Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Agri Leader

Managing growth

Central Florida's Agri-Leader
Published:   |   Updated: March 11, 2013 at 09:14 PM

If you take a leisurely drive south on Old State Road 8, the scenery starts to change. Suddenly, to the left, a gravelly terrain opens up with rows and rows of long, domed structures. They are covered with white plastic, looking futuristic and alien — like something out of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Total Recall," where the big guy visits a Mars colony.

But these domes aren't on Mars. They are in Venus. They're the greenhouses that house 300 acres of foliage at Delray Plants, the 14th largest nursery in the United States.

"We primarily do indoor foliage, but over the last few years, through diversification, 30 percent is tropical landscape," said Randy Gilde who, along with his brother-in-law, Ed Koornneef, inherited the business from founder and father-in-law Jake Koornneef.

Jake Koornneef was a first-generation American from Holland, explained Gilde, who also comes from a Dutch family. The Koornneefs first went to Toronto, where Jake started a plant business with horticultural skills he had learned in his homeland.

Meanwhile, Gilde's family, who was from a different part of Holland, also immigrated to America after World War II looking for opportunity. They were sponsored by a family in Salt Lake City, and settled 2,000 miles away from the Koornneefs in South Florida.

Gilde's family did not have an agricultural background. "My family was in the medical field and my dad was a policeman for over 30 years," said Gilde, who was born and raised in Lake Worth and lived in Boynton Beach for 20 years before moving to central Florida.

The Koornneefs decided to move to South Florida from Canada to get away from the cold and to continue their plant business. Gilde and his wife, Jake's daughter Marian, met as children through the Dutch Reform Church.

While high school sweethearts, Randy and Marian married at 18, but he didn't go right into the family business. Instead, he joined the U.S. Air Force and became a fuel specialist.

"I worked in the lab, testing the fuel, and I went out in the field actually testing the fuel in planes," said Gilde, who was deployed to the Mediterranean. With multi-million dollar jets, it was important to ensure the fuel did not contain impurities, he explained.

"In my opinion it was the best thing I ever did. It helped me today to run the business because the military is all about organization and teamwork. That's what you have to do in business," stated Gilde.

After four years of service, Gilde was asked by Jake to join the business rather than re-enlist. Gilde agreed. "It was all on-the-job training. My father-in-law was one of the best growers in the country," said Gilde. Jake passed away in 2010 at the age of 80, which was a big blow to the family and the company, said Gilde.

"Even though we had been running most of the day-to-day operations for many years, it was a big time in our lives," he added somberly.

Now, Delray Plants employs about 500 people at the Venus location, as well as sites in Delray and Boynton Beach. That also includes the employees of their service company that takes care of the stock carried at Home Depot stores.

Gilde said he loves this industry because it changes every day.

"It's never boring," said Gilde. "We deal with hundreds and hundreds of stores that sell our plants, and they are always looking for new product. We put added value to the plant through pot covers or planting up different combinations," he explained.

Delray Plants has earned the prestigious VeriFlora certification, an agricultural sustainability certification and eco-labeling program recognized as the gold-standard in the floriculture and horticulture industries.

Gilde is also actively involved in FNGLA and is on the state board as a foliage division leader. Outside of work, he is active in his church, First Presbyterian Church, in Lake Placid, where he serves as a youth leader and is part of a committee working to establish an activity center for community outreach.

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