May 17, 2016
Paul Olsen
Paul Olsen
Paul Olsen, considered one of the most respected names in the Canadian nursery industry, served as president of Landscape Ontario from 1996 to 1997.

LO executive director, Tony DiGiovanni wrote about Paul following his death on March 3, 2018. “He was an amazing president to work with. He was always very supportive of staff. He was kind, engaged and cared deeply. He was easy to trust. Everyone wanted to work with him and for him. He was visionary and aspirational, but also conservative and practical.”

Writing in Horticulture Review in 1996, Paul wrote, “It is no secret that that many segments of our industry have been seriously hurt by the business climate of the last few years and that this has impacted not only on bottom lines, but also in attitudes relating to the quality of work, materials and services provided.” He foresaw a better year in 1997.

In April of 1997, Paul wrote, “Opportunities for a strong and sustained growth abound in our industry. As your president, I encourage you to move forward with renewed enthusiasm and confidence for the greatest season ever.”  

Tony DiGiovanni wrote, “During his presidency in 1996-1997, the association experienced excellent membership and financial growth. We started the Georgian Lakelands Chapter during his tenure. Paul also insisted the mortgage be paid down on the LO property in Milton so the association would be in a better position to serve the membership in the future.”

Tony also remembered, “When an LO president completes their term, they traditionally receive a ceremonial gavel and a president’s ring. Paul received this with grace, but he also did something different. He gifted the association with a large granite sign in celebration of our 25th anniversary. It still adorns the entrance of our home office and will always be a reminder of his legacy. It’s Paul’s rock.”

The end of his presidency was not the end of Paul’s service to the profession. He joined our Building Committee and the Steering Committee of Canada Blooms. He never said no to service. He also made very sizable donations of plant material to the home office and to Canada Blooms.

Paul was instrumental in the founding of Canada Blooms and he supported the show with his wisdom, business acumen, relationship-building talent and with hundreds of plants.

In 2001, Landscape Ontario asked Paul to represent LO on the Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association Board of Directors. Nationally, he was quickly recognized for his leadership abilities and was again fast tracked to become CNLA president, serving from 2005 to 2007.

As president, Paul focused on the alignment of vision and goals between the provincial and national associations. He insisted on collaboration instead of competition. At the time CNLA was struggling financially and Paul did the impossible. He convinced the provinces it was their duty to fund the national association to a level where it would be free to focus on integrated work that would benefit everyone.

Paul wrote to all the provincial executive directors across Canada, “I trust that everyone will keep this ‘top of mind’ no matter what the issue. Everything we do must have a win/win side to it. It is critical that the executive directors continue their efforts to mesh and harmonize agendas creating efficiencies where ever and whenever possible. A legacy that we could leave would be a restructured CNLA that is truly the hub of the wheel, which is what it was originally intended to be, to wit: Advancing our industry nationally and internationally.”

In 2007, Paul received the highest honour Landscape Ontario bestows, becoming an Honourary Life Member. In a touching ceremony at Congress, Paul’s son Jeff made the presentation.

Also, in 2007 Paul was asked to lead a delegation to China. He always represented the entire profession very well.

Paul Olsen was also the LO representative on the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre Board of Directors. He worked his collaborative magic with that organization. It grew from a few scientists and support staff to an extremely effective organization of over 50 scientists and many more support staff. Vineland benefited from his wisdom, energy, business acumen and service-oriented nature.

Started in industry at young age

At a young age, Paul began helping his dad in his garden maintenance business. He left school in grade ten when his father Ejnar passed away. “My education was hands-on,” remembered Paul in an interview with Horticulture Review.

A family friend and mentor, Don Jennings, encouraged him to find a vocation. Jennings at the time worked at Weall & Cullen. “The Ontario Agricultural College was offering the Ontario Diploma in Horticulture (ODH) correspondence course, and Professor John Weall encouraged me to take the course, while I worked for Weall & Cullen,” said Paul.

In the meantime, Paul Olsen was making an impression on the business’s owner Len Cullen. “I worked at everything from delivery truck driver, sales to eventually garden centre manager by the age of 19,” said Paul.

At the age of 23, Paul decided to strike out on own to start a landscaping business. He remembers the great support Len Cullen gave him. “He (Cullen) told me that if I went out on my own, that he would provide me with his contacts as they were going to exit that phase of their business.” More importantly, Paul remembered the many life lessons Len Cullen taught him. “He taught me that no matter what your position in life, if you worked your butt off, you will succeed.” It’s an early lesson that Paul never forgot.

Family issues became a priority after his wife was diagnosed with what was thought to be a serious illness. This later turned out to be a misdiagnosis, but Paul had made the decision to sell his business and began working for Amsen Associates, one of the largest landscape companies in the province. He was responsible for developing the wholesale nursery side and sod parts of the business known as Assagi Nurseries. “I took a few years to be close with my wife and our three children,” he said.

Business was booming, but the nursery company’s decision to liquidate that portion of the business moved Paul Olsen on to an exciting new chapter in his life. He decided to purchase the trees and equipment from Assag. In 1977, Olsen began Treeland Wholesale Nursery in Mississauga with partners Irv Goddard of Meadowlands Nursery and Ib Petersen.

“In the first year, we went from zero to one-million in sales,” said Paul. Business continued to flourish throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s through strong relationships with the largest landscape contractors in the province.

“We were the first to bring tree spades into Ontario,” remembered Paul. During that time, the company took on prestigious projects such as Canada’s Wonderland, the Peace Garden in Toronto and most of the Bramalea Street tree supply. “We were also the first company to ship trees during the summer, allowing major landscapers to continue their planting projects throughout the summer months.”

