Follow-Up File: Bookkeeping, wood key for Golden Hills

Name: Don Whitmore

Job: Owner

Organization: Golden Hills Inc.

What he said then: The Tribune featured Golden Hills Home & Garden Center in Paso Robles in February 2009. The business is one of several run by Don and Julie Whitmore under the umbrella Golden Hills Inc.

They include Golden Hills Bookkeeping & Business Services — led by his accountant wife — as well as lumber importer Pacific Coast Teak and furniture design shop Whitmore Wood Works.

“What we do is transform wood into usable art,” he said.

The Whitmores also import and sell Asian pottery, as well as custom-blended topsoil for homeowners, landscapers and agriculturalists.

What he says now: Business in the garden center is off about 40 percent compared to the previous two years, Whitmore said. Much of this is due to the decline in housing growth.

But sales for the accounting and wood-related businesses are up.

“Those two areas are very positive,” he said. “Diversification’s been key to our success here.”

Pacific Coast Teak has grown considerably, Whitmore said. The exclusive distributor for the West, Whitmore represents a company that mills 8,000 acres of teak in southern Mexico.

He sells to architects, designers and builders and plans to expand to tropical woods.

Altogether, Golden Hills Inc. employs 15 people. That number is down about five since last year.

“We’ve cut our overhead and we’ve trimmed where we can,” he said. Sales are down in the nursery and showroom, but “our percentage of profit is up slightly.”

In October, Lowe’s opened nearby – the first tenant in the Golden Hills Plaza off Highway 46 East.

But the big box isn’t stealing sales, Whitmore said. Actually, the increased traffic helps.

“We don’t sell what they sell. We get a lot of customer referrals,” he said. “We’re more specific to this area,” because Golden Hills specializes in plants from around the globe well suited for the North County climate.

In the last six years, about 80 percent of the garden center’s customers are transplants to the Central Coast seeking advice on a climate new to them.

“We’ve gotten out of what Lowe’s carries heavily,” he added. “We’re more focused on this territory.”

As part of his cost-cutting measures, Whitmore reduced much of the general merchandise that was more for customer convenience than profit margin, such as low-cost pansies or daisies.

Instead he focuses on merchandise with a proven record of sales, such as the soil blends, ornamental shrubs and olive trees.

“In the last two years, we’ve sold about 20-some-thousand olive trees. There’s a trend for five- to 10-acre orchards for olive oil,” Whitmore said. “We also supply landscape olive trees too. They’re very drought-tolerant and very well suited to this climate.”

— Raven J. Railey