If their 10 children weren’t sick, in school, doing their homework, or playing sports, William and Helen Roozen expected them to be working. There was no sitting around watching television. The five sons and five daughters were to be up early in the morning. For role models, they had to look only as far as their parents.
“Hard work never hurt anyone,” William Roozen used to tell his children, including Leo Roozen, who succeeded him in 1985 as president and official spokesman for the Washington Bulb Co., Inc., of Mount Vernon.
William knows something about work—and bulbs. His roots in the bulb business date back to Holland, the land of his birth. His ancestors began raising tulips there in the late 1600s. On an early sales trip to the United States, he discovered two things. He didn’t like selling, and he didn’t like the east coast. When he finally immigrated to Washington in 1947, he decided to settle in the Skagit Valley.
The valley’s fertile soil and maritime climate made it the perfect place to grow tulip, daffodil, and iris bulbs and flowers. Early on, Roozen put his strong back and hands to work for other farmers. Then in 1950, with five acres, he decided to strike out on his own. Alongside a few hired hands, he toiled long hours in the fields. Meetings were held in a garage. To save money, he acquired used tractors and farm machinery.
In 1955, he purchased the Washington Bulb Co., a small but successful business, from two of Mount Vernon’s first bulb farmers—Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans.
Now the Roozen family-owned business is the largest tulip bulb grower in North America. The company employs 125 full-time workers. That number exceeds 300 during a peak nine- to 10-month period, making the company one of the major employers in the Skagit Valley.
In terms of volume, the Washington Bulb Co. ships more than 50 million cut flowers and tens of millions of bulbs throughout the United States and Canada annually. The name Roozen means “roses” in Dutch.
“He was a grower at heart,” Leo says of his father. Seventeen years ago, William passed ownership of the company on to his sons, all Washington State University alumni, and a daughter, Bernadette Roozen Miller, who died in 1996.
William, 82, and Helen Roozen, 81, married for 54 years, “did everything together,” Leo says. A strong sense of family and a solid work ethic have always been important to the senior Roozens. So is religion and love for their adopted country. On their arrival in the States, they quickly became aware of the “immense opportunity” that America presents immigrants. As soon as they could, they became U.S. citizens.
“Dad is a real up-front guy,” Leo says. “You never have to guess what he is saying or thinking.”
In a perfect world, the Roozens would have wanted all their children involved in the family business. But William left the door open to other options. He encouraged the children to think on their own, to make their own decisions. He expected only one thing: “If you’re going to do something, you should be the best no matter what it is.”
The Roozen children took the message to heart and followed William’s lead. Then, in the mid-80s, William had to face reality. He knew if he wanted to control the business forever, the rest of the family members likely wouldn’t stay.
“We had our own goals,” says Leo. He speaks not only for himself, but also for his partners John, William, Richard, and Michael. “I have to respect Ma and Pa for that. Maybe they stepped out before he [Dad] was ready.”
The sons still value their parents’ opinions. But once the decision was made—for better or for worse—the business was handed over to the next generation of Roozens. There was no turning back. William and Helen knew that.
The Washington Bulb Co. farms nearly 2,500 acres, mainly daffodils (550 acres), tulips (450 acres) and iris (200 acres). In season, 1,100 to 1,200 acres are devoted to bulbs. Winter wheat (400 acres) and green peas for processing (240 acres) also figure in the crop rotation. Area farmers, however, are turning away from peas, replacing them with corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and berries.
Bulbs and cut flowers are two different operations under the Washington Bulb Co. umbrella. With almost 625,000 square feet of flowers under cover in glass, double poly, and fabric greenhouses as well as quonset huts, the company cuts flowers 365 days a year.
Most of the company’s products—bulbs and cut flowers alike—are sold in the contiguous 48 states, as well as in Hawaii and Alaska. “There’s a ton of opportunity here [in the U.S.]. There’s plenty of business in our own backyard,” says Leo. He and his partners believe that the Washington Bulb Co. is strongest when it has more control over the variables. That doesn’t mean the company ignores the world market. Markets change. So does the company’s marketing, which has grown from printed catalogs to use of the Internet and Web pages. At one time, the largest percent of WBC’s gross revenue came from bulbs. Now more than half comes from cut flowers.
Leo travels a fair amount, usually within the United States for business meetings and to meet with associates in the bulb and cut flower industries. He’d prefer never to leave the farm, but acknowledges that’s no longer the way the business works.
In an 18-month period ending fall 2001, Richard, who oversees the farm operation, including greenhouses and warehouse, traveled to Holland at least four times.
“We get on a plane, go for what we have to do, and then come back,” Leo says of company travel and efforts to stay abreast of competition and the market. WBC sells its products mainly to domestic wholesale distributors, large supermarket chains, and mass merchandisers. He declines to name names. Time-sensitive cut flowers are delivered to Sea-Tac International Airport daily by refrigerator trucks for shipment. All bulbs are shipped on the ground via tractor-trailers. Trucks reach the east coast every four days.
