Guenter Burkhardt was 22 when he came to this country from Germany 60 years ago. The young immigrant got a job at the Ford Stamping Plant, took on landscaping work, and met and married his wife. But he knew all along he wanted to start a business.
Four years later, in 1957, the Burkhardts opened a retail nursery on 13 acres along Broadway in Lancaster. They later got into the distribution business and, eventually, the production of topsoil, peat moss, manure fertilizer and other goods.
The company, Good Earth Organics, swelled in size following its 1998 purchase of Pioneer Southern Inc., and now sells its 105 products in all 50 states – while surviving the closing of its biggest customer and the recent financial struggles of its largest distributor.
Good Earth employs about 50 people at its Lancaster headquarters at the height of its seasonal production schedule, which runs from mid-March to September, including the Burkhardts’ three sons and two daughters. The company has nine other plants in the United States and Canada.
The company emphasizes its organic, all-natural items, promotes its composting and other “green” business practices and touts the value of buying products made in North America by a family-owned business.
“I am determined, no matter how many people ‘go pork’ [go out of business] on us, we’re going to be here,” Guenter Burkhardt, Good Earth’s president and CEO, said last week in an interview in his office.
The native of Saxony studied horticulture at a German university before moving to the United States in 1953 at the urging of relatives who lived on Buffalo’s West Side.
While working at the Ford plant, and doing landscaping for business and government clients, he studied English at the International Institute, where he met his future wife, Eva.
They decided to open up a nursery in Lancaster after looking at a map to select a site located halfway between the Northtowns and the Southtowns.
The Burkhardts started distributing lawn and garden products in the 1960s, under the name GHB Enterprises, and got into the production of peat humus in 1970, when they bought the Sue Peat Co. in Hinsdale from the retiring owners.
Then Good Earth acquired 5,000 acres in New Brunswick, Canada, and started production of sphagnum peat moss there.
The company grew slowly, selling its products primarily through local retailers, such as the now-departed AM&A’s, Two Guys and Chase-Pitkin.
Good Earth makes its soils, peat moss and other products without chemicals, and the products that aren’t organic – such as stones, or play sand – are natural. The company composts food and lawn waste from restaurants, residential properties and other sources.
“I think our industry is very fortunate: Gardening is in, organics are in, composting is in,” Burkhardt said.
The company’s operations over the years have generated complaints from nearby residents about foul odors. Burkhardt says the company tries to be a good neighbor, and Lancaster officials have heard fewer objections in recent years.
In 1998, the company bought Virginia-based Pioneer Southern, a subsidiary of BFI Organics Inc. that was 10 times larger than Good Earth, in a $45 million-plus deal.
Burkhardt said the company’s regular bank refused to lend the $25 million that Good Earth needed to borrow for the transaction – “I tried to convince them, but they wouldn’t listen,” he said – so Burkhardt turned to Citibank for the loan.
With the deal, Good Earth expanded to 10 plants in eight states and Canada, employment shot up to 200 workers and sales ballooned from $3 million to $35 million in the first year.
But a year after the acquisition, the company’s biggest customer, Hechinger, which operated Home Quarters and Builders Square stores, went bankrupt, taking with it $30 million in annual Good Earth sales.
“We had to downsize immediately,” Burkhardt said.
Good Earth, which went from year-round to seasonal production shortly after the Hechinger liquidation, hasn’t recovered all of those sales.
And Burkhardt is waiting to see whether Good Earth will be paid any of the several hundred thousand dollars the company is owed by its largest distributor, Commerce Corporation of Baltimore, the subject of an involuntary liquidation filing.
Good Earth sells thousands of tons of gardening products under its own name, private labels and half a dozen brands such as Hoffman and Country Cottage. Retail customers include Walmart, Home Depot and Valu Home Centers.
“Our secret is basically to produce premium-quality products for the lawn and garden industry and service the customers that we have to the best of our ability,” he said.
The company is hoping to boost its local sales, which make up less than 10 percent of total sales. He said part of the problem is getting the buyers who represent retail stores interested in his “value-added” products, such as a soil that has peat moss and fertilizer mixed in already.
“To them, a bag of dirt is a bag of dirt,” Burkhardt said.
Overall sales went up 7 percent between 2011 and 2012, though Burkhardt declined to provide a dollar figure.
As a seasonal business, production and employment ramp up starting in the middle of this month and remain at a high level through September. The number of workers at the Lancaster headquarters rises from 15 to 20 in the offseason to nearly 50 in the spring and summer, with another 70 or so seasonal employees at the other plants.
Good Earth employees late last year moved into a new, 100,000-square-foot office and warehouse building on the site.
Burkhardt, his wife and his five children – Andreas, Bernhard, Guenter Jr., Monika Vatenos and Cornelia Burkhardt-Orffeo – run the company. Guenter Burkhardt travels frequently to visit distributors and customers, saying he spends half the month on the road.
At 81, he said he still loves coming to work and he’s not planning for his retirement.
“I haven’t given it any thought,” Burkhardt said.