On July 25, just a few weeks after horticultural giant Foster & Gallagher shut down, Mount Vernon, WA-based wholesale plants cataloger Etera filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the Western District of the Washington Bankruptcy Court in Seattle.
Founded by Carl Loeb in 1998 as a Website, Etera sold perennials, trees, shrubs, orchids, and specialty plants to garden centers and nurseries. Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners, along with other venture capital firms that had invested in the company, have taken over Etera. Etera and OVP Venture Partners did not return phone calls.
According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Etera missed its sales target by $13 million this year and owes its suppliers about $10 million. Another newspaper, The Skagit Valley Herald, reports that Etera owes approximately $70,000 in workers’ compensation taxes and has two property liens pending. The papers also report that Etera pulled back operations in Mount Vernon and Burlington, WA, and at a $12 million facility it had just opened in Mabton, WA. In June, Etera began trimming its staff of 180 full-time workers in Burlington and Mount Vernon; most of the remaining employees were laid off in late July.
“This isn’t about trouble in the gardening sector,” says Will Raap, CEO of Burlington, VT-based cataloger Gardener’s Supply Co. “This is about dot-com capitalization.” Raap contends that the investors who had encouraged Etera to spend heavily on its online operations refused to provide further investment once the dot-com bubble burst.
“Etera was a bit too ambitious in its plans,” especially in trying to develop online sales, adds Bruce Butterfield, research director for Burlington, VT-based industry group National Gardening Association.
Etera’s woes caught several industry insiders off guard. “From a marketing perspective, Etera did a lot of things well,” says Randy Schultz, spokesperson for the Mailorder Gardening Association (MGA). In fact, the organization awarded Etera the MGA Green Thumb Award for its perennials guide. And Etera won a Silver Award in the wholesale/dealer category of the Annual Catalog Awards (see profile, page 105). Last year, Etera took the Gold Award in the category. Considering how much promise the marketer showed, hopefully it won’t be the end of Etera.