It’s been a storied five decades for Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers. See how the Hagemann family keeps this business thriving into a new generation.
In 1971 Merlin Hagemann applied for a job at Dick Foelske’s greenhouse in Oregon, Ill. “I was 17 years old, and the first question Dick asked me was ‘Did you ever want to own a greenhouse?’”
The idea had never entered Hagemann’s mind, but he quickly became Foelske’s right-hand man. Plans to enroll in Kishwaukee College the following year never came to fruition as Hagemann found himself even more invested in the success of the small business – which Foelske bought in 1961, but has likely been around since the 1890s.
“I worked for Dick a couple of years, then he wanted to get out of business, so I started renting it from him in 1974,” Hagemann says.
“In 1976 he said, ‘You want to buy it?’ and I said yeah. Dick trusted me. He carried me for the contract – who’s going to give a loan to a young kid who has nothing? He gave me a personal loan. I was bound and determined to make this thing work. My dad thought I was nuts.”
The first year was a challenge. Since Foelske had purchased the shop in foreclosure, the building still needed repairs, including a new roof. And he almost went out of business when a cabbage crop failed.
“The first thing you usually plant in a greenhouse is cabbage,” Hagemann says. “It’s an early crop. It grew really well for the first week and a half, then all the cabbage died.”
That was before the days of pre-mixed potting soils. Greenhouses had to get soil and enrichments from farmers, cook it, then mix in lighteners like perlite and vermiculite. After the cabbage died, Hagemann had the soil tested.
“We found out it came from where there was a chicken coop, and the manure from the chickens gave off a lot of nitrogen that killed the plants,” Hagemann says. “We had to totally get rid of that soil and start over. If we had transplanted everything into that soil, I probably wouldn’t be here today. We would have gone bankrupt, because the greenhouse pays most of the bills. Luckily, we caught it early.”
From Foelske, Hagemann learned that customer service and quality were the cornerstones of running a small business.
“No customer is ever wrong. If there’s a problem – even if the customer did something wrong – we always make it right. We do gift wrapping at no charge. We’re customer-oriented.”
Merlin’s offers same-day deliveries to several nearby towns on orders received by noon, and provides a personal touch to custom orders. Hagemann recently picked corn to add to the casket spray for a local farmer’s funeral.
Especially in a small town like Oregon, getting to know your clientele is vital. That’s why the greenhouse holds three or four open houses per year. The annual Christmas open house typically draws upwards of 1,000 people.
Hagemann enjoys taking time with customers, especially older folks who come in to socialize as much as to shop. “You don’t get that when you order from Amazon,” Hagemann says.
“You really have to be consistent in what you do,” he continues, whether it’s the quality of your products or your availability to customers. He’s seen other small businesses upset customers by not keeping regular store hours. “Set your hours and be consistent. You have to be there when you say you’re going to be there.”
For florists in particular, freshness matters. Merlin’s receives fresh flowers five days a week to ensure fresh inventory.
A couple of years ago, Hagemann was working with a new hire who came from another flower shop. “I said, ‘We clean the cooler out every Saturday, and if something looks halfway bad, we throw it away.’ And she said, ‘Gosh, we used to sell stuff like this in the other shop.’ It really surprised her what we threw away as far as quality.”
The biggest surprise of all about Merlin’s Greenhouse & Florist may be that Hagemann sold it in 1995.
“The gentleman who bought it had worked for me when he was in school,” echoing how he himself had started with Foelske. “It was kind of like this transfer of ownership to somebody who had the same desire I had,” Hagemann recalls. “They were great people, but for whatever reasons, it just didn’t work out.”
Just as Foelske had done with him, Hagemann had carried the contract on the building, so when the interim owner defaulted in late 1998, he got the business back. They reopened a month later.
“When we came back it was crazy,” he says. “We put a sign up saying ‘Merlin’s back.’” Before they could set up phone service, they bought a newfangled cellphone and got right to work.
Perhaps the biggest secret to the business’ success is that it’s a family effort. Hagemann’s wife, Cindy, and their three grown children – Melissa, Carrie and Tyler – are all heavily involved in the family businesses. (In addition to Merlin’s, they own The Other Side Boutique across the street from the flower shop, and The Cork & Tap gathering spot which Carrie, a teacher in Mount Morris, Ill., runs with her graphic designer husband.)
Despite working as a vet tech in Rockford, Melissa – who’s been interacting with customers since she was barely old enough to see over the counter – often pitches in at the greenhouse and shop. And Tyler, who Hagemann says was the least involved as a kid, now rents and runs the 11,000-square-foot greenhouse.
“Tyler increased sales at the greenhouse this year by about 20-25%,” Hagemann says with pride.
Their involvement allows Hagemann more time to focus on the parts of the business he loves most: dealing with customers and arranging flowers for weddings, special events and everyday occasions.
“I think the family atmosphere is what really makes us special,” he says. “And most of our employees have been here a long time, too. We don’t have a high turnover.”
Hagemann and the shop’s other longtime designers know the value of keeping current on design trends. “We also go to some of the smaller trade shows to learn how to do different things,” he says. “We try to stay up with the current market. We’re not back in 1980 doing the same arrangements that we did then. The market has definitely changed.”
Design styles aren’t the only things that have changed over the years since Hagemann bought the business. “When I bought the shop it had $2,000 in inventory,” he says. “Now, depending on the time of year, we have over $400,000 in inventory. You’re looking at big changes.”
The internet brought a new type of competition, as online florists – essentially order gatherers – began cutting into sales. “They don’t have a clue what they’re selling, and they’re charging a service charge, like $15, and then they’ll charge a delivery fee,” Hagemann says, noting that some delivery services leave those flowers on porches in extreme weather, ruining the flowers.
“We’re finding people coming back from those places because they’ve been dissatisfied so many times,” he says. “They’ve been burned, they’ve been down that road and didn’t get what they wanted.”
The shop – which at one time was the biggest Precious Moments collector center in Ogle County – no longer carries collectibles. “People don’t collect stuff like that anymore. Millennials don’t want to collect. They want simplicity.”
Surprisingly, Hagemann feels he might not always adapt to change as readily as his business does.
“The average person changes jobs maybe three or four times in a lifetime,” he says. “I never would have guessed I’d still be here 49 years later.”
He credits his family’s dedication and the support of their community for the shop’s longevity, and knows it will continue well into the future.
“My kids are energetic. They know how to promote. They know how to do things differently than their father who’s 66,” Hagemann says. “I think the business will be much bigger and much more successful than it is now, because they have the drive. They’ve grown up here. People know them.”
Reflecting on how he was drawn back to the shop after selling it in the ’90s, Hagemann says, “You’ve got to believe that everything is for a reason. And this was definitely for a reason.”