Ken Lain: There’s nine months out of the year where it’s just sheer spring all the time. We have customers all the time. But January and February are our low point. That’s when we take time to repaint, rebuild displays, get the place ready. Come March, it’s “fill the nursery up” time. As we fill it, spring takes off. So March through November are just busy, busy, busy.

The seasons flex. There’s a spring mix, there’s a summer mix, there’s a fall mix. We have different plants for each of those seasons. But last year we had a record December because we focused on living Christmas trees. People were wanting to nest at home. They wanted to use a tree to put the presents under and then go plant it outdoors afterwards. That was a big thing.

Prescott LIVING: Why is it so difficult in Prescott to have gardens?

Lisa Watters-Lain: Well, it’s probably unique to the Quad City area. Soil goes from rock-hard clay to sand. We’re very dry here, the sun is very intense. Our mountain climate is very unique in that we get beautiful warm days and then two days later …

Ken Lain: (chuckling) … 3 feet of snow.

Lisa Watters-Lain: So it’s unique gardening pressure here. Once you learn that, once you understand what it’s like to grow in our soil. Once you understand the seasonality, it becomes easier. That’s our goal —to make local gardeners successful. We teach them to understand why we do certain things here that will be successful.

Ken Lain: It’s like an oasis when you have a success. In a rock landscape, you might struggle because there’s different variables. When you have a lilac in full bloom and the butterflies are all over it, the fragrance just wafts just across the landscape, that’s magical. And we can teach that. That’s why our garden classes are so well-attended and growing. It’s crazy.

Prescott LIVING: You have radio shows, you’ve got garden classes, you’ve got articles in publications. How popular are those? Your audience must be massive.

Ken Lain: It’s pretty substantial. I think gardening is therapy. It’s a hobby that feels good. It gets you away from those digital devices. Gardening faded for a while when travel took its place. For a while, eating out at restaurants for foodies took the place of gardening. Now we aren’t going out as much. We’re gardening in a backyard, private space where we feel safe. It’s real. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. That’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. We’ve rediscovered what home means. It’s not just a house, it’s a home. I want to make it mine. The backyard is an extension of that living room. We just help people to discover that.

Prescott LIVING: Where do you get your ideas for your articles and shows?

Ken Lain: We constantly read garden content. Every day. Every morning. I’ve got my favorite bloggers, my favorite publications, my favorite magazines. Lisa’s got hers. We compare notes, get together and write content or post radio shows. We had over two million downloads or views from our YouTube channel last year. That’s not global. That was just Prescott and surrounding areas. We don’t go outside looking for New Yorkers or people from China to look at our content. We want locals.

Prescott LIVING: Your staff at Watters always seem to know everything about terrain in this area and what works where and what doesn’t. How did they learn that?

Ken Lain: Training, training, training. Plus, our staff comes to work not just to unload plants out of trucks. They come to help customers. They come because they love plants, and they have great interest in plants. They read the tags. They go into neighborhoods when they’re delivering plants. “Wow, look at that specimen. That’s beautiful.” And then they come back and share that with other neighbors in that neighborhood.

Prescott LIVING: How has the pandemic affected your business?

Lisa Watters-Lain: It’s definitely increased business because people are more interested in growing their own fruits, vegetables, fruit trees, root stock and berries. It brought some more customers in. I think it also made us more aware of our community. At the store, our employees saw the community as a whole. People were there dealing with their stress and pressures. We saw the need for people to really be out, to be able to garden, to be outside and to touch base and to have connections with other people. That is important.

Ken Lain: I spoke to an 88-year-old gal, a gardener and longtime customer. She came in this week. She’s been quarantined since March. This was her first real trip out. She’ looking for some flowers. She just needed some color. And it wasn’t just the plants. She was a neighbor, a grandmother-type figure, and she wanted to talk.

People happen to take home a plant and have a memory of that when they get home. But it’s way more than just plants. This is about neighbors working with you, neighbors shopping with you. We see them at restaurants, the grocery store, at church. That’s what a small family business is — connection to the community. That’s the legacy that Watters Garden Center wants to represent. We bring communities together to make them feel better. Do we ever need that now!

Prescott LIVING: The Lain family is always involved in community organizations, philanthropy and sponsoring events. How did that start? Has it been that way since you were youngsters? What prompted that kind of enthusiasm for Prescott?

Lisa Watters-Lain: I think it started when my dad started the center 60 years ago. It’s always been there. Since 1962 he was part of the community. It was important to him to be involved in it, to make a better community. We just took that and ran with this because that was a major focus of dad’s. We just took it — Ken especially — and ran even more with it.

