Crew at Gumpf Gardens proves that yard work really can be fun – seriously!
CHIPPEWA TWP, BEAVER FALLS, PA. Maybe you remember the disappointment, too.
You’re having the time of your life at recess, and then you hear it: The bell rings.
You’re running around catching lightning bugs, and then you hear it: Mom’s voice.
You’re splashing and laughing in the water, and then you hear it: Thunder rolls across the horizon.
No matter how much fun it was to play outside as a youngster, eventually it was time to come indoors.
Well, for most of us.
You see, Jim Gumpf never has. And he’s made quite a career of it.
“We have fun doing the kind of work we do. I mean, come on, this isn’t a job. I’s a part of our being.”
And being Jim Gumpf is a pretty good gig these days.
The early years
Gumpf Gardens opened in 1957, when Jim’s father, Bert, and his mother, Bobbie, purchased an existing garden center in Chippewa Township. Bert graduated from Penn State University in 1956 with a degree in landscape architecture and focused on landscape and design. Bobbie, meanwhile, left behind a nursing career to run the garden center. The couple operated the business until 1997, when Jim took over.
Although his sisters, Jan and Judy, also worked at the center during their formative years, it appears Jim was actually raised to carry on the family legacy.
“I was born the year my parents started this business”, he said. “People tell me that Mom would be pushing me around in a cardboard box while she was in the greenhouse.”
You might think growing up as the boss’s son was a pretty sweet deal for him.
“It wasn’t easy to step into my dad’s business”, Jim reflected. “The expectations are pretty high. I think it’s pretty tough to be the boss’s kid.”
Not a moment after, Amy Thurrott pops her head into the room to weigh in.
“Being the boss’s wife isn’t far behind.”
She should know. The vice president at Gumpf’s has worked at the garden center for the past 17 years and has been married to Jim since 2008.
Like their predecessors, Amy and Jim oversee different segments of the business. Amy handles the store and scheduling, while Jim leads the design and landscape work. He also graduated from Penn State, earning a degree in landscape architecture in 1979.
The center at 766 Shenango Road carries shrubs, trees, roses, perennials, annuals, gifts and lawn-care products. Visitors are often greeted by Kousa, a black lab named after the dogwood tree.
Outside the four walls, Jim and his crew of about 40 seasonal workers are ramping up for a busy spring, summer and fall. Over the next several months, they’ll be called upon to install ponds, outdoor lighting, decks, patios, walkways and retaining walls, in addition to planting trees and shrubs.
While most of the work takes place in Beaver County, Gumpf’s 12 trucks also regularly head as far south as the Wexford area and north to Neshannock Township in New Castle. The jobs are as small as lining up a few shrub to building a $1.4 million garage in Sewickley.
Amy and Jim say connecting with their customers is key, and it all starts with the frontline workers. Most of them have been with Gumpf’s for more than a decade.
“The guys may look a little rough around the edges, but they have hearts of gold”, Amy offered. “They are awesome. Every one of them.”
A different world
Jim Gumpf has seen plenty of changes through the years, but none more important than technology.
He maneuvers the mouse on his laptop to scroll through folders of work he’s done for clients.
“You don’t have a choice but to use the latest options”, he said. “If you don’t, you will fall way behind.”
Gorgeous lawns and shrubs, sturdy decks and inviting stone patios pop from the big screen in radiant colors as Jim leads a home tour using 3-D simulation.
“Before, it took a lot of explaining to get our ideas across. Today, when customers see this, they know exactly what we have in mind. We just show them.”
Jim laughed as he recalled the first computer he purchased in 1982 for $24,000.
“It’s just crazy how different things are today.”
Times are changing in the backyard, as well. In many cases, manpower has been replaced by the latest hydraulic systems.
“Show me any job we do in someone’s yard, and there’s a machine that can do it.”
Jim said he didn’t necessarily want to go in that direction, but his hand was forced. In 2001, he had to close his garden center in the North Hills after 17 years for lack of help.
“We had plenty of customers”, he recalled. “I never even had to advertise down there. I could have yelled down the street and I would have people calling about jobs. I just couldn’t find enough workers.”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“Same here. We could triple our business right now if we could find enough people to do the work.”
A people business
Spend a few minutes with Jim Gumpf and Amy Thurrott, and you’ll understand how seriously they take their fun. At Gumpf’s, the good times aren’t limited to the great outdoors.
On their ages;
Jim: “I’m 59. Notice how I don’t round up.”
Amy: “I’m 59, too, but I’m not afraid to say I’m closer to 60.”
Jim: “She’s a cougar, man. She went for a younger guy like me.”
On Amy not using the last name Gumpf:
Jim: “When she dumps me, she won’t have to change her license or Social Security card.”
On how Amy ended up in Beaver County from her native Connecticut:
Amy: “The wrong bus and some bad luck.”
And on who is really the boss:
Jim: “When things are going well, I’m in charge. When things aren’t so hot, someone else is.”
The lively banter at the garden center conveys Jim’s philosophy for career success.
“It really is a people business. Nobody buys the company; they connect with a person. It’s important to build relationships with people.”
And after nearly 40 years and building hundreds of relationships not to mention building the walls, patios and decks that go with them Jim Gumpf can’t imagine ever hanging up his pick and shovel.
“What else would I do?” he said. “This is who I am.”
He pauses before reflecting on his career.
“Listen, I know I am blessed. I fully understand that the work we do is not a life necessity. I’ve had a chance to meet some great people over the years. You don’t stay in the business very long if you don’t make people happy. Here’s the way I see it: If we can’t make you happy, then you can’t be made happy.”
Hmm. Maybe he’s on to something. Maybe the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.
Especially if it’s been cared for by Jim Gumpf and his crew.
By Tim Kolodziej For The Times
Lucy Schaly/The Times