Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 2

Second Career Takes Root

Marty Roth discovered that "learning to be a good lawyer is learning to be a good businessman."

Marty Roth, '83

After spending the first seven years of his career as a commercial litigator in Los Angeles, Marty Roth, '83, did a complete about-face. He left law practice, moved to Florida, and spent a year searching for a business to acquire and run. An old college friend of his father's suggested he look into the wholesale orchid business. "Orchids are up and coming, you can't find them, and demand is increasing," the friend said. "At the time, I didn't even know what an orchid was," Roth admits. "I was looking for a business that had upside, and I wanted to do something I thought was positive."

Roth acquired a business that was leasing a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in 1991. Today his commercial greenhouse, Worldwide Orchids, owns and operates 300,000 square feet of greenhouse space, has 35 employees, and sells orchids under its proprietary "Orchid Décor" brand wholesale to grocery store chains. Each orchid comes with straightforward care instructions from "Grower Ron," one of Roth's employees. "Consumers were saying, 'Orchids are so beautiful, but I could never keep one alive,'" Roth says. "They're actually really easy to keep alive. Our motto is 'effortless elegance anywhere.'"

One reason Roth founded his business was to spend more time with people he loved, but he didn't initially expect that his parents, David and Millie Roth, would end up working for his company. David, a retired retail executive and consultant, volunteered to help out during the start-up phase and never left. "Frankly, he proved invaluable," Roth says. "My mother didn't like the idea of staying home alone, so I am lucky to have both of them here. It's a blessing to be able to spend that kind of time with my parents at this stage."

Roth has coped with a few disasters; a tainted fungicide wiped out all of his plants one season, and his greenhouses have been damaged by fire, hail and remnants of hurricanes at different times. Still, he finds being in a business where "your inventory is alive, and you're at the whim of Mother Nature" immensely rewarding. He wrote the column below about how he's applied his legal knowledge and experience to running Worldwide Orchids. It was first published in GrowerTalks, a trade magazine for businesspeople who operate commercial greenhouses.

7 Things I Learned as a Lawyer That Made Me a Better Grower

What do a law office and a greenhouse business have in common?

In 1990, after seven years of practice as a business litigator, I walked out the door of my law firm in Los Angeles for the last time. I wanted a change, and I got one. A year later, I opened Worldwide Orchids in Apopka, Florida.

Since then, people have asked me if-in light of my ultimate career choice-I have any regrets about the years of extra schooling and late hours poring over law books. My answer is always a resounding "no." Learning to be a good lawyer is learning to be a better businessman. We started the business with 3,000 square feet of leased greenhouse. Today, we own more than 300,000 square feet of space, with more on the way.

There are many things my practice taught me that have helped me build a successful orchid business. Here are some of the most important ones:

