Parkdale Green Thumb Enterprises (PGTE) is a social purpose horticulture business that installs and maintains outdoor and indoor plants for Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), nonprofit organizations, hospitals, the private sector, and community groups. We also provide groundskeeping services for the nonprofit housing sector.
PGTE is an Alternative Business—a social purpose enterprise which employs psychiatric consumer/survivors operated by Working For Change since 2001. We believe that all anyone needs to better their life is a home, a job, and a friend.
Our business grew out of a community economic development project in the Parkdale neighbourhood that was designed to provide employment for individuals who had experienced mental health issues and/or homelessness. People suffering from mental health issues often do not feel a part of the community where they live. There is a lot of associated stigma that contributes to isolation. Having a job with us gives these people a sense of belonging and extra income to participate in the community through purchases. The type of work we do is carried out for the most part on the streets of communities, encouraging people talk to our employees. When plants look great on street, our employees experience self-validation as people stop to complement their work.
PGTE started with a group of people living in poverty, who heard that we had started alternative businesses. At that time, they were not sure what type of work they could do. One member of our Board of Directors at Working for Change, who was also involved in the community of Parkdale Village’s Business Improvement Area, suggested installing and maintaining planters on the street. Although nobody in the team had knowledge about landscaping or horticulture, they liked the idea. For the first couple of years, the person running our social enterprise took night school courses to develop skills and expertise in the industry.
In the third year of operations, a new person was hired to support the manager and then later took over. She brought in her experience running a small business and horticulture background. With the help of a consultant who had worked with other social enterprises, we learned about sales revenue generation, capital purchases, and human resources. This really helped us navigate and develop a plan.
We slowly grew every year, but have now hit a plateau. Growth has posed challenges: we have 20 employees and only one manager who has to monitor, train, write proposals and take care of everything.
PGTE works with customers to design plantings for streetscapes (large planters, hanging baskets and small gardens) and office/institutional interiors. In addition to design and installation, PGTE offers weekly plant maintenance—watering, pruning and fertilizing—to maintain plant health.
When we started, among our first clients were Parkdale Village BIA and Roncesvalles BIA. The team in those days also took on many small residential projects that earned little revenue. With no real employee training being implemented, the quality was also an issue in those days.
Now we aim entirely for annual commercial contracts of $10,000-$25,000 and up. Our current clients include several Business Improvement Areas and YWCA sites. Our main goal is to provide employment, so we have streamlined, avoiding the type of small work that pays us only a hundred dollars a week. In rare cases, we do take on contracts that are not entirely profitable when it looks really good on our project portfolio and creates meaningful employment.
At the beginning of PGTE, many prospective clients did not believe we could do just as good a job as our competitors. Because our employees have experienced mental illness, people considering hiring us thought they were doing us a favour. They also wanted bargain prices. Now we are a known as business that provides a quality service. The fact that we hire people with mental health issues has become secondary because we have developed an extensive project portfolio. We have experience and references from clients who really like our work and our employees.
Though rare, we do occasionally experience difficulties with employees’ attitude. Thinking they deserve the job, some people expect us to operate like a support program or a drop-in center. It can be hard to let someone go when things are not working, but we really enforce the fact that we are a real business providing real work for real pay. We want our employees to own it – and we feel they do.
PGTE prides itself on the quality of its ongoing customer service. With many competitors out there, maintaining a personal relationship with clients and dealing with them on a one-on-one basis is extremely important for the business. When something goes wrong, we come right away to solve the issue.
In a social enterprise, employees need to feel that they are a part of what you are doing. Putting out orders from top to bottom is not effective. If people feel their job makes a difference, they will work with you, not just for a paycheck. We run the business democratically to enhance the sense of ownership. For example, our manager never submits a proposal without asking employees for their input. During our weekly meetings, everyone gets involved.
Believe in what you do and why you do it. It is much easier to attract people when they believe in your work. There are many competitors who can provide the same service, but people pay closer attention when you explain why you are doing the work.
We still sometimes fight the stigma of mental health issues. One way to break down the perception is to help people understand that everyone can relate to it. People want to be part of the support as they have friends or relatives touched by it.
When PGTE was still at the beginning stage, we did not have any money to purchase plants in advance of customer payment in the spring. Having access to finances through our parent organization helped. Through Working for Change, we also could use services of a consultant who taught us how to put out a quote that makes money and how to do costing. His financial expertise was crucial in develop our business plan.
PGTE is under the umbrella of social enterprises run by our parent organization, Working for Change, which is incorporated as a charity. We are a registered business within a charity and receive in-kind support from Working for Change.
It takes a community to create an Alternative Business, and PGTE has benefited from the support of many community members and organizations including Working For Change and the Toronto Enterprise Fund. Working for Change provides in-kind support in the area of financials, administrative and human resources.
Just recently, we also developed a partnership with a guru in the community of gardening and landscaping. This mentorship opened many doors to networking opportunities such as tradeshows and meetings of Landscape Ontario. We also joined a Landscape Ontario peer group which gives us an opportunity to share experiences and ask questions.
Our relationship with the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health has been important for business. We do indoor plants for them, and they allow us to use their greenhouse and maintenance building.
Impacts & Outcomes
PGTE was a social enterprise even before that term was even phrased. We are an alternative business that provided real work for real pay. From the beginning, we strived to provide stable employment for people with mental health issues living in poverty. Our employees can work with us as long as they want, becoming part of the community where they can get support and experiencing self-validity through work.
Another significant impact was achieved through our partnership with a small private landscape company. It has been mutually beneficial as our joint work got a BIA Best Planters award. When a social enterprise develops relationships with small for-profit businesses, they can fill in gaps in each other’s capacity, e.g. we do a lot of things that her business cannot afford to do, such as maintenance. It’s a win-win situation.
Vision for the Future
At the moment, we want to grow our sales and our staff team in a way that does not strain our capacity. We hope that the relationship with our industry mentor will open new avenues for PGTE.
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