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Hawks' Owner Focuses on Beloved Landscape Business – Alongside Stein

Joe Kresl of Hawks rekindles his love of landscape design while Mark Birmingham of Stein Gardens & Gifts finds a treasure in Wauwatosa (that's kind of like a certain celebrated shoe).

After 20 years of running a garden center, and 10 years as a professional landscape architect before that, Joe Kresl could be forgiven if he just wanted to scale back, relax and let someone else run things.

And Mark Birmingham, as a successful CEO of one of Wisconsin's premier brand names, Allen Edmonds shoes, and now CEO of regional garden center leader Stein Gardens & Gifts, could be understood if he wanted to just take over a smaller, independent business in a great location.

That isn't the plan for either man.

Hawks Nursery and Stein Gardens & Gifts could hardly seem more different, but Kresl and Birmingham think exactly alike. They're both looking to grow, and they intend to do it together while remaining independent as businesses.

As reported Sunday in Wauwatosa Patch, Stein is leasing and will begin operating Hawks' retail garden center operation on Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa. Hawks, under Kresl, will continue its landscaping services business from the same site.

But that's only half the story. Through a joint operating agreement, Hawks will also staff 11 more regional Stein Gardens & Gifts stores with landscaping design and installation experts – services Stein has never provided before.

And with Stein's high-volume buying power, customers, so the plan goes, will get Hawks' quality services at Stein's lower prices.

What's old is new again

Once upon a time, Hawks Nursery dwarfed even what Stein has become. It had vast nurseries in Upstate New York and here in Wauwatosa, the largest a 100-acre farm at Burleigh Street and Highway 100.

Kresl, who revels in the history of the business, says that at its height in the 1920s, Hawks employed 400 salesman throughout the East and Midwest.

As with all businesses, the Depression hit it hard. And after World War II, even as business returned with a boom, it changed, as did the landscape. The big farm and its other nursery sites became too valuable to grow trees when they could grow houses instead.

Ornamental flowering plants for suburban yards became a bigger market than farming out fruit trees. The Burleigh farm was sold.

The buildings from the farm were picked up and moved south to what was then 38 acres on Watertown Plank. Over the years, subdivisions bought up 30 of those acres, too.

When Kresl came along in 1992, he had a mind to buy the shadow of what was left of Hawks and build it up into his own landscaping business. With a landscape architecture degree from UW-Madison, several years of experience each in terms working for firms in Madison, then Minneapolis, and then Milwaukee, he was ready to go it alone.

"I think everybody has a dream of doing something," Kresl said, "and it's whether you carry it out. I had a dream of owning my own business, and this was my chance."

The price was right for the dowdy old garden center, and Kresl thought he'd close quickly. But there was a catch. The buildings were actually on the verge of falling down.

"The City of Wauwatosa stepped in and said, 'Look, these buildings are rotting. They need to come down. We'll probably condemn them,'" Kresl said. "Suddenly, I had a lot more on my hands than I'd bargained for. But I decided to go ahead, even though it took a lot more time – 18 months – and a lot more money.

"I designed the garden center, and we opened in 1994."

Chasing a new dream

If dreams die hard, why is Joe Kresl giving over his living, breathing vision of what a garden center ought to be?

"It's a lot more fun building and growing a business than just maintaining one," Kresl said. "Several years ago, the business started to just plateau. It had done well, but it wasn't growing.

"And along the way, I'd gotten away from doing what I really love, which is landscape design. I'd become a manager of people and inventory.

"I started thinking about this about two years ago, getting out of that side of it and back into just focusing on the landscaping services, but it was this summer that I picked up the phone and called Mark Birmingham.

"He was interested, and we started talking seriously right away.

"The way thing worked out, I'm opening up a huge new market, all over Southeast Wisconsin, and Stein is opening up a whole new market of services that we can provide.

"We'll be profiting off of the installation, and they'll be selling the stock at Stein's prices."