A huge step was taken by the company with the merger of Treeland and Brookdale Kingsway Nurseries. Brookdale Kingsway had large land and inventory holdings, while Treeland had the sales channels to support them. It became the first national nursery of its kind with locations in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

The recession in 1993 resulted in the company consolidating its operations, and closing the facilities in Quebec and British Columbia. The core operations were returned to Ontario.

In 2011, Paul Olsen sold the operation to his son Jeff. “All three of my children work in the industry,” said Paul. Son Peter operates MD Growers in Niagara-on-the-Lake, while daughter Diane runs the HR department that administers BTN’s 300 peak-time employees.

Paul Olsen also credits Len Cullen for inspiring him to become involved in industry associations. “Nearly 57 years ago, Len was involved in the Ontario Nurserymen’s Association. He inspired me to also get involved.”

A published recollection by Rita Weerdenburg, founder of Horticulture Review and long-time publisher of industry news, wrote, “Paul was a truly special pioneer and lifelong contributor to the landscape/nursery profession. He was a man of integrity and honesty. He was passionate about the industry and cared deeply about the people working in it. He was a mentor to many, including me. His energy and actions have positively enhanced the entire horticultural profession across Canada and beyond.”

In 1989, there was a recession at the time. Paul, along with a number of visionaries, started an organization called the Garden Council of Canada. Its mission was to stimulate demand by promoting the joys and benefits of gardening to the public. That experience led to another project where through his leadership, energy and collaborative nature, he convinced a number of competing growers to create an “Ontario Grown” brand to collectively market the benefits of using home grown plant material.

Living tribute

On June 20, 2018, Landscape Ontario’s Provincial Board of Directors joined members of the Olsen family for a special memorial tree dedication ceremony for the late Paul Olsen at the LO home office in Milton, Ont.

Warren Patterson, then LO President, welcomed those in attendance and spoke a few words about his personal experience with Olsen. “It was Paul who got me involved in this industry and encouraged me to start,” Patterson said. “I can’t think of another individual that I feel had the vision — he was always thinking five or 10 years ahead about what the opportunities were, and how we could make this industry better.”

“I would like to thank Linda, Peter, Jeff and Diane for supporting Paul during all of the volunteer hours he gave to the industry and the association,” Patterson continued, “Because of him, we have a legacy here that we are thankful and grateful for, and he will always be remembered.”

Son Jeff spoke on behalf of the family about his father’s two main passions: Landscape Ontario and trees. “We grew this Autumn Blaze maple at our farms in Port Hope, and I thought it would be very special that we planted a tree that my dad actually saw,” Olsen said.

Industry leaders pay tribute

A number of well-known industry leaders gave their thoughts on Paul Olsen.

John Langendoen of Willowbrook Nurseries in Fenwick, remembered, “I was competing against Paul on a very large quote for a landscaper and he called me up to come and see him regarding this customer. He warned me to be very careful with this customer. This customer had a history of not paying his bills. So, knowing that, we approached this customer cautiously. We ended up getting the job and made sure we got paid in monthly installments. This landscaper did go broke. Had Paul not warned us, we might have been burned and we would have lost our business. Thank you, Paul! We were competitors and we were comrades.”

Michael Murray of Murray’s Horticultural Services, Portugal Cove, Nfld., said, “Paul was a progressive businessman who liked new ideas, innovation and looked for opportunities to grow Brookdale Treeland Nurseries into an industry powerhouse. I remember well the day Cle Newhook and I suggested the CNLA and its affiliated provincial members spearhead a more aggressive stance of political lobbying and government engagement. Paul recommended in his statement to the board of directors, ‘You know these Newfoundlanders are right, we need to be more deliberate and consistent in putting our concerns forward to government.’ Paul Olsen and Cle Newhook were great industry leaders. They helped provide a great vision for the CNLA and its provincial affiliated members to engage ourselves, the communities around us and our elected political representatives.”

Joan Johnston of Peter Knippel Garden Centre in Gloucester, “I always appreciated Paul for being a dedicated volunteer, a forward thinker and a good businessman. He always understood issues with maturity and a broad perspective. He could be concerned about problems but still see the bright side. But what impressed me most was his kindness — not always a strong point of the successful.”

Vic Krahn of Lakeshore Tree Farms in Saskatoon, Sask., mused on the P. ramorum crisis, when nurseries were being quarantined, stock ordered destroyed, and nobody was receiving a dime of compensation. Meanwhile, a quarantine pest was plaguing potato farmers in a small area of Quebec; compensation appeared within three months. Krahn reflected on a meeting with a CFIA official, a lifelong bureaucrat in a wonderful suit, coincidentally from Quebec. He remembers Paul Olsen taking control of that meeting: “Paul folded his hands, and said, ‘While there has been a lot of talk, I would never say that Quebec farmers were receiving favoured status. I understand that CFIA is above reproach. However, appearances could certainly be construed that way.’” According to Krahn, the official became quite agitated and it was after this meeting that positive action was initiated towards compensation and eradication of positive P. ramorum plants.

There’s a famous quote that describes how Paul Olsen approached his life and work, “I learned the value of hard work by working hard.” It was his philosophy to success that he learned so long ago. A legacy that many who knew him carry on today.

Members of 1996-1997 Landscape Ontario Board of Directors

President: Paul Olsen
Past President: Frans Peters
1st Vice President: Henry DeBoer
2nd Vice President: David Turnbull
Treasurer: Gerald Boot
Members at Large: Joan Johnston, Jim McMillen
Executive Director: Tony DiGiovanni