Saturday, Apr 19, 2014
Agri Leader

Heffner has risen to the top for local nurseries


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Most people these days will have 10 or 11 different jobs over the course of their careers. But Bobby Heffner's only ever worked for one place - Robbins Nursery in Sebring, which he now owns.

"I started when I was 14," explained the jovial Heffner. "It's the only job I've ever had."

He was hired during high school by the founder of the nursery, Jess Robbins, and began doing jobs like weeding and cleaning up. A friend and neighbor of the Robbins family, Heffner said he slowly began learning the names of plants and eventually started waiting on customers and doing sales.

When Heffner turned 21 and confided to Robbins that he was thinking of going off to college, the aging Robbins made him a different offer.

"He said, 'What if I sold you the place?'" recalled Heffner. "I decided to give it a try."

That was 30 years and 35 acres ago. When Heffner took over the business, it was on one acre of property. In 1997, Heffner expanded it to 35 acres at the current location of 4803 U.S. 27 in south Sebring, and he's just signed a lease for an additional four acres at 2424 U.S. 27 north where Sunshine Nursery is located.

Why does a nursery need so much space?

I think there's a misconception that as a nursery we just buy plants from somewhere else, put them here and sell them, said Heffner. "We grow 60 to 70 percent of our landscape plants," he clarified.

Robbins, which sells plants, landscape materials and hardscape elements both retail and wholesale, as well as offers its own landscaping services, doesn't specialize in one type of plant or another.

"We sell everything from a 99-cent flower all the way to a 20 foot oak tree," he said.

Heffner said he is opening up the new location for the convenience of his north Sebring and Avon Park customers, and also to compete with some of the "big box" stores selling plant material in that area.

The benefit of buying a plant that has been produced locally is that it is already acclimated for local temperatures and soil, Heffner explained. Cutting out the middleman also allows him to keep his prices competitive or better, he said.

Robbins' plants are propagated right on the property in greenhouses a short walk behind the retail store that first greets customers. Three donkeys and a handful of chickens live back there, too. Even deeper into the property are the enormous shade trees grown for landscaping, and an employee's personal vegetable plot.

Heffner's wife, Amy, takes care of the animals and the company's books, and will be running the north location along with new employee Gordon Cox. The new store is scheduled to open sometime in June.

When he was younger, Heffner had a vision of customers taking golf carts and zipping around the property as they shopped. The reality is that many just stay up front or get a coffee and wander through the rows and shade houses full of arbicola, tibuchina, tomatoes, fruit trees, ixora, hibiscus and more.

Heffner is a member of the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, on the 4-H advisory board and the City of Sebring's tree board. He uses the decorative barn near the entrance to offer and host plant workshops on topics such as vegetable gardening and Florida-friendly practices. His employees, many of whom have 10 to 20 years with the company, sometimes give tours to groups like the local Girl Scouts.

Robbins has also donated landscaping materials and plants to the Master Gardeners, Highlands County schools, the YMCA and many other organizations throughout the community.

Heffner, who owns the largest retail nursery in the county, attributed some of the company's success to channelling the business towards supplying local landscapers and not just offering his own landscaping services.

On his own jobs, he'll often recommend contractors for certain types of specialized work, but remain the contact for the customer, mediating any issues and promising to "get it squared away."

The best part of running the nursery is the variety of work to do, said Heffner.

"If I feel like designing a landscape, I can sell a design and create it and that's fun," he grinned. "Or I can be inside all day and do estimates, or grab a shovel and go install landscape."

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