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When he was just eight years old, Don Caroleo would go to his father’s wholesale nursery every day after school, and on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s hard to believe that the now 27-year-old has been in the wholesale landscape and nursery business for almost 20 years. “My dad wanted to make sure that I understood the value of money. He taught me to keep a level head,” said Caroleo.
Caroleo credits his grandfather with starting it all. His grandfather emigrated from Italy to the United States in the 1940s and settled in Queens, New York, where he started a landscape company. It was an ideal time, as the servicemen returning home from World War II created a housing boom, and his grandfather was there. Caroleo’s grandfather concentrated his efforts in the upscale towns and villages on the North Shore of Long Island, and built landscapes for highend residential estates.
“My grandfather was a brilliant businessman and in working with his affluent clients, he got involved with one of them in some real estate deal,” said Caroleo. “Along the way, he acquired some real estate himself, and eventually became quite wealthy buying real estate.”
In 1976, when Don Caroleo’s father, Victor, was 18, his father, Caroleo’s grandfather, took a two-acre piece of property that he owned and opened a wholesale nursery and landscape supply business for his son, Victor. Being a landscape contractor, he realized that there was a need to supply landscape contractors in the Tri-State area with quality plant material, and The Garden Dept. Corporation was there to fill this need. The nursery carried plant material, mulch, top soil, rocks and railroad ties, etc.
Don Caroleo wasn’t even born then, but from the age of eight, and all during his youth, he would go to work at the nursery. He would work in the yard loading mulch, learning about plant material, driving trucks to deliver supplies to customers when he was of age, and over the years, he learned the business end of the business. “My dad taught me everything I know. He started me at an early age,” said Caroleo. “He made sure I developed a discipline and a good work ethic. He was a genius, especially when it came to business.”
In 2002, Caroleo was in his last year of high school and about to graduate, when his father had to have surgery. Following the surgery, Caroleo was informed by the doctor that his father had two days to live. Overcoming the initial shock, Caroleo realized that it was his responsibility to keep the business going.
He couldn’t think about going to college; he knew he had to keep the business alive.
Now at 17 years of age, he had a $4,000,000-a-year business to run. Working in the yard or the nursery, he saw some areas that he thought needed improvement. Based on what he’d seen over the years since he’d worked at the company, he began to make some changes. However, when Junior took over, almost all of the employees quit. Caroleo was left with one driver and one of the laborers. All the employees had been hired by his father; some had been with the company for 25 years. Now the burden was even heavier. His father was in a coma, and remained in a coma from March to June. Caroleo had no one to turn to for advice; he had to do it on his own.
He had to keep the business going, so while loading trucks, or picking out plant material to ship, or answering the phone, Caroleo was interviewing people to staff up again.
It took a while, but he managed to get the business back on an even keel. Fortunately, his father recovered. Once recovered, he looked over the business and decided that his son was doing a good job, and turned the company over to him and retired.
Well, not exactly retired. Due to his illness and surgery, and other life experiences, Caroleo’s father found religion and followed his true passion: preaching the gospel. He became a preacher and currently preaches on TV.
Having worked in every aspect of the company, Caroleo was ready to expand. He realized early on that he had to build his list of accounts in order to grow the company. He personally called and visited landscape contractors in the area, building up his customer base and customer confidence.
And grown he has. The Garden Dept. had two trucks when Caroleo took over; it has since added 16 more to better serve their customers. He also purchased more land and expanded the facility, and has aggressively grown the business. The company went from 5,000 accounts to 15,000, and volume grew from $4 million annually to $18 million annually.
Caroleo says he built this business on service. “By adding the additional trucks, we’re able to make deliveries to our customers faster,” he said.
Recently, The Garden Dept. Corporation opened a second location and sales surpassed their expectations in the first year.
Running the business for the past ten years, Caroleo, still young at the age of 27, has gained a world of knowledge and a tremendous amount of expertise. He expanded the product line to include tools, fertilizer, seed, etc. The Garden Dept. has 75 employees and is one of the largest wholesale nurseries on Long Island.
In his personal life, Caroleo married his wife, Jennifer, two years ago, and they have a one-year-old baby girl, Olivia. They are expecting another child shortly, who they have al ready named Mia.
What do the Caroleos do in their spare time? “What spare time?” questions Caroleo. “I work 14-hour days, and weekends as well. I eat, sleep, and drink this business. I love what I’m doing. Now that we have a good management team in place, my dream would be to grow this business to a large chain of wholesale nurseries all over the Tri-State area.”
Caroleo has paid his dues. He says, “When my friends were going out, I was working 14-hour days.” At the age of 27, with more than 20 years under his belt, he has a whole career ahead of him.
“Little did I realize how much I had learned; more importantly, how much I needed to learn,” he says. “I’m still learning every day, and still enjoying it. I’m so thankful that my dad is still available to me. That in itself is a blessing.”