Within weeks after the initial COVID-19 lockdown measures began last spring, it became clear that the pandemic had drastically changed the game for hydroponic equipment maker Hawthorne Gardening Co.
The Vancouver-based company, a subsidiary of yard and garden supplier ScottsMiracle-Gro, saw daily sales more than double in late March 2020, according to general manager Chris Hagedorn. Later that spring, Scotts reported a 60 percent increase in Hawthorne’s sales, boosting the division’s quarterly total to almost $250 million.
The big question during those early weeks was how long the boom would last. Speaking last May, Hagedorn said he was reluctant to speculate about changes to the company’s long-term growth forecast because the pandemic environment was so unpredictable. But more than a year later, there’s been no interruption to the new sales momentum.
In a press release announcing ScottsMiracle-Gro’s earnings for its second fiscal quarter of 2021, which ended April 3, CEO Jim Hagedorn said Hawthorne has seen sales growth in excess of 60 percent for five consecutive quarters and the subdivision’s sales reached $363.8 million in the second quarter.
Scotts said in the press release that it expected the subdivision’s sales to increase between 30 and 40 percent for the fiscal year 2021 overall. Hawthorne has hired nearly 300 new associates in the past year, bringing its total staff to just over 1,600, according to Scotts director of corporate affairs and social impact Molly Jennings.
“Consumers told us entering the season that they intended to stay engaged with lawn and garden and, so far, that is exactly what they are doing,” Jim Hagedorn said in a statement, referring to the sales performance of Scotts overall.
Hawthorne’s local two-building complex sits within the Port of Vancouver’s Centennial Industrial Park off of Lower River Road, across from the port’s main terminals.
The company’s local operation originated as a Vancouver-based hydroponic wholesaler called Sunlight Supply, founded in 1995. The company built a 300,000-square-foot building at the industrial park in 2016, consolidating its prior five local facilities into a single headquarters.
Sunlight Supply was the largest hydroponic distributor in the United States when it was acquired by ScottsMiracle-Gro for $450 million in 2018. The company became part of Hawthorne, the Scotts subsidiary focused on hydroponic gardening.
Hawthorne owns several prominent hydroponic brands, including Gavita and Can-Filters, some of which are now manufactured in Vancouver alongside the products that Sunlight Supply brought to the portfolio.
Not long after the sale, Hawthorne signed a lease with the Port of Vancouver to expand beyond the original Sunlight Supply headquarters building and into the nearby port-owned Centennial Industrial Building, adding another 125,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
Manufacturing manager Bruce LeBlanc led a tour of the facility’s testing labs and manufacturing floor Wednesday morning, offering an overview of how Hawthorne designs, builds and ships its wide array of grow lights and other gardening products.
Heading into Hawthorne’s primary building, LeBlanc started at the company’s electrical safety and performance labs. The latter is dominated by a GL Optic Ulbricht sphere, a 2-meter-diameter metal container lined with highly reflective barium sulfate on the inside, used to get the most accurate possible reading of a lamp’s energy output.
In another part of the lab, lamps undergo longevity tests to map out how each one performs after hundreds or thousands of hours of constant use. Some indoor grow operations can have their lights on 24/7 while in other cases the lamps might be frequently switched on and off, LeBlanc said, which creates its own set of longevity challenges.
“Some lamps actually perform better as they heat up,” LeBlanc said. “Others go downhill in a hurry.”
The safety and performance labs test individual components, while a separate set of labs at the other end of the building puts completed products through their paces.
In a darkroom, a machine called a Goniophotometer spins a large angled mirror in a circle around hanging grow light fixtures, redirecting the light toward a sensor that maps the unit’s output at every angle — an essential piece of data for growers to determine how closely to arrange their overhead lights.
The next room over is an RF anechoic chamber — set up to block all outside electromagnetic radiation — where light fixtures can be tested to make sure their electronic components don’t exceed the limits for unintentional electromagnetic emissions prescribed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Manufacturing and distribution
In between the two sets of labs lies the main manufacturing floor, half of which houses an assembly line of technical stations where crews cut and shape sheets of reflective and nonreflective material into pieces that will form ballasts and housing for lamp fixtures. Riveting stations at the end of the lineup connect the pieces to form shell units.
Reflective material is placed inside the housing around the lamp, LeBlanc said, to make sure all the light is output downward, while the nonreflective pieces form the outer casing. The nonreflective pieces are hung from an overhead conveyor line that carries them through a series of machines in a separate room where they’re rinsed, powder-coated and baked to produce a clean finish.
“Some parts take longer,” he said. “It’s just kind of balancing out the floor to make sure everything lands at the same time.”
The other half of the factory floor houses a series of assembly lines where crews take the housing units and add the electronics, wiring and lamp bulbs, then run safety and performance checks before packaging the completed products up for distribution.
The lamp bulbs themselves are sourced from a separate supplier, LeBlanc said — there are only a few companies that manufacture High Pressure Sodium grow light bulbs due to the complex chemistry involved. Newer and cheaper LED bulbs are making inroads in the industry, he said, but professional growers still tend to prefer the tried-and-true conventional approach.
Hawthorne’s Centennial Building space focuses on manufacturing plastic garden trays and carbon filtration systems, which make up about 40 percent of the total product production between the two warehouses, LeBlanc said.
There are about 120 staff on the manufacturing floor in the middle of the day shift, LeBlanc said. Hawthorne’s Vancouver operations employ about 450 staff in total, according to Jennings.
The manufacturing floors only take up about half of each building, with the remainder of the two cavernous warehouse spaces set aside for storage and distribution operations. Those sections have borne the brunt of Hawthorne’s pandemic-era surge in activity, LeBlanc said, with more raw material and finished products packed onto the shelves to keep up with the pace of manufacturing.
Parts of the distribution area are currently being reconfigured to process bigger bulk orders, he said, and a large chunk of operations are being moved to a distribution facility in Gresham, Ore. — the newest in a lineup of twelve Hawthorne distribution centers nationwide. The Gresham facility offers nearly 200,000 more square feet to keep up with the company’s growth, according to Jennings.
The newest addition to the Hawthorne complex is a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse at the northern end of the complex.
The structure itself was built along with the rest of the main building in 2016, according to Hawthorne vice president Bert Messina, but the company only recently finished building out the structure for permanent and full use as an “associate greenhouse.”
Staff will be able to visit in their free time and tend to the rows of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetable plants that line the tables, contributing to an ongoing hydroponic garden. The greenhouse program was established as a partnership with the Clark County Food Bank, according to a press release from Hawthorne, and the goal is to grow at least 5,000 pounds of produce to donate annually.
The idea is based on a similar greenhouse that parent company Scots operates at its corporate headquarters, Messina said — both as an amenity for staff and a way to test and display the company’s products.
“It’s a showroom, almost, as well,” he said.
After the pandemic is over, the company hopes outside visitors will also be able to explore the greenhouse in group events or hydroponics classes, he added.