It's been more than six decades since Neal Womack landed his first plant nursery job as a 12-year-old at Lymburner's Nursery in the Atlanta area, a position that would bring him to Columbus at age 17 to run a new store at Cross Country Plaza.
That's an unfathomable number of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees ago for the longtime owner of To-Mar Garden Centers in Columbus. The Tucker, Ga., native and Columbus resident recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Green Industry Association for his contributions to cultivating the nursery business and its growth. The award is not given every year, instead only when someone is worthy of receiving it.
"If you get inside a little bit on this industry in Columbus, what you'll find is just about anybody who's successful in the landscape business in Columbus at one time or another either worked for Mr. Neal, or has certainly been influenced by him," said Paul Chappell, co-owner of Diversified Trees Inc. in Pine Mountain, Ga.
It was in 1977 that Womack, now 75, opened To-Mar Garden Center on Macon Road, using the first few letters from the names of his sons, Tony and Mark. Tony has worked with UPS for nearly three decades, while Mark runs the To-Mar center that opened in 1987 on Fortson Road.
Womack took a break recently from his work at the Macon Road nursery to discuss his job, his life and give some tips on what it takes to have a green thumb. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
First, what are your feelings on the Lifetime Achievement Award?
I started when I was 12 and came to Columbus when I was 17, which is roughly 58 years ago. I really didn't know what was going to happen. ... I'm very thankful that other people recognized me for being in (the nursery business) for 63 years. I didn't expect it, but it was rewarding.
How did you get into this line work and find your way to Columbus?
At the age of 12, my daddy had a farm about three or four miles from Lymburner's Nursery. I walked over there on a Saturday morning to see if they would let me work. The first Saturday, (Jim Lymburner) selected several people out of this group to work and I wasn't one of them. So the next Saturday, I did the same thing. I went over and he selected a certain group, and I didn't get to work.
The third Saturday I went over there, he had tractor trailers of plant material and fertilizer everywhere, and he told everybody to check in. I was 12 years old, got to check in, and made 50 cents an hour. We unloaded trucks that day and from that point on, when I would go, they told me to come on in to work. I didn't have to get in this group to be selected.
From there what happened?
I worked through high school, watered at night, and a lot of weeks I would put in anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week and still go to high school. ... I graduated from Tucker High School in Tucker, Ga. I was 17 years old and I worked with Lymburner's that summer.
He came to me about the middle part of September of that year, which was 1957. He said, Neal, would you like to go to Columbus and help me open a nursery, meaning, Neal, would you like to come to Columbus and unload trucks and spread gravel and haul sawdust.
We came in on a Sunday night. We worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and we opened the place at Cross Country Plaza. He had a sale Friday and Saturday.
We were on the way back home to Tucker and he said, Neal, would you like to stay in Columbus and look after my nursery for me? I think at 17 years old, I was too scared to say no, and I said yes, sir, I'll do it. So I went and got my stuff and came back to Columbus that Sunday and started looking after the nursery.
At age 17 and 18, Columbus, Georgia, people were good to me. They were really good to me. A lot of people seen something in me; I don't know what, but they were good to me. I came to Columbus that year, and I'm 75, and 58 years later I'm still here, and Columbus has been rewarding to me.
How did you come to own your own nursery?
We (Lymburner's) opened in 1957 at Cross Country Plaza. About two years later, in 1959, he moved his place across from St. Francis Hospital (on Manchester Expressway). About 1960, he had money problems, so I called the main office and said I'm leaving the nursery. I'm not going to work for anybody but Jim Lymburner, and I quit.
I went and opened a place in St. Marys Hills Shopping Center. Then about a year later, that (Manchester Expressway) place came up for sale, and I was fortunate enough to buy it at the same time. And then we opened a place in Windsor Park in 1972.
(Eventually) we had gone through freezes and money had got to be real, real short. Not having big bucks to back us, the Jordan Company bought me out in 1972. I sold my name 'Neal Womack Nurseries,' and it was for five years with a non-compete (clause). The Jordan Company was really good to me. But with their philosophy of the retail nursery business and the way they operated, they sold it out three years later. I was out of a job, but they allowed me to do landscape work; I did landscaping for two years.
After the five-year non-compete, I opened a nursery on Macon Road right down the road. I rented a (former) Magic Mart store. I opened up a nursery in 1977, and I couldn't use my name, but I've got two sons, Tony and Mark, and I used their names.
It was a good location. It just worked perfect for me. It was just a small place. It didn't take many people to run it.
Then my wife got saved and through her prayers, in 1982, we were able to buy this property (on Macon Road), and we developed it, and this has been a great location. In 1987, against my wife's wishes, I bought the property at Fortson Road and, in 1987, we opened that location. My son Mark Womack has taken it from day one and run it ever since. Both locations have been good. I'll have to say it's getting harder and harder for that bottom line to look good.
