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Small Business

Learn from Your Experience

Dave Grotz's losses on tech stocks taught him a lesson about diversifying that helped get his tree nursery off the ground.

Want to become a millionaire the lazy way? Buy a lottery ticket and hope your number comes up. It does not require much effort, but your chances of success are slim. Dave Grotz, on the other hand, took the hard road to riches. "I worked my ass off," he says with a laugh. And it paid off.

For almost two decades, Grotz, who lives in Silverton, Ore., worked a succession of desk jobs while pursuing his passion -- developing exotic conifer trees -- in his free time. Says Grotz, "I basically worked every spare minute. On Friday nights, in the pouring rain, I would strap a flashlight on each arm, attach one to my hat, go to the nursery in the dark and take cuttings of the plants so I could graft them in my kitchen all weekend." He ended up with a business called Peace of Mind Nursery, which ships rare and exotic conifer varieties across the U.S. and is valued in excess of $1 million.

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Grotz, 52, developed his fir fixation early. After dropping out of college in the mid 1970s, he spent three years planting seedlings in Oregon. He eventually earned a degree in natural-resources management from Ohio State. After graduating, he worked first for a plant geneticist and then as a timber cruiser, assessing the value of trees throughout Oregon and Washington State.

In the early 1980s the timber industry crashed, and so did the company that employed Grotz. He added an MBA to his reacute;sumeacute; and was hired as a purchaser with Intel. "Intel had never had any layoffs," he says. "I'd been laid off a few times and wanted to bet on something more promising."

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But Grotz found himself in a high-stress desk job that required him to keep track of 3,000 parts. When his parents invited him to cultivate acreage they owned on the Willamette River, he began devoting his free time to propagating firs and found that it suited him. "I didn't get any grief from the plants," says Grotz.

He cultivated the business using money from his investments and his Intel salary, and in 1993 he left Intel to make the nursery a full-time operation. But he had trouble developing a market for the relatively pricey plants and ended up supplementing his income by hiring on as a temp for Mitsubishi Silicon America. He stayed for seven years, ultimately as a manager with 44 people working under him.

Grotz's day job not only supported his sideline nursery, but it also helped him make his first million: He invested in technology stocks. When that bubble burst, says Grotz, "I lost everything."

Everything, that is, but one significant hard asset -- his trees. In 2003, when the Mitsubishi branch was sold and his job eliminated, Grotz gave up the nine-to-five grind to concentrate on his nursery. This time the key to his success was, ironically, his losses in the stock market, which had taught him to diversify his investments. "The problem with the nursery business is that what you put in the ground today may not be popular five years down the road," says Grotz. "My strategy was to grow a wide variety of plants in limited numbers to reduce the risk."

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With a return of up to 500% per plant, Grotz has discovered that for him, money really does grow on trees. Peace of Mind now has two locations that house about 50,000 plants, where Grotz grows 500 varieties of mostly rare grafted conifers. He works as hard as ever, doing every chore except digging. But his success does allow him to spend free time scuba diving with his family (last year, he proposed to his wife, Ann, underwater by getting down on one knee -- not easy when you're wearing flippers, says Grotz). And he lives, fittingly, in a house paneled with old-growth cedar, rather than plaster or drywall. Says Grotz, "I'm living proof that you can reach any reasonable goal if you're willing to work hard."

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