“I always knew I wanted to own my own business.”
A Head for Business, A Heart for Trees
Long before she could spell entrepreneur, Heather Byers (’06) wanted to be one. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business.” Her great grandfather started a rural telephone exchange, her parents developed several businesses over the years, and numerous cousins are all in business for themselves. “Everybody started their own thing,” she said. With an entrepreneurial mindset, Byers wanted to do something with horticulture. She just had to figure out what.
While entrepreneurship is in Byers’ DNA, several professors at UNL’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture pointed her in the right direction. “They were very positive instructors who were interested in me as a student.”
For example, Associate Professor Kim Todd tailored her planting design course for Byers, whose interests leaned more toward production. “She let me research how to propagate the plants on our list and learn about them in a production way.”
Associate Professor of Practice Dave Lambe, who taught agribusiness entrepreneurship, helped Byers narrow her big ideas to come up with the business plan that not only won awards but has also proved successful in the real world.
The Winning Plan
One of the requirements for the senior-level course was to compete in the UNL Venture Plan Competition, which is hosted by the College of Business Administration’s Center for Entrepreneurship. Byers said that going to City Campus and presenting her plan was intimidating.
With Lambe’s guidance, Byers weeded out less profitable ideas, considered market value and opportunity and discovered that what she really loved was trees. She said she was used to the science side of things, and having to think about everything from the business angle was challenging. “When I made it to the second round, I was astonished.” In the end, Byers walked away with first place and the confidence she needed to go after her dream. (Byers went on to represent UNL at the 20th Annual New Ventures World Competition, where she received honorable mention.)
A Family Affair
After graduation, Byers married her husband Brian, who had a degree in construction—a fortuitous match for the horticulturist who wanted to build a business—and worked for a year in nursery management.
In 2008 the couple decided the time was right to officially launch Great Plains Nursery, the venture plan Byers had pitched. Byers said her parents had recently sold their business, so they were available to help the startup get going. “We had a lot of support,” she said.
By the third year, the business had grown enough that Brian was also working full time. “He built all of our greenhouses and office space. Pretty much everything at the nursery, he has built himself,” Byers said.
As is often the case for families involved in agriculture, the family business is a way of life. “This isn’t just a job for us. It’s our whole lifestyle. Our kids are here with us.” Indeed, the couple’s four children, Finley (8), Bristol (6), Gracyn (3) and Griffin (1), are growing up right alongside the 75-plus species of trees and shrubs at the nursery.
Every fall the family goes on long weekend trips all across the state to collect seeds from wild stands of native trees. It’s the strength of these regional natives that has made Great Plains Nursery successful.
By focusing on growing quality regional natives, Byers created a niche for tree sales. “Our whole purpose is to create long-living community forests.” Their trees and shrubs withstand drought, heavy snowfall, high winds, extreme temperatures and insect pressure.
Great Plains Nursery sells trees and shrubs to municipalities and retail nurseries across Nebraska and into Iowa and Kansas. Bur oak and red oak are best sellers, and most of the nursery’s trees are planted to re-establish habitats in communities, on campuses and for commercial reforestation.
As consumer interest in local seed sourcing has grown, the nursery has added direct sales in recent years, and Byers said their business may expand to include landscape design for acreages and parks.
Given Byers’ passion for trees and propensity for business, the growth of Great Plains Nursery seems as certain as the strength of the oak trees potted there.