By Marie Wood
MANKATO — Noel Van Tol grew up in Hilltop Florist and Greenhouse, a family-owned business since 1880 on Mankato’s hilltop. As a girl, she disbudded endless rows of carnations and received a penny for every three corsage points and puffs she made. In 1976, Noel and husband Larry Van Tol purchased Hilltop Florist from Noel’s parents, Eddie and Marguerite Keane.
“They were ready to retire and Larry realized the value of a family business — to let it go out of the family, it would be a shame,” Noel said.
Noel and Larry divorced in 1982 but maintained their business partnership. In 1995, Larry married Kathy.
Today Kathy Van Tol handles the daily operations and management of Hilltop Florist. Kathy began working with Noel and Larry in 1989 when she designed the retail store expansion. At project’s end, Kathy joined the floral staff part time.
Noel is retiring, but she is still involved in the business and her husband, Gene Biewen, also works there.
“When I came into this family business 30 short years ago, it was immediately obvious that there was no room for coasting or anonymity — that we were representing to the public a quality of product and service that had been the pride of generations before me,” Gene said.
Essentially, two couples are at the heart of Hilltop Florist and Greenhouse. With exes and new spouses working side by side, they’ve created a family atmosphere that’s supportive and friendly. Here’s how Hilltop’s garden grows.
MVB: How has Hilltop Florist changed since 1976?
Larry: If I reflect back on the land and all the greenhouses, what we really did was modernize it all. We took down the old houses, modernized others, and made it all energy efficient. We also specialized the greenhouses for our needs.
Kathy: The biggest change was when we remodeled the retail store in 1989.
Noel: Kathy designed the exterior and the interior of this expansion of our new retail shop. All the things outside, the pergolas, the gates to the greenhouse.
Kathy: I was working for KSA Architects at the time.
MVB: How do you deal with the “ex” dynamic?
Larry: We made a conscious decision to be nice to each other. It’s actually a very significant relationship. It didn’t have to turn out that way. It was good for our children, good for us. It was healthy. We grew up together, so she knows me pretty well. It’s hard to get away with anything.
Kathy: It’s never been an issue. They’ve set a super great example.
MVB: Larry, what is it like working with your ex-wife and current wife?
Larry: In the first place, they’re both very nice people, qualified, intelligent, dedicated and independently driven. They’re just two good people working together. For me it’s simple, I work with two very good people who I respect for what they do here.
Noel: You spend a lot of time hiding in the greenhouses.
Kathy: We don’t gang up on you too much.
Larry: If I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble with both of them.
MVB: What are your roles in the business?
Noel: Over the last 10 years, I’ve been slowly going into retirement. Kathy has covered all the bases and filled in whatever I did. She has taken over. It’s much easier to have one person know all the ins and outs. She has taken over and delegated and has let us all assume different roles when she needs them. I’m grateful, very grateful. It’s allowed me to have so much freedom.
Larry: I’m developing a new role. I’ve been gone. Kathy’s taken over my responsibility as well. Now I’m working my way back with the small things, but they make a difference: delivery, vacuuming, cleaning, working on the soils and chemicals that we use in growing ... I’m trying to make the best possible plant I can. I’m trying to grow a plant as close to perfection. We have each plant for 12 to 16 weeks and then they’re out the door. We learn from that each time. It’s a one-year learning curve. Every change we make is subtle to improve the plant. I don’t think that will ever end. Mass producers can’t do what we do and make any money. They can’t give the attention that we do.
Kathy: I’ve been fortunate enough to be given responsibility, to learn the business from Larry and Noel. They’ve been fabulous mentors from all aspects: designing, going to market, accounting, being fiscally responsible, personnel and how to be a grower.
MVB: How do you gain a competitive edge in the floral greenhouse market?
Larry: One of the skill sets you both have is your artistic talents. That skill and knack is something that few people have. I’ve seen their work day in and day out. It separates our business from everybody else. Our varieties have grown hundred fold, easily. You always find unique ways to design.
MVB: What sets Hilltop Florist apart?
Kathy: We do grow our own cut flowers — roses. We’re one of two growers in Minnesota. There’s only a few of us left in the United States. Our garden center is truly one of the best. We grow a lot from seed, cuttings and plugs. We’re one of the few that grow from very small to market. That gives us the advantage of quality. It’s what our forefathers were all about, what we’re still after today. The box stores offer different varieties. We offer uniqueness, exceptional quality, customer service. Each customer that comes in is very important — sort of that “Norm” feeling. We have talented designers. The dedication of all our employees, drivers, designers, growers, bookkeepers — it takes everybody to make Hilltop what it is today.
MVB: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Kathy: The most rewarding is to see my staff excel, become wonderful designers, watch their passion and abilities grow.
Larry: It is a heartfelt business from the earth: weddings, get well, funerals every aspect of life. The one delivery that stands out was for a wife’s birthday. Her husband was serving in Iraq. I brought a beautiful arrangement with balloons and little presents for their two children. It was as if he was present when I came to the door with the delivery.
Noel: I call it instant gratification. When someone comes in the store, you can tell how happy they are because they’re buying flowers and they’re going to present them to somebody. You’ve made a difference in someone’s life and they’ll make a difference in someone else’s life. That happens all day long.
MVB: What about weddings?
Kathy: Weddings are a lot of fun, a lot of work trying to make someone’s perfect day. I haven’t had any Bridezillas. It’s always been a positive part of our business. Each wedding we try to create something new and different. It’s very personalized. Today the grooms are getting more involved. Sometimes they have good ideas or bring a lot of humor. It’s fun having grooms being involved in the decisions.
MVB: What would you like people to know about Hilltop Florist?
Noel: There’s something about a flower shop that sometimes people are intimidated by. They’re afraid to come in the door. We encourage people to come in and browse, walk in the greenhouse. There’s no pressure to spend money. We want people to know what a treasure a greenhouse is and we want to share it.
Larry: It raises spirits.
Kathy: Visually all your senses are stimulated. People browse our greenhouse just smelling the dirt. It’s a store of inspiration.