An old brand needs a new kick

Mark Birmingham had a tough decision to make three years ago. He was being asked to leave a position he had been groomed for at Allen Edmonds, one of the top names in men's dress shoes worldwide, to take over a regional garden center business from a dying man.

Jack Stein, the last scion of leaders in the Stein Garden & Gifts family, would live only three months after Birmingham stepped in.

"Yes, after 13 years in the shoe business, three as CEO, I was brought in by the Stein family to a 65-year-old business," Birmingham said, "and I saw it as my job to see to it it stayed in business another 65."

"You had a great brand, a well-known name, but it had gotten more than a bit static," Birmingham said. "There is something so important about brand. Coming from a brand like Allen Edmonds, I just wholeheartedly believe that the customer drives the business.

"Customers vote with their wallet. As a brand, you have to continually reinvent and reinvest to remain vibrant as a company."

Birmingham found that Stein stores were regarded as bargain bins. They were not kept very clean, and they were stocked with a bewildering array of products no one seemed to know how to use. He set out to make Stein stores "more attractive, and more shoppable."

Cleaning up the shelves and aisles

Birmingham's business acumen addressed inventory, staffing and internal communications first. He found that there was a redundancy of products in, for instance, pesticides – the stores had shelves filled with every brand available, simply confusing the shopper with too many choices.

He wanted his staffs to be as helpful and knowledgeable as those at smaller, independent garden centers.

And he wanted his stores to look better.

"We've completely refurbished two of our stores – we're calling them test stores," Birmingham said. "I've spent a lot of time in them, and customers come up to me and ask if I work here, and I say, 'Yes, I do.' And they say, 'Whatever you're doing, keep it up.'"

Stein's smaller store, Hawks' bigger market

Under their agreement, Stein will lease and control retail sales on 3 acres, indoors and out, while Hawks landscaping service will work off the remaining 5 acres in back and continue to use design space in the main building and offices in a smaller building on the west end of the tract.

For Stein, that's a big change toward small. The other Stein stores are about 6 acres. For Birmingham, it can't be about fitting 2 tons of fertilizer in a 1-ton truck.

"We're just going to have to be very thoughtful about not overcrowding," he said. "Hawks has a very loyal customer base, and we can't turn them off with that."

Birmingham also hope to hire as many Hawks retail employees as are willing to stay.

"Joe and the Hawks team have built that business on service," he said. "The Stein team has to live up to that, and with that in mind we're bringing over as many of those familiar faces as possible."

For Kresl, growth is going to be mainly a matter over having and managing people remote from the center that has been at 12217 Watertown Plank Rd. for 85 years. But that's his new and welcome challenge, overseeing landscape design and installation on a regional level.

As the change comes, and quickly, Hawks will shut down Sunday with a target reopening date of April 1 – as a Stein Gardens & Gifts.

In the meantime, though, Kresl will be establishing his new business model over five counties.

"This is my new vision," Kresl said, "my new dream."

Christine McLaughlin February 12, 2013 at 06:55 PM
What an interesting story! And thanks for the history of Hawks. I just hope they keep the quality up. Growth alone isn't a reliable predictor of better.
Jack February 12, 2013 at 07:15 PM
Well Christine, if Hawks had more growth they would not have had to sell out the Steins, now would they? Hawks has been in a financial decline now for many years.
Carol Knutsen March 11, 2013 at 01:28 PM
I visit Hawks from Illinois. What interested me was the unusual perennials that they had. The beautiful glass structure was so inviting at the entrance as were the stylish gifts they carried. I hope it doesn't loose the ambiance and the quality of plants which set Hawks apart from everyone else. I look forward to the transformation and hope ,for you both, a profitable future. Carol Knutsen ,Arl.Hts. Il.
Allison Smith May 10, 2013 at 06:26 AM
If you go to the new Stein's in the former Hawk's retail center, don't expect to have the same experience. This is now a Stein's and therefore it carries the same types of merchandise. As Hawk's retail was high end, and had unique, quality goods, it is a disappointment to loose them. I get why but it still is a big let down.

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