Article by Georgiann Potts
Photography by Kelly Moore Clark
After 47 years in the business, this fellow knows his plants, chemicals, and hardscape better than just about anyone. His body of knowledge built on experience — which he freely offers to his customers — is worth more than anything he sells. Because of his business success, his “always glad to help” attitude, and his willingness to support this region, Sonny Panzico is our December Bayou Icon.
Sonny Panzico is a busy man. He’s been a busy man his entire life, and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon. An entrepreneur who has built a phenomenal business literally from the ground up, Panzico is recognized today as one of this region’s premier businessmen. From a small start when he bought Johnny Bayle’s Garden Mart 47 years ago, to today when his “Sonny Panzico’s Garden Mart” stores are meccas for gardeners throughout north Louisiana and south Arkansas, Sonny’s is an enviable success story. He describes himself as a “simple man”, but don’t be fooled by his easy-going manner. After 47 years in the business, this fellow knows his plants, chemicals, and hardscape better than just about anyone. His body of knowledge built on experience — which he freely offers to his customers — is worth more than anything he sells. Because of his business success, his “always glad to help” attitude, and his willingness to support this region, Sonny Panzico is our December Bayou Icon.
When Sonny Panzico was growing up on Monroe’s southside, he spent a lot of time talking with his father. Remembering those conversations would become even more precious to Sonny later in his life as he began developing his own career. His father was his mentor and taught Sonny both by example and through those conversations. When Sonny was 15 years old, his dad suffered a heart attack and passed away.
Sonny began working when he was just 12 years old, selling groceries in his dad’s store, Leon’s Place on Jackson Street. Sonny’s dad was also in the livestock business, so the young boy would accompany his dad to the sale barns. Sonny’s minister, Brother Charles Littleton at Central Baptist Church, became a father figure for the young teenager. Through both his dad and Brother Charles, Sonny learned to respect everyone and to treat people with honesty and fairness. That has been a guiding principle throughout his life and career.
Sonny was born at home, the next to the eldest of seven children. He was the oldest boy with a younger brother and five sisters. Sonny has lived in Monroe for his entire life. He went to Lida Benton Elementary and then started high school at Neville. When the family moved, he transferred to Ouachita Parish High School to complete his high school studies.
A CAREER PATH BECKONS
After his high school graduation, Sonny enrolled at Northeast Louisiana State College (now ULM) and majored in speech education. He graduated in 1965, thinking that he would have a career as a teacher. He took a position teaching Distributive Education at Ouachita Parish High School and taught one year there. He loved teaching and working with the students, but the pay ($265 per month) simply was not enough with which to support a family. Sonny learned important lessons about himself from this brief stint in teaching. For one, he learned that he had a gift for teaching others how to do things. For another, he learned that he loved interacting with people. Interestingly, he has spent the rest of his career doing both.
Sonny next took a job as a sales representative for Proctor & Gamble selling in their soap products division. His experience working in his dad’s grocery store paid off! He held this position successfully for five years, during which time he further developed both his people skills and selling skills. He then took a position selling small package chemicals (Ortho products) for Chevron Chemical Company. He sold to the chain stores and independently-owned hardware stores, all the while learning all he could about the products he was selling. For five years, Sonny immersed himself in this area of the business, making important contacts in the process and gaining knowledge that would help him succeed in his own nursery adventure.
BECOMING A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER
“After calling on all of these stores during those years, I knew that I needed to go into business for myself,” Sonny explains. “I always thought I could be successful if I had an opportunity because I said no one could outwork me.” That opportunity came when Johnny Bayle’s Garden Mart next to TG&Y in Northgate Shopping Center on Forsythe Avenue came available for sale. Sonny saw the possibilities and bought the business. This was 1975 and marked the beginning of Sonny’s nursery business.
Armed with a good working knowledge of chemicals and fertilizer, Sonny was all set – except for the fact that he really knew very little about plants. He had no experience to speak of with them, so he did what every smart businessman does – he found someone to fill that gap. That “someone” was Mrs. Buick. Sonny had met her when he called on her at Sears where she worked. While he was there selling Ortho products, he noticed how good she was at her job and how knowledgeable she was about plants.
