After a somewhat dormant spring last year due to the pandemic, business is now blossoming for California-based distributor Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery. However, a labor shortage has crimped its ability to do deliveries.
Devil Mountain was founded in 1995 as a wholesale brokerage company in San Ramon, California. It currently has seven stores in Northern California and three in Southern California.
Red Devil grows its own plants in its nurseries in order to offer architects, designers and landscape contractors a diverse range of products to pick from. It also has a large network of more than 100 growers across California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to further meet its customers’ needs. Along with soils and mulches, Red Devil’s plant varieties include evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, cactus and succulents, edibles, tropical plants, grasses, annuals, roses and plants native to California.
“[Business] has actually increased a lot,” says Valerie Hom, director of business processes for Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery. “A lot of people are working from home and they want to do all their home improvements. Our customers are landscapers, and that industry has definitely taken off.
“For the nursery industry, there was a shutdown in the middle of spring last year. Shutting down meant production was interrupted for a month. We’ve seen a huge increase in demand this spring and summer.”
Labor shortage implications
Despite the bloom in business this year, Devil Mountain has been hamstrung by the ongoing labor shortage. While Devil Mountain was busy last year, the labor shortage didn’t have an impact until this spring, according to Hom.
“We just didn’t have enough drivers to fulfill our transfer routes between stores and also our deliveries direct to the customers,” she says. “So this is the first year that we’ve ever had to turn people away. Our customers ask for deliveries on certain days because it goes along with their construction timelines, but there are some days where we just say ‘Hey, our trucks are full. We actually can’t deliver today. You’re going to have to choose a different day.’”
“Through last year we were definitely busy, but I don’t think we were ever closing down our trucks as frequently as we are now. I see the emails come through and the dispatchers are saying they can’t add any more deliveries for today because we’re completely packed.”
Hom said Devil Mountain has started recruiting on websites such as LinkedIn this year in order to fill the void that was caused by the labor shortage.
“Previously, we hadn’t needed to use all those websites to hire, but we’re just trying everything,” Hom says. “We’ve even been trying to use hiring agencies. We don’t have a winter shutdown so we try to market that when we’re looking for employees.”
Devil Mountain taps into Pathguide’s WMS
Several years ago, Devil Mountain started using PathGuide Technologies’ warehouse management system (WMS), which is called Latitude, to automate its inventory, distribution and warehouse operations.
Latitude allows Devil Mountain to monitor and track pickers in its nursery yards. Latitude was blended into Devil Mountain’s Epicor Eagle ERP software system in order to go paperless in locations that have Wi-Fi access points. By using Latitude, Devil Mountain was able to eliminate the bottlenecks related to its paper-based system.
Instead of using clipboards stacked with sheets of papers, Devil Mountain’s yard pickers use RF scanning guns to find and pull plant orders that come through the system. With Latitude, Devil Mountain’s sales staff is able to send and prioritize orders out to the pickers in the yards.
“It has been different for our employees to not have that piece of paper in their hands,” Hom says.
In addition to no longer managing stacks of paper, the system takes some of the human element out of the picking by prioritizing the orders and eliminating judgement calls.
Latitude also is playing a role in helping Devil Mountain through its labor shortage, according to Hom.
“There’s a talent aspect when it comes to the office employees,” she says. “We are looking for people with a horticultural background or experience in the landscaping trade. But when it comes to our yard workers, one of the good things about Latitude is that you don’t really need to know anything about plants. You can just use the scanning gun and it will direct you to what you should do. You pick up your knowledge through that.”
Initially, Hom said Latitude’s connectivity was enabled by cellular SIM cards on the scan guns, but those models are no longer available, which means the old paperwork system is still used in some locations where there isn’t Wi-Fi hotspots.
“When we opened up our new stores, we had to look at installing wireless access points in order to use Latitude in the yards,” Hom says. “It worked out for our Morgan Hill and Petaluma stores, but it’s not an option for some of our other stores. Our Fillmore and Redondo Beach locations don’t have Wi-Fi in their yards, and so we’re not using Latitude there right now.
“Our yards are like 20-plus acres and it’s just not feasible to wire the whole yard for Wi-Fi in some locations.”
In October, Devil Mountain acquired Fillmore, Calif.-based BrightView Tree Company in order to better serve customers in Southern California. The addition of BrightView doubled Devil Mountain’s number of employees to 500, according to Hom. Currently, the former BrightView yards aren’t on the Latitude WMS.
“We still use paper when it comes to a rush order,” Hom says. “Our customers may call 10 minutes before and say they need a plant by time they get there and they’re on the way. Our loading department hasn’t changed. They still load off of paperwork and not through the guns.
“Latitude has added more visibility into it, and the picking is more straightforward and efficient when we’re not using the paperwork. We can see how far behind we are as well as see a list grow and the number of pick lines that are showing that need to be picked. Before it was just everybody had their own stack of paper on their own clipboards and you didn’t know how many papers were out there, and what the status was.”
Hom says the Latitude system also allows Devil Mountain to fix problems, such as incorrect inventories, as part of its ongoing training efforts.
“We have somebody watch the Latitude system and look for mistakes that people are making and then go talk to them,” Hom says. “If there’s a person that has 16 discrepancies all day, she sees that it’s the person doing the wrong thing. She’ll go and make sure that they know what to do correctly.”
Also on the technology front, Hom said Devil Mountain has tapped into Tangerine’s artificial intelligence-based fleet management system to increase efficiencies while also improving driver safety.
“We have implemented a new truck safety GPS system this past year,” she says. “Now we’re tracking our trucks and our trailers, and we’re working on putting trackers on our tractors and forklifts. This system has kind of a dash cam to record the driver. It tracks the driver just in case there’s an accident. We can go back and look at records to see how they were driving at the time.”
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