02: Horace & Miracle Gro

The story of the millions behind the Hagedorn Foundation began with a meeting of the minds between a man with a green thumb, Otto Stern, and a man with a genius for marketing and promotion, Horace Hagedorn.

Horace came by his promotional skills honestly: He inherited them from his mother, Blanche. “Everybody in the family said she was a brilliant marketing person,” Amy recalled in a series of interviews for this history. What Blanche sold was made-to-measure shirtwaist dresses: manufactured, but left unfinished until they were tailored to fit a customer.

“She hired somebody to come with her, to carry a big suitcase of these shirtwaists, and she would go door-to-door, or to people she knew in her neighborhood and on the Upper West Side,” Amy said. “She started that way and then developed a store. Her husband came to work for her in the store.” That store that Blanche and Alfred ran together was the start of the family’s wealth.

“Meanwhile, my grandfather started dabbling in real estate, and when the 1929 crash happened, I guess took advantage of that time and made a fortune in real estate,” said Susan Hagedorn, Horace’s daughter, in “Meet Mr. Miracle-Gro,” a documentary about Horace that she produced. “And there was my father, who was not a particularly talented boy, was not a good reader, was overweight, was not very popular, but had that creativity that his mother had.”

In the documentary—a collection of reminiscences by Horace, friends, and family, including his children and Amy—Horace described himself as a dreamer, not very good at any sport, including baseball. He recalled standing indolently in left field, as the ball rolled past him, and his teammates yelled at him to chase it down. Horace was more interested in art and design—and radio. “We were all brought up on radio,” Horace said in the documentary. “Radio was the mother of our imagination.”

For Horace, that childhood fascination evolved into an adult livelihood. “I wanted to get into the advertising business,” Horace said. “Radio was the advertising business.” He sold radio ads for NBC, then moved into programing, with a series about reporters and their stories of crime, called “The Big Story,” first on radio, then on television.

As an advertising executive, Horace had a philosophy. “The old man’s view of the world is find a need and fill it,” said his son, Jim. That core idea came into play with one of Horace’s clients, Otto Stern, who ran a nursery in upstate New York. Otto simply wanted some help with his catalog.

“We were selling tomatoes and rose plants and apple trees, and all sorts of things like that,” Horace recalled. But those plants and trees, sold to new homeowners, didn’t have to be replaced. They didn’t lead to reliably repeated purchases. “We had to find something that was consumable, something that you couldn’t get enough of,” Horace said. “We zeroed in on fertilizer, because that’s great. You pour a little bit on the ground, and you go to the store, and you buy more.”

As Amy tells it, Horace had read a magazine article about a Rutgers University agronomist who was an expert in orchids and used a water-soluble powder concoction to revivify plants. That became the consumable stuff Horace had been seeking. It could be sold over and over again. They dubbed it Miracle-Gro. “There’s some dispute,” Amy said. His children, she recalled, said that it was Horace’s first wife, Margaret, who came up with the name. “He always claimed that he gave it the name. But the bullseye on the package was definitely Horace’s work, and the look of the package.”

Horace put up some of the capital for Miracle-Gro, and he partnered with Stern, the nursery owner, and later bought Stern out. What Horace brought to Miracle-Gro was a relentless, granular attention to the commercials. With those commercials—many of them featuring craggy-faced actor James Whitmore—and with the help of his sons, he built the business constantly upward. Eventually, it caught the attention of Scotts, the lawn-care giant.

“We scared them so bad with it that they had to buy our company, by essentially giving us 40 percent of their stock,” said Horace’s son, Peter. Horace credited his son, Jim, for the financial arrangement. “He insisted that, when we merged with Scotts, that we get stock, only stock,” Horace said. “So, before we knew it, we had the controlling share of Scotts.”

This is how the current company, ScottsMiracle-Gro, now run by Jim Hagedorn, describes that transaction: “Scotts merged with Stern’s Miracle-Gro Products, Inc. in 1995, joining America’s leading brand name in gardening with the leading name in lawn care.”

That merger produced for Horace roughly $40 million, which enabled him to become a serious philanthropist—with the help of his second wife, Amy.

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