As luck would have it, he ran into Mrs. Buick one day soon after buying Johnny Bayle’s Garden Mart and he asked what she was doing. She said she was looking for a job. He hired her on the spot. “One day not long after, the plant suppler arrived with his big 18-wheeler filled with plants for me to choose from to stock the nursery,” Sonny says. “I found Mrs. Buick and asked her to climb in there and tell me what I needed to buy that would sell. Based on her experience, she carefully selected what would live in our climate and what would likely sell well in our market. She saved me in those early years!”
Through the years, Sonny has learned everything he can about plants. Today when a customer asks for a particular plant, he will not hesitate to draw from that store of experiential knowledge and gently suggest an alternative that would grow better in the environment that customer envisions. He can give the common name for the plant (Dumb Cane Plant, for example) as well as its “official” name (Dieffenbachia) together with where it will grow best, how much sunlight and water is required, and the plant’s overall hardiness. That’s a kind of customer service that is rarely found anymore. And it’s the kind of customer service that has been a hallmark of Panzico stores from the very beginning.
EXPAND, READY OR NOT…
Sonny’s Northgate Nursery grew quickly and business was great – but that growth meant that gradually the business was limited by lack of parking and store space. He loved the location as did his customers, but his future growth there wasn’t feasible with only 2,000 square feet of space. After checking out several locations, Sonny bought three adjacent lots on Forsythe Avenue and built his first building. This location, too, proved to be an excellent one. However, over time it also became too small to handle parking and nursery stock. Once again, Sonny had to move and expand.
In 1984, Sonny built a new building on Arkansas Road in West Monroe and opened a second Sonny Panzico’s Garden Mart there. The following year he opened a third garden center – this time in Lake Shore on DeSiard Street. All of these proved to be excellent locations.
Even as he was developing these stores, Sonny was becoming increasingly aware that he was going to have to go bigger still, or get out of the business altogether. Among the factors influencing him was watching the growth of garden centers as part of the chain stores. These centers provided plants, but often ones that would not thrive in this climate. In addition, many of the sales persons did not even know what the plant was that they were trying to sell. In other words, there was almost no support for the customer. Seeing that void, Sonny began looking for property on which to build his dream – a garden center superstore!
In 2012, Sonny and his son-in-law, Mark Lindstrum, acquired 9 acres of land on Highway 165N. The location was ideal – handy for customers from north Louisiana and south Arkansas, and located on a major highway. With careful planning based on four decades of experience in the business, Sonny designed and built his superstore. The 40,000 square foot facility is divided roughly into thirds – one third is chemicals, one third is fertilizer, and one third is hardscape — a huge selection that includes fountains, outdoor furniture and kitchens, statuary, umbrellas, garden flags, birdhouses, grills, and countless other items just ready to go home with a customer. “Being in business for myself has been both professionally and personally rewarding to me because my dream has come true,” Sonny says. “I have accomplished my goals of owning and building my own business. The bonus? I love what I do every day!”
SUCCESS BEGINS WITH PEOPLE
When a customer walks in Sonny Panzico’s Garden Superstore, one thing that he may notice is an easel that holds a large framed “Thank you!” to four very special individuals who helped Sonny during his career. There are pictures of each with a small label giving their names and specific store location where they worked and for how long. “I have always surrounded myself with the best people I could find,” Sonny says. “Because of that, I have to say that my business success has been a real team effort.”
When Sonny speaks of these four, it becomes apparent that they are like family to him. Jeff Gooden (32+ years), Jack Essex (26 years), Kathryn Holloway (10 years), and Cheryl Lowe (32 years) were pillars who helped Sonny build the business to what it is today. Sonny is visibly moved when he talks about the difference each made both in his life and his business.