Ken Lain: The memory I have of Prescott back in the ‘70s, early ‘80s is it was a really small town. When you needed help, you called friends. “Hey, I need to put insulation up or remove this carpet from a church.” You just got together, and you did things. Today we call that the insider’s club, but it’s not really insiders. The way you become an insider is you jump in and you help get things done.

We’re talking about jumping in to make a difference. We try to make a difference with not just our money but our time, our expertise, all the resources we have at the garden center. That’s where for-profit companies really make a difference when they come alongside and partner with nonprofits.

Prescott LIVING: Lisa, what’s your biggest satisfaction with the business?

Lisa Watters-Lain: What I find satisfying is that it’s a generational business. My parents started and ran it. Ken and I were able to come in and carry it forward. Now we have our children coming in, wanting to go forward. We’re able to serve our community. Our kids are able to continue this as well.

Ken Lain: You know what brings me the greatest satisfaction? Her father can still come to the garden center. He’s been retired for 20 years. Yet he still comes in, gets to see this great creation of his. We have just carried it forward. When he comes alongside and says, “Ken, I’m so proud of what you and Lisa are doing,” that is satisfaction. That’s what every son wants to hear from a father-like figure.

Prescott LIVING: What’s your biggest challenge?

Lisa Watters-Lain: I think just to keep it fresh, keep your business growing. To never take it for granted and always look for ways to improve. For example, how do we serve our community better? How do we serve our employees better? Where do we get the best products from?

The challenge this past year has been finding products to put on the shelf because COVID changed everything. Effectively, it’s just always how to do make ourselves better? Rather, it’s how do we improve on ourselves?

Ken Lain: I would say too, this year we saw a real demarcation line for some companies during this pandemic during the last 12, 18 months. Some curled up in a fetal position and just hid. Their teams fell apart. Our thought? This was the year for leadership. Strong leadership, guidance, encouragement, help coming alongside, helping our staff to realize that we can do this together. That’s probably our greatest challenge, not just this year, but for the coming years.

Prescott LIVING: You have been featured as a man of vision. What does that mean to you?

Ken Lain: You know, I’ve never really thought of myself as a man or a company or family of vision.

Lisa Watters-Lain: He’s always looking forward. You have to look back to see where your business has been, but Ken spends hours upon hours looking forward. Thinking about what’s coming next. He does that for our home life, he does it for business, he does it for organizations he’s involved in. So he’s always looking, “How do I improve? What am I going to do differently? What are we going to do better?”

Ken Lain: Let me take that forward. You always have to keep getting better. You should always want to get better, learn better.

Prescott LIVING: Let’s shift directions — some fun questions. Where is your favorite vacation spot? Where do you like to travel?

Ken Lain: The globe. We love to travel.

Lisa Watters-Lain: You name it, we like to travel there. We’ve been to Spain, we’ve been to Ireland, we’ve been to Mexico and India.

Ken Lain: Our next international trip is Israel in November. But in July, we’re taking our grandson to Washington, D.C. We have an agreement with each of our grandchildren: When they turn 10, we will take them — just us and them — to some place that interests them. So our oldest grandchild turns 10 this year. We’re taking him to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and then see the sights there.

Prescott LIVING: What’s your favorite holiday?

Ken Lain: Christmas. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is our favorite movie.

Prescott LIVING: What’s the best advice you folks have ever received?

Ken Lain: Never stop learning.

Lisa Watters-Lain: I agree. Never stop learning or never be content where you’re at.

Ken Lain: We teach our children, especially our daughters, that one person can make a difference. Or one company can make a difference. That permeates every thread of our family. That might be also a reason that we’re considered visionary. We truly think that we can actually get involved and make a difference — as a couple and as a company.

Prescott LIVING: I’d enjoy knowing what you have in your own garden.

Lisa Watters-Lain: Maybe a better question is, what don’t we have?

Ken Lain: If you drive by our house, you might say, “Wow, those folks might actually own a garden center.” You’d be right. We have a privilege of experimenting with new plants. So many of the plants you wouldn’t recognize in our yard because we’re still testing them before we introduce them into the community.

The most unusual plant we have is a weeping redwood. It’s just outside the pond area. Everyone that comes over goes, “Whoa, what is that?” This tree is probably 30 feet tall — I don’t know — more? It’s a specimen. It’s glorious. You wouldn’t think it would grow here but it is magnificent.

Prescott LIVING: One final question. If you could snap your fingers to make a major change, what would that change be?

Ken Lain: Maybe we’re living in the good old days right now. We just need to enjoy where we are. I think if we’re truly involved in supporting our schools, our nonprofits, our churches, our businesses, and we have the philosophy that we can make a difference if we get involved, I think maybe that’s the place to be. That’s the place where we need to be focused.