Longtime gardening store back in one piece

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Mike Estes has been working at Rick’s for his entire adult life, and now he and wife Gail have succeeded in bringing two businesses into one.

Mike Estes has been working at Rick’s for his entire adult life, and now he and wife Gail have succeeded in bringing two businesses into one.

Rick’s Garden Center

Address: 1827 W. Uintah St.

Website: ricksgardencenter.com

Years in business: 65

Years under current ownership: 28

Name of family: Estes

Number of employees: 10-35 (seasonal)

The Estes family seems to understand the values of nature and nurture.

When Mike and Gail Estes went on a cross-country road trip in the mid-1970s, they took a particular liking to the flora and fauna of Colorado. A few short years later, in 1977, the newlywed Connecticut couple settled down in Colorado Springs, where Mike got a job as a clerk at Rick’s Trees and Shrubs earning just $2.50 an hour.

Less than a decade later, they owned the place.

After 37 years, the couple still runs what is now called Rick’s Garden Center — even though the original Rick passed on long ago — on West Uintah Street with their son Scott and about 30 seasonal employees. And it is very much a tight-knit operation — all three family members work full-time, and if one isn’t around, there surely is another.

“It’s totally a family-run business, as far as direction goes,” Mike said.

A brief history of thyme

The Esteses bought the business in 1985 from a local family who had started it and the adjacent nursery in 1948. Rick’s Nursery was sold to employees and was operated under separate ownership until the business ran into financial troubles and closed in February.

When the bank closed the nursery’s doors, the landlord asked the Estes family if they’d like to take on the extra space.

“We elected to give it a try,” Mike Estes said. But because the loan the former owners defaulted on was an SBA loan, they had to go to auction to acquire the land and some of what was on it.

When all was said and done, the Esteses took over the remainder of the property and Rick’s was whole once more. Although the owner said that it was tough to get the ball rolling in time to prepare for the busy spring season, “somehow we pulled it off.”

Now that the Garden Center is three acres larger, the family’s next task is to spend the winter months working to seam the two sides together. Mike calls that part a challenge because of the lot’s abstract layout, but he’s confident operations will pick up speed in the near future.

“I was quite surprised to see how many people came through the door and said how happy they were that we took over the business, and also how much they appreciate the great customer service,” Mike Estes said. “The goal, now that it is all one business, is to synchronize it and get it to where it all flows well between both areas.”

He estimates that the expansion has helped increase the company’s gross income by 15 to 20 percent, which he said will enable Rick’s to be a better business with more to offer.

Changing business conditions

The playing field has changed drastically since the garden center’s early years, presenting the company with fresh competition.

There weren’t many national retail chains such as Lowe’s and Home Depot to compete with in the ’70s and ’80s, Mike says. Back then, Colorado Springs competitors consisted mostly of independently owned garden retail shops that have since gone under or moved elsewhere. Now, with King Soopers and Ace Hardware locations just across Uintah, the Esteses must keep on their toes.

But the family boasts a wider variety of plants, tools and statuary along with a simple strategy for competing with those megastores — with customer care a primary concern.

“I find that independently owned businesses are a lot nicer to their customers, especially if they are repeat customers,” Scott said. “We want to be more welcoming, and more informative and more knowledgeable than a big-box retail store.”

Rick’s didn’t only compete with other garden retailers and chain stores throughout the city, but also with its adjacent neighbor company using a similar name. Mike said that the two businesses existing side-by-side complicated business strategies and confused customers in the years before the merger.

“As years went by, it seemed that we struggled with the fact that more and more duplication of products was happening on both sides,” Mike Estes said. “So it got to be a competition between two adjacent businesses, and it wasn’t a lot of fun.”

Family and the future

Scott Estes, who was born just months after his parents bought the business, has been working for them since he was a small child — and has been earning a paycheck since he was 13.

“I started mostly just doing small labor-type stuff,” Scott said. “Be it bagging up onions by the pound, or grass seed, or just watering plants. There wasn’t much knowledge needed for that, but then when I started to grow up I got to learn just by being around it.”

Now 27, he isn’t sure whether he will take over the family business when the time comes for his folks to retire.

But he said that time is quickly approaching for his parents, who are in their late 50s, and that he is the go-to heir.

Mike half-jokingly agrees, but points to the fact that he and his wife have a full plate and it will likely be a few more years before retirement is possible for them.

“Basically our goal right now is to increase product offering and cross merchandise down in the nursery area — take advantage of that three acres — and build up the business so that it is a more viable business to sell or to pass on to our son or whatever here in a few more years,” Mike said.