What are some big changes you've seen through the years?
When I first came to Columbus, I knew every pansy plant variety there was -- one. I've seen this market go from one variety of pansy plant to there must 100 varieties of pansies. In the early days there were bare-root trees. Now we see trees sold that we call four-inch or six-inch caliper shade trees. There are new ways of growing them, new ways of harvesting them. If you want a 25-foot oak with a limb spread of 15 foot, they can get it for you.
Has your biggest challenge been competition from large stores like Home Depot and Lowe's?
I was at a Southern Nurseryman's Association meeting once; we met in August ... A certain person that I knew had a sidewalk group of people with everybody gathered around. They would talk about: What are we going to do about the box stores? How are we going to compete against them?
The man heading it up knew me and knew I had a location in Columbus. He said, Neal, you haven't said nothing, what do you think? I said do you want the truth. He said, yes, I want the truth, what else. I said, it's true, the big box stores, the big boys, are going to get their pie. You can't compete with them. Don't worry about them. But I said you've got two competitors bigger than all of the big boys. He said, who are they? I said, number one, yourself. And number two, sporting events. They are a big competitor of our business.
Why is that?
Anything that takes your time away from the yard is our competitor. If I was on the board of Auburn football or Georgia or Georgia Tech football, I would want every football game played at night. Sporting events is a big competitor.
We've seen our fertilizer business go (down) because people that like to be off on Saturdays to go to their sporting events, they say, I'm going to get so and so (lawn companies) to put out my fertilizer.
What's the biggest mistake a person makes when planting things?
Probably the biggest mistake they make is not knowing how to water and how to plant.
To give you an example, we had a man come in and he was about 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, a neat dressed man, and he had an azalea dead as a doornail. He said, Neal, what do you think? And I looked it and said, sir, this plant is dried out and died. He reached into his pocket and stuck under my nose a water bill for about $600. And I've just told this 6-foot-4, 250-pound man that he hadn't watered that plant. I said let me think about this situation and I'll call you.
I've always told 'Miss Homeowner' when she buys something and take their money and load their car: Be sure to water. I realized that we weren't telling people how to water. When we started telling people how to water, we didn't see as many plants dying. There's also over-fertilization, under-fertilization. Weed and feed is a good product. ... If 'Mr. Customer' comes in, grabs that weed and feed from me or a big box store, and puts it out, well, if it's a grassy weed, guess what's going to happen. It's going to grow it, it won't kill it. ... We like for people to bring us samples of weeds, and we separate them.
So it's the advice and expertise that set you apart from the large stores?
We hope. If anything has helped us over the years, it's we may have had 100 different items of trees and shrubs, whereas most of your box stores have gotten limited on what they might have.
We may not be able to give you 200 of one item, but we can get it for you. Take for instance hydrangeas. We've probably got 12 varieties, and we still don't cover them. We've got 200 varieties of camellias, where most people have got four or five. I think having selection has helped us.
Another thing, I think our places are safer than a Walmart, a Kmart or Home Depot. When Miss Homeowner comes here to buy something, 90 percent of every item that goes to the car is loaded by one of our people. And we've almost always got somebody out in the parking lot.
It's warming up and the time will change this weekend. Are you ready for your own super bowl of planting to start?
Yes. It's March, April and May. I look for it to be later this year because Easter's later.
Hopefully, there won't be a drought?
Last year we had plenty of water up until August or September. The year before, it was a hot dry (one).
What is your favorite thing to plant and grow?
Since hollies got me out of school, I like hollies. Hollies have withstood all kind of adversity. The holly family is tough. I like camellias. If I had two choices, I like those. My wife would probably say gardenias.
How much longer do you think you'll work?
I'm proud you asked that question. (smiles) A man asked me that question a few years ago and he said, Neal, when are you going to retire? I thought, how am I going to answer this fella. I said, when I've learned something about this business I might consider it.
You never learn this business. To give an example, you know how many varieties of camellias there are? 4,000. You know how many varieties of azaleas there were back in the early '80s? 2,700 varieties. Probably today there's 5,000. You know how many varieties of roses there are? I don't know this, but a guess is there's probably over 10,000 varieties.
(The bottom line): What works today won't work tomorrow.
Name: Neal Womack
Hometown: Tucker, Ga., in the Atlanta area
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1956 graduate of Tucker High School
Family: Louise, wife of 55 years, and sons, Tony (wife, Tina) and Mark (wife, Kim), and grandchildren Jeremy and Gabriel
Favorite slogans: "You can't sell from an empty wagon," and "Rule No. 1: The customer is always right. Rule No. 2: If the customer is wrong, refer back to rule No. 1."
Leisure time: Enjoys going to auctions and fishing, and watching NASCAR