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Ball Horticultural Company Business Information, Profile, and History

american inc plants seed

622 Town Road
West Chicago
Illinois
60185
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives

Ball Horticultural Company's mission is to be the world leader in the research, breeding, production and marketing of ornamental crops.

History of Ball Horticultural Company

Ball Horticultural Company is the leading North American producer and distributor of ornamental plants and their seeds. The company operates through an array of subsidiaries throughout the world, breeding and producing most of the plants sold through nurseries and garden centers in the United States. Its two main U.S. subsidiaries are Ball FloraPlant and PanAmerican Seed Company. Ball produces seeds and seedlings for worldwide distribution at huge plantations in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Chile. It also produces ornamental plants at facilities in California for the North American market, supplies the Japanese market through several plant farms in that country, and serves the European market from a growing facility in Portugal. Ball also operates plant and seed distribution companies. Ball Seed, Ball Superior, and ColorLink serve the North American market. Ball products reach some 8,000 U.S. wholesale greenhouse growers every year, and are then sold to approximately 17,000 garden centers, from small family-owned operations to big chain stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Ball operates several distribution companies in the United Kingdom and others in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, and in South Africa. Ball also operates six distribution subsidiaries in South America. Other subsidiaries serve the Asian market, with Ball outposts in Japan, Korea and China. Overall, the company has huge worldwide reach. Ball also operates a demonstration garden, several horticultural research firms, and a publishing arm, which produces several magazines for gardening hobbyists. The company has been in the Ball family since its inception in 1905, and is now headed by the founder's granddaughter, Anna Caroline Ball.

Early Years

The company that became Ball Horticultural was founded by a hardworking Ohio native, George Jacob Ball. Ball was born in 1874 in Milford, Ohio. He left school at 13 and began working at a greenhouse near Cincinnati. Ball remained committed to the greenhouse business, working for several different companies in the area until he was in his mid-twenties. Ball's career as a flower grower was interrupted by his service to his country in the Spanish-American war of 1898. After this brief military action, Ball resettled in the Chicago area. He began growing flowers in suburban Glen Ellyn, and brought them to markets in the city by train. By 1905, Ball was known for his improved sweet peas. He founded George J. Ball Inc., and built greenhouses in Glen Ellyn. There he grew not only new strains of sweet peas, but also improved asters and calendulas. He sold these as cut flowers or potted plants to Chicago-area florists.

Ball became financially viable as a seed-producer in 1915 with a lucky crop of so-called "Orange King" calendulas. He sent the "Orange King" seeds to a California grower, where they did very well. By 1918, George J. Ball Inc. was selling mail-order seeds to customers around the country. The company did well through the 1920s, a time of buouyant growth in many American industries, and by 1927, the company had outgrown its Glen Ellyn location. That year, the company moved to a 50-acre plot in another Chicago suburb, West Chicago, where the company headquarters are still located. The company opened a trial garden in West Chicago in 1933. Despite the horrendous economic conditions that gripped most industries during the years of the Great Depression, George J. Ball Inc. apparently continued to do well. Its staple product was still cut flowers, which were in constant demand for occasions like weddings and funerals. Because flowers were tied to social rituals that continued in good times or bad, Ball's industry was relatively recession-proof. So Ball continued to introduce new products in the 1930s. In 1937, the company launched an influential horticulture magazine, Grower Talks. George Ball became president of the Society of American Florists in 1938. Ball died in 1949, while travelling to Japan. After his death, his four sons each took a turn running the company.

Diversification After World War II

After World War II, many American gardeners became increasingly interested in growing their own vegetables, and Ball branched out into supplying vegetable seeds. Ball bought one wholesale vegetable seed firm in the 1960s, and the company also became increasingly entwined with another American seed producer, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Burpee was a storied company that had been selling mail-order seeds since the 1880s. Whereas many seeds used by American growers had been imported from Europe, early on, Burpee began hybridizing garden plants that were adapted to North American growing conditions. The company originated many well-known flower and vegetable varieties, and its catalogs were such a staple of American life that farm children often used them to learn to read. Burpee and Ball did not formally merge until 1991, and then they separated again in the mid-1990s. However, the two companies had close ties from the 1960s onward. Ball was the less visible company, supplying seed and new hybrids, while Burpee was a prominent brand name in American gardening.

