Kiah Beville, Rotarian of the week, introduced the speaker for the meeting, Brian Bridges, the manager of BWI Companies’ branch in Forest Hill, Louisiana, just south of Alexandria. The Forest Hill area is known for its plentiful nurseries, and BWI is located there as well, as it distributes any product needed for growing plants. BWI purchases the pine mulch product it distributes from Price Beville Smith, a local company with a plant in Forest Hill offering all types of gardening products from mulch to landscape mix to garden soil.
Bridges explained that BWI was started in 1958 by Bob and Libby Bunch because Bob, a traveling sales representative with a grower supply company, wanted to get off the road. He and his wife opened their own retail garden supply business in Texarkana, Texas, and became a wholesale distributor of those same products to businesses from southeastern New Mexico to Florida and as far north as Illinois. Most of the products distributed by BWI get shipped directly from the manufacturer to the retail outlet. However, it also has its own fleet of trucks, each of which runs a specific route to call on particular customers.
After running both retail and wholesale businesses for almost 15 years, the Bunches closed its retail outlet in Texarkana to concentrate on wholesale distribution only. Since that time, the business has grown to 600 employees, multiple locations and to $594 million in sales in 2020. As to BWI’s product lines, Mr. Bridges said “if it grows something or kills something, we sell it.”
Forest Hill is a good location for a BWI outlet because between 20 and 30 plant nurseries are located there. The nursery industry in Forest Hill was originally started by Samuel Stokes, a man who moved to that area with the advent of the timber industry there when railroads pushed through the area in the 1890’s. Harvesting of the great pine forests continued in earnest until about 1920, when they had been pretty much clearcut and the lumber companies went elsewhere. Nowadays, all that’s left of the timber industry in the Forest Hill area can be found in the Southern Heritage Museum.
After the timber resources in the area were exhausted, rather than moving on as most in the timber industry did, Stokes decided to remain in Forest Hill and learned the plant nursery business. His first plants came from native stock he collected from the wild near his home, such as dogwoods, camellias and azaleas. He figured out how to propogate these native plants, and then began to sell them to others. Over time, he passed his knowledge and skills along to family members and employees, and some of them branched out and started their own nurseries. The many nurseries grow annuals and perennials popular for landscaping as row crops and ship them to various places.
If anyone is wondering why there are so many nurseries in Forest Hill, according to Mr. Bridges, it is because of the outstanding water quality in the area. It has precisely the right alkalinity and low ph for the native flowering plants cultivated by Stokes and his proteges. Those very popular landscaping plants thrive in the area nurseries. Bridges estimates the nurseries in and around Forest Hill do around $150 million+ in sales each year. Most of these nurseries just do wholesale business, but the fifth generation of the Stokes family is still in the nursery business in Forest Hill and sells retail as well as wholesale.
Brian noted that BWI is very pleased with the product and service they receive from PBS; this is one of their best vendor relationships. They couldn’t get the pine bark mulch with which PBS supplies them from anywhere else.
At the conclusion of audience questions and answers by Mr. Bridges, the meeting was concluded with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”
Pictured above from left: Brian Bridges, Rotarian Kiah Beville