On a global scale, bulb growers are found in Western Europe, England, France, Holland, and in various locations in the Southern Hemisphere. For cut flowers, suppliers are mainly in Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Central America.
As growers, farmers, and businessmen, the Roozens want to control as many variables as possible regarding their products. This means they have to be “good at finance, planning, scheduling, human relations, personnel, production, efficiency, and management,” says Leo, rattling off the litany.
“We all have to do that.” And the company has to plan for the norms in weather. There’s always concern about the elements—particularly in November and December, when Skagit Valley farmers have witnessed “some goofy things.” For example, bulb growers suffered heavy losses in 1990, when flooding put many acres under water. There was nothing they could do about it.
“You have dry years, cold years,” Leo explains. “But when you have a severe frost or flood after the crops are in the ground, that can really set you back.”
Asked to comment on how tasks and responsibilities are determined in the family business, Leo responds shyly. He’s not sure that he is president of the company, “because none of my brothers wanted the position.” Regardless, he and his partners don’t put much emphasis on titles. But as president, he makes the final decision if it comes down to that.
In general terms, Richard is responsible for the farm operation. William’s responsibilities include planting and harvesting of all crops and cut flowers in the field. Michael, the youngest, is the controller. John, the eldest, oversees buildings, machinery, and equipment. He also is a tireless worker in the community, attends many meetings, and deals with issues related to chemicals, and land and water use.
Sometimes the other brothers defer to Leo, because “it’s been the easiest way,” he says. After all, they are partners. They make decisions together. At times
, however, the volume goes up during business discussions, but they never lose sight of what is best for the company.
“If that means I eat crow, I eat crow, or someone else eats crow,” Leo says. “Sometimes your ego gets kicked. But that works. What the heck. We wouldn’t be successful if we all walked into a room and always agreed on everything.
“We challenge each other’s thought process on a daily basis—sometimes more than we wish to admit.”
The late Bernadette Roozen Miller was the only one of the four sisters involved in the Washington Bulb Co. In 1985, she left her career in bank management to build a dream she called RoozenGaarde. The three-acre show garden with Dutch windmill is planted in the fall. Each spring, the more than 200,000 tulip, daffodil, and iris bulbs blossom in a rainbow of colors.
RoozenGaarde is an official sponsor of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. The early spring event attracts thousands of visitors from around the world to the family garden and to the tulip fields of the Roozens and other growers. Bernadette lost a long battle with a rare disease known as amyloidosis in 1996. Her memory lives on in RoozenGaarde and the company’s retail store she helped shape.
While it may have been a forgone conclusion that the sons would wind up in the family business, where they have worked since they were six or seven, the brothers also know the value of education.
“For me, and I think I can speak for my partners, the Washington State University experience was outstanding,” says Leo. “We loved the school, the courses and academic disciplines it had to offer, and the area.”
John and Leo graduated in agriculture in 1974 and 1975, respectively. William, a member of the Class of ’77, followed the same route. Richard ’78 and Michael ’85 earned degrees in business administration, with an emphasis in accounting.
“We probably learned as much out of the classroom as in it. That’s part of education. You mature. You grow up. You form great relationships that you can fall back on the rest of your life,” Leo says.
In 1989, the Washington Bulb Co. donated 2,000 tulip bulbs to WSU as part of the University’s centennial celebration. That year also marked the opening of the Lewis Alumni Centre, and many of the bulbs were used to landscape the grounds around the historic livestock barn that had been renovated and enlarged.
“The Roozen family has been very loyal and generous in providing us with bulbs on at least three occasions,” says Pullman alumnus Bob Smawley, who has assumed the duties of planting the bulbs and maintaining the flowerbeds around the center. He reports that the WSU Horticulture Club also has received gift bulbs, probably in an equal amount, from the Washington Bulb Co. to beautify the campus. Other bulbs have been made available to the Pullman Civic Trust on a low-cost basis for planting in city parks and gardens.
The Washington Bulb Co. also cooperates with WSU Extension researchers and scientists, mainly in Puyallup and Mount Vernon.
“We work closely with them on problems that pertain to our business,” Leo says. The brothers have constructed and donated equipment, as well as bulbs, for research. WSU scientists are allowed to conduct field trials on WBC land and its greenhouses.
“They [WSU researchers] do a percentage of the work here and monitor the results,” the company president says. “You can’t leave out those research and extension stations throughout the state. They are vital to WSU and its future.”
He reflects on his early days in the field and what the experience has taught him and his siblings. If they wanted things, their father told them, “Here’s an opportunity to work.” They learned early the value of money, earning enough to pay for their own baseball gloves and bikes, and later their education at WSU.
During his years with Washington Bulb Co., Leo has seen his role change and now as president is involved more than ever in the business end of things. He likes working for himself, as do his brothers, and they enjoy working together.
“The quality of life is higher when you like what you are doing,” he says, “and when you can make a decent living at it.”