Ball also began supplying plants and seeds for the food processing industry after World War II. The company developed types of tomatoes that were ideally suited for making into tomato paste and tomato catsup. The three elder Ball sons, George K., Victor, and Robert, each took an approximately ten-year stint running the company from 1949 until 1970. That year the presidency passed to the youngest of the Ball brothers, G. Carl Ball. While his three brothers had passed the baton among them relatively quickly, G. Carl Ball stayed at the head of Ball Inc. until 1995, when his daughter Anna Caroline Ball took over.

New Products and Markets: 1970-89

G. Carl Ball was born in 1921. After graduating from high school in Glen Ellyn, he returned to his father's home state, Ohio, and attended Kenyon College until he joined the Air Force in World War II. He had learned to fly planes while still in high school, and in the war he served as a DC-3 pilot. After the war, he became a commercial airline pilot, but he soon gave it up to work for Ball Inc. By 1947, G. Carl Ball had earned a business degree from the University of Illinois, and he joined the family firm, where he eventually became Ball's national sales manager. He was very interested in management techniques, and became a friend and devotee of the management expert Peter Drucker. Drucker authored almost 40 books on management, and in many ways set the agenda for the science of management in the U.S. from the 1970s until the 2000s. Perhaps it was Drucker's influence that led G. Carl Ball to expand the family company into new products and into European markets.

Through 1970, cut flowers, or the seeds and hybrids of cut flowers, were Ball's mainstay. This market, which thrived even during the Depression, had picked up nationwide in the postwar years. Yet G. Carl Ball drove his company in a new direction, believing that bedding plants would be the new trend. Bedding plants are typically annual flowers, that is, cold-sensitive plants that North American gardeners need to plant anew each year. These plants are such staples of American gardens today that it is difficult to imagine they were once only a small piece of the flower market. G. Carl Ball set his company's horticulturists to work hybridizing impatiens, a low-growing, typically red, pink, or white shade-tolerant flower. Ball Inc. developed the first hybrid impatiens seed, and fueled a boom in this plant that began in the mid-1960s and continued in the 2000s. Similarly, Ball Inc. researched new hybrid petunias and brought many varieties to market. Ball remained a behind-the-scenes player, however, and plants that it developed were branded and marketed by other companies, including W. Atlee Burpee.

G. Carl Ball pushed his company to make acquisitions and expand into new markets worldwide. During G. Carl Ball's tenure, the company purchased Petoseed Company, a prominent California firm known especially for its tomato and pepper varieties. Petoseed also marketed its products to home growers through Burpee, while other varieties were geared towards commercial markets. Petoseed expanded into Mexico and was dominant in Western U.S. markets. By 1995, when it combined with several competitors to become Seminis Inc., it had its own European vegetable seed subsidiaries. Ball moved into marketing and distribution in Europe through the 1970s and 1980s. Beginning in the 1980s, the company also began penetrating Asian markets.

Reorganization: 1990-2000

In 1991, Ball Inc. acquired its long-time collaborator, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. The new president of Burpee was G. Carl Ball's son, George Ball Jr., who had previously been head of research and development for Ball Inc. Four years after this merger, Ball Inc. went through some significant transitions. G. Carl Ball retired in 1995 at the age of 74, and was succeeded by his daughter, Anna Caroline Ball. Anna Ball made swift changes that aimed to narrow the company's commercial focus. Ball wanted to jettison the company's vegetable businesses in order to focus on ornamental plants. Ball Inc. had been spread out, leading the North American market in bedding plants and also selling many new vegetable varieties through Burpee and through its Petoseed subsidiary, which had grown to have international subsidiaries of its own. Anna Ball sold off Burpee, which again became a freestanding entity. Her brother George Ball Jr. remained as head of Burpee. Petoseed was also spun off and combined with several other companies in its industry, becoming Seminis Inc. Ball Inc. then changed its name to Ball Horticultural Company. Anna Ball brought in an outside board for consultation, though she was firmly committed to keeping the company private and under family control.

Anna Ball seemed to have a keen sense of the competitiveness of the current ornamental plant industry. A Washington Post profile of Ball in October 2005 compared her to fashion designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, in the sense that she was a visionary trendsetter in a fickle, worldwide market. Ball claimed she was not worried about competition from other horticultural companies as much as she was concerned about other consumer amusements: "What worries me is competing with video phones," she said, continuing, " ... we have to keep the eye candy coming. We have to keep producing plants that are unavoidably attractive." To do that, the company emphasized research and development. In 1998, Ball formed a subsidiary called Ball Helix, which developed new techniques in plant breeding and genetics. Ball Helix worked with other Ball subsidiaries around the globe on advanced methods of plant propagation, including tissue culture. And Ball Horticultural already had plant breeding and distribution companies across the planet. With this cutting edge technology, when Ball horticulturalists or even amateur gardeners discovered an interesting new plant, the company was able to rapidly develop it. "We can take something that someone has found in a garden in Hoboken [New Jersey] and sell it in South Africa. We can really give it the light of day," explained a Ball scientist to the Vancouver Columbian in June 2005. As an example of how rapidly Ball could bring a fashionable plant forward, in 2003, Ball brought out a new ornamental plant, "Purple Majesty" millet. Only a year later, "Purple Majesty" had found its way into gardens in 24 different countries. Nearly a century after the company's founding, Ball had put together a powerful combination of advanced propagation techniques and widespread distribution to give it truly global influence.

Ball strengthened its ties to European markets by purchasing the British company Colegrave Group in 2001. Colegrave included 11 seed and research companies doing business in England, France, Holland, and Australia. By the mid-2000s, Ball Horticultural claimed 3,000 employees across the globe. With subsidiaries in South America, Korea, Japan, and Australia, its new European group of subsidiaries, and businesses in North America, the company performed such diverse tasks as publishing, biomedical research, marketing, and plant production. In 2005, the company celebrated its first 100 years. Still family-owned, Ball Horticultural was nevertheless a large, complex, and modern company. Its combination of technological savvy, huge distribution reach, and long-standing and thorough knowledge of the ornamental plant market seemed to justify its prominent position in world horticulture.

Principal Subsidiaries

Ball FloraPlant; PanAmerican Seed Co.; Ball Chile; Ball Colombia, Ltda.; Ball Costa Rica S.R.L.; Ball Ecuador Cia, Ltda.; Ball Helix; Ball Publishing; Ball/SB; Ball Seed Co.; Ball Superior; Ball Tagawa Growers; Ball Uruguay; Ball Van Zanten, Ltda. (Brazil); Chrysantis, Inc.; ColorLink; Floricultura & CIA, Ltda. (Guatemala); Linda Vista, S.A. (Costa Rica); Seed Technology Services; Semillas PanAmerican Chile, Ltda.; V+B FloraPlant S.A. de C.V. (Mexico); Ball Australia Pty., Ltd.; Korea-America Plug Co., Ltd.; M&B Flora Co. Ltd. (Japan); T.M. Ball Laboratory Co., Ltd. (Japan); Ball Colegrave, Ltd. (United Kingdom); Ball Ducrettet, S.A.S. (France); Ball Dummen GmbH (Germany); Ball Holland B.V.; Ball Straathof Pty., Ltd. (South Africa); BiGi Seeds SLR (Italy); KinderGarden Plants Ltd. (United Kingdom); Novo Sol Plantas, Ltda. (Portugal); PanAmerican Seed Europe B.V. (Holland).

Principal Competitors

Syngenta AG.; Hines Horticulture, Inc.; Vilmarin Clause & Cie.

Chronology

  • Key Dates
  • 1905 The company is incorporated as George J. Ball Inc.
  • 1927 The company moves to new headquarters in West Chicago.
  • 1949 Founder George Ball dies.
  • 1970 G. Carl Ball becomes president.
  • 1991 Ball acquires Burpee.
  • 1995 Anna Caroline Ball becomes president, Burpee is spun off, and the company's name changes to Ball Horticultural.
  • 2001 Ball Horticultural buys the English consortium Colegrave Group.
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