When Peter Orum, founder of Midwest Groundcovers, immigrated to the United States in 1965 from Denmark, he brought with him a deep knowledge of the horticulture tradition. He had the experience and training from working on his father’s two-acre nursery in Jutland, Denmark, as well as other nursery apprenticeships and education from the Vilvorde Horticulture School in Copenhagen.
His first job in the U.S. was as a supervisory trainee at D. Hill Nursery Company in Dundee, Illinois, but soon he was itching to start his own endeavor.
“I grew up in a small business in Denmark,” Orum says. “I didn’t want to clean up other people’s messes anymore. I wanted to be the general.”
In 1969, Midwest Groundcovers was born. It began as a producer and seller of quality ground covers for local landscapers, independent garden centers, and nurseries. Today, Midwest is an industry leader in the propagation, growth, and wholesale distribution of quality container nursery stock. Each year, the company produces more than 20 million plants. Midwest operates more than 700 acres of nursery production facilities at five locations in St. Charles, Illinois; Virgil, Illinois; and Glenn, Michigan.
In the 48 years Midwest has been in business, it’s grown from just Orum and his wife, Irma, to 300 employees. Their daughter, Christa, is now chairman of the two main operating companies.
“It was a long time ago that I knew all customers and employees by name,” Orum says. “It’s important to stop, say hello, and have them explain what they’re doing.”
One of the biggest challenges he had to overcome over the years was figuring out transform himself from being a foreman to a real manager: “Build a good group of people and let them do things,” he says. “Delegate. You cannot do it all by yourself, and some will do some things much better than you.”
Plus, he says, seeing his employees develop and do more is one of the best things about being a small business owner, along with creating happy customers, realizing how many families earn their livelihood through the business, and working with his family.
Orum’s list of business—and life—lessons are simple, classic, and remain important for anyone. Pay your bills on time, and if you can’t, communicate with the vendor about it. If you’re a good steward of your business’ finances, there will be some left over for you. Never forget you’re there for the customers. And prioritize family.
Though Orum says government rules are out of hand, he’s relieved to finally have a businessman in the Illinois governor’s office. But he knows Illinois still has a long way to go.
“We need a state budget that is balanced,” he says. “We need to make Illinois business-friendly, or there will never be more jobs or businesses.”
Orum joined NFIB, at the advice of a friend, 10 years after launching his business. To this day, he says it’s small business’ strongest advocate.