“I love growing something that people take home,” says Toine Overgaag.“People develop a relationship with their orchids and I hear about it.”
Toine is the owner of Westerlay Orchids, an extraordinary company in Carpinteria that grows two million orchids a year across one million square feet of greenhouse space. Currently, they’re the primary suppliers to Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Safeway.
Toine is a live wire — engaging, anxious, attractive, and enthusiastic. “I’m impulsive,” he proclaims from the get-go. “I’m not laid back.” His multigeneration family business has grown steadily into the success that it is today, and he’s a wonderful combination of knowledge, intuition, and tradition.
He explains that, after World War II, Dutch farmers spread all over the world. His grandfather grew tomatoes and his father, Joop, went into business with his brother growing chrysanthemums, but became frustrated with their country’s economy. There were already a lot of Dutch people in Carpinteria, and his parents had visited several times. They decided to move here to grow roses.
Toine was 6 when they left Holland for America with his parents and three siblings. He didn’t speak English, but today, you can’t hear any evidence of an accent. He attended Cate School and then went to Tufts University to study economics.
“I was set on not going into the family business,” says Toine, but he did intern in greenhouse production in Holland while in college. He then earned an MBA from USC and started working in television production and finance. “I was deflated,” he admits. “I wasn’t good at it.”
So he returned to Carpinteria to help his dad with sales. The company was still selling roses and competing with growers from South America. “Roses are easy to ship, and it’s efficient to produce in South America,” he explains. “This is not a game we can win in the long run.”
Toine and Joop decide to move into orchids. “We jumped into orchids,” says Toine, and they left in quickly. “It was a good thing in the long run. We were small but there were not a lot of people growing orchids.
“There was a period of time we were muddling along,” he says, but the past six years have been really good. They once employed just 30 people but now have 130. He credits the trust and support of a few buyers, not to mention their biggest holidays: Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. They also help their customers with videos on their website that show how to take care of orchids.
In 2009, Joop retired, and Toine became president and owner. Toine likes to joke that, while his dad was on vacation, he changed his business card and told his dad there had been a coup.
Toine strives to modernize the brand through environmental sustainability. Westerlay Orchids’ irrigation recycling system is reducing water usage by 30 percent, for instance, and they’ve also reduced heating by 20 percent.
Toine is wonderfully reflective while chatting with you, and there are unexpected moments of introspection. “Self-awareness is important,” he shares. “I spent a lot of time in expensive schools. My dad didn’t have a formal education. My dad trusted me.”
Toine Overgaag answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I really like the Yiddish word “mensch.” It connotes a person of integrity and honor, but for me it also means humility and good humor.
What is your greatest fear?
Global warming. I think it could destroy our way of life in a generation if we don’t address it, but there seems to be no political will to do so.
What do you like most about your job?
Creating a finished product that people develop a relationship with.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Balance. Enough challenge but enough time to enjoy it. Making a living but also giving back.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Business-class seats. I don’t really care where I sleep when I travel or what I eat, but I really like to get the big seat up front.
What is your current state of mind?
Refreshed and ready to go after a great weekend.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
People that lie to themselves. It’s bad enough to lie to others but when you talk yourself into the lie it becomes pathetic.
What do you most value in friends?
Shared values. I like to think different experiences and different viewpoints can be overcome if we share the same values.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Hyper, wired, and overly focused at times.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Um, actually …”
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be a great listener.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Building my business. We’ve not only grown in revenue and profit but also created an environmentally and socially responsible organization
Where would you most like to live?
In the house we are building in Governador Canyon. We hope it’s completed by Christmas.
What is your most treasured possession?
I can’t think of a particular material thing.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My wife. She has a wicked, unexpected sense of humor.
What is your motto?
“Make decisions or decisions will be made for you.” It’s something a friend said to me at a tough time in my life. It resonated and I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and kept it in my wallet for a long time.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’m inspired by historical figures that accomplished a great deal with dignity and under adversity (Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Jackie Robinson), but I don’t identify with them. I think that’s pretty presumptuous. I did just read the U.S. Grant biography — another great leader the exemplified dignity in adverse conditions.
On what occasion do you lie?
A while ago, I told my 5-year-old daughter that I had not eaten the last Rice Krispie treat.