  1. Everything is negotiable. The practice of law is really the practice of negotiation. Contrary to what you might see on TV, most cases end in settlement, not with a courtroom verdict. The lesson: The best attorneys aren't always the showiest or the most charismatic; they may be the ones who can stare down opposing counsel in a closed room and walk away with a good result. Negotiation of all things on both sides of the ledger can have a huge impact on the bottom line of a business. Your customers will want to negotiate with you. Developing good skills can help you hold your prices, or even raise them, without engendering bad feelings. Just as importantly, you should want to negotiate with your vendors. Don't be afraid to ask them for a lower price, longer terms or other concessions, such as exclusivity. In return, be prepared to offer concessions of your own, such as long-term business or high volume. Remember, though, that in business, as opposed to law, a good negotiation leaves both parties feeling they've succeeded. It's not about the short-term victory, but the long-term relationship.
  2. Research. For every hour in the courtroom, a good attorney will spend 100 hours in the library. You win more cases in the books than in the courthouse. I remember a case I had early in my career. There didn't appear to be any law directly on point, but cases with similar circumstances ruled against our position. Things looked bad. Our team hit the books. We finally found a set of dusty casebooks from the 1800s. A few hours into them, we found a decision on almost identical facts that held in our favor. Further research showed that the case had never been overturned. We won our lawsuit. I took that philosophy with me to the greenhouse. Since day one, we've devoted as much time and money into research and development as possible. We've literally spent years looking for the best growing media. Actually, we're still seeking ways to refine it. Our research has led to bigger, showier and healthier plants that are easier for our customers to care for and grow. Don't ever accept the status quo. You can improve every aspect of growing, from pot type to pH. Your greenhouse is a giant laboratory. Use it to your advantage.
  3. Use experts. Even the best attorney or grower can't know everything. As a lawyer, I turned to experts to teach me (and, occasionally, juries) about specific subjects. When I represented a client in a case against the government of Iran, I consulted with attorneys and judges in that country to learn how the law there differed from our own. I used experts to help me learn everything from the art of taco making to how a telephone switching station works. When I didn't have an answer, I found someone who did to help me. I've applied that same philosophy to growing orchids. From the beginning, I sought out the help of experienced growers to help me learn about everything from greenhouse layout to watering options. No one has all the answers. After 12 years growing, the one thing I'm sure of is that I still have so much to learn. Not every investment in expert advice has paid dividends, but enough have to convince me that an expert's advice can save time, money and mistakes.
  4. Remember and take care of the people who really make your business run. An attorney is like the tip of an iceberg. In a law firm, he's the person you see, but so much more goes on beneath the surface. In a large firm, for every attorney there are several other employees who carry a large burden of the workload. I learned this the hard way when my secretary became ill one year and was out of the office for almost a month. I was lost. I had no idea how much of my work she was doing and how little credit she got for it. The same is true in a nursery operation. Think about all the tasks that have to take place before product is loaded into a truck for delivery to your customer. Often nursery employees work long hours for low pay and little recognition. After my secretary returned, I made it a point to take her to lunch at least once a month to find out what was on her mind and if there were problems I could help her with. It paid great dividends for both of us. She had more job satisfaction, and I operated with more efficiency than ever. Now, at the greenhouse, we try to empower our employees. We recognize their accomplishments and reward them. Just as important, we listen to and learn from them. We make sure that every one of them realizes they're an important part of the business. Forging a partnership with your employees is worth every extra minute of time it takes.
  5. Understand your audience. Attorneys routinely spend a lot of money hiring consultants to analyze the makeup of a jury and advise them on everything from what to wear to how many men or women should sit at the counsel's table. Similarly, before appearing in front of a judge, a good lawyer studies the judge's past decisions and his demeanor to prepare a presentation more suited to his or her personality. I experienced a dramatic example once in my practice. I had to defend against a motion that was to be heard by a judge who had a reputation for having a short fuse. He expected instant responses when he addressed attorneys in his courtroom. When he called my name, I jumped to my feet and announced myself ready to go. He then called my opponent's name. The attorney took a moment to organize his papers and whisper a quick question to his colleague. When he did rise, before he got a word out, the judge told him that he had not responded quickly enough, and he dismissed the motion. Every judge is different; few others would've even considered such a rash decision. Similarly, every customer is different. Take the time to learn about their business. Walk through their facility whenever possible. Take a look at the product mix they carry. Determine how you can help them with their needs. Talk to them. Find out what has and hasn't worked in the past. The best vendors are the ones who offer a program, not just a product.
  6. Hard work and quality almost always will be rewarded. Cases aren't won and lost in the courtroom. Victory comes from hours of research, analysis and strategizing. Thousands of pages of documents have to be reviewed. Hundreds of pages of pleadings have to be generated. Every word a lawyer reads or writes counts. All the theatrical skills in the world won't save a poorly prepared attorney. In business, growth doesn't come just from handshakes at tradeshows or flashy ads. Instead, it comes from strong attention to the fundamentals. Nothing is more important to a customer (not even price) than knowing they can rely on your commitment to ship quality product on time and in the amounts requested. It sounds simple, but we all know it's not. I can't tell you how often I hear from potential new customers that they're talking to us because their current vendor didn't ship as promised or that the quality went downhill after the first shipment or two. It can be harder to hold on to customers than it is to get them in the first place. New customers come from promises; long-term relationships come from results.
  7. The work doesn't end when the verdict comes in. Once, we had a difficult case that we won after a long battle. The judgment brought a large amount of money to our clients. We felt great. Unfortunately, there were multiple ways to handle the payments for tax purposes. We didn't give our clients the advice they needed, and it ended up costing them thousands of dollars. Instead of crediting us for a great win, our clients felt we'd failed them; and we lost their future business. It was a hard lesson to learn. In business, our responsibilities don't end with the sale and delivery. Rather, we have to provide support for our customers and their retail buyers. We routinely offer training to our customers to help them market and care for our plants. We even set up a 24-hour toll-free help line. Reorders, our true goal, come from building a relationship and letting our customers know we're there for them long after the truck leaves our warehouse.

Reprinted with permission from GrowerTalks, Ball Publishing, June 2007.