For example, when Sonny was approached by customers wanting to buy flocked Christmas trees, he needed someone to handle that job. In stepped Jeff Gooden, who learned how to flock and then flocked trees every year for Sonny to sell. “I remember one time when we had put all of the trees outdoors for overnight. Early the next morning I was awakened by rain falling. I hurriedly got dressed and went to the store to rescue as many trees as I could. When I got there, Jeff had already gone to the store and moved them all indoors,” Sonny remembers. “That was Jeff – always doing what needed to be done without being asked.”
At the beginning of his business, Sonny hired Jack Essex to grow plants for Sonny to sell. Over time, it became cost-prohibitive to grow his own, so Sonny asked Jack to come to Forsythe to work in the store. “Jack was a natural with customers,” Sonny says. “They loved him! At his funeral, the majority of those attending were customers of his.”
The two ladies honored, Cheryl Lowe and Kathryn Holloway, were equally instrumental in their leadership at Panzico’s. Lowe ran the West Monroe store for Sonny, and Holloway made sure his plant stock was up-to-date. “When I had this team together, it was the best team I ever had – but I didn’t realize it at the time,” Sonny explains. “One of the biggest challenges I face today is finding people like them to work for me. It isn’t like it used to be.”
FAMILY MAKES LIFE WORTH LIVING
Not only does Sonny have cherished workers he considers to be “family,” he also has a strong traditional family. Twenty-five years ago, he married Alyce Smith – “the love of my life!” Alyce had been a customer and worked for Sonny at both the Monroe and West Monroe stores. Alyce shares with him an extended family that includes 3 daughters, 8 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren (and there’s another on the way). Sonny adores them all, but his three daughters — Cindy, Lori, and Lee Ann — hold a special place in his heart.
So far, none of Sonny’s grandchildren have shown any interest in coming into the business and eventually taking it over. “I know I can’t take anything with me when I’m gone, but I’d like to think that someone in the family would carry it on,” Sonny explains. “I think the reason that they don’t recognize this as an opportunity is because they’ve grown up seeing how hard I work every day. That doesn’t appeal to young people today.”
When asked about what he enjoys doing outside of work, Sonny laughed and said, “When you own a business and you want to be successful, you don’t have a lot of hobbies.” He does admit to sneaking away before sunrise on occasion during hunting season so that he can get into the woods, watch them come alive, and have some quiet time to himself to sort through his thoughts. He did try golf once, but quickly decided that chasing a ball around a course just wasn’t his “thing.” Sonny also doesn’t belong to any organizations. He prefers to spend any free time that he has with his family.
When Sonny was young and working as a sales representative, he saw many businesses that were unsuccessful. Their owners and workforce weren’t committed to the business, and that doomed them to slow- or no-growth. Sonny knew that he could do better than that, and he has. There have been challenges, of course. Financing business expansions, finding good people with both experience and a strong work ethic, and looking to the future in order to make good business decisions that will promote future growth – these are issues that must be addressed to ensure success.
A businessman must also be prepared to meet the unexpected challenges that life brings. Like everyone else, Sonny was impacted by the pandemic. Today he continues to adjust to the changes in the economy and general business climate. For example, for years he ordered his Christmas trees from Oregon, the best in the business. Today, however, because of freight price increases, his Christmas trees are coming from North Carolina. “When the charge to ship the trees from Oregon rose from around $5,000 per season to over $12,000 per season, I had to make a change,” Sonny explains.
With his goal firmly in mind and a determination to build the finest business he possibly could, Sonny hasn’t drawn a regular paycheck from his business in 47 years. Any extra that he had was invested back into the business so that it could grow. It takes courage to start a business, grow that business, and make enough money to pay workers, bills, and bank notes! “I know my obligations so I don’t take many vacations,” Sonny says with a smile. “I have to make enough money to pay my people and my suppliers.”
Usually casually dressed in gently-worn jeans, a comfortable t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap, it’s easy for new customers to mistake Sonny for one of the “hired help.” Truth is, he probably works harder than anyone else to keep his business successful.
Sonny Panzico is many things, but a “simple man living a simple life” doesn’t begin to describe him! Bayou Life proudly salutes this remarkable businessman and looks forward to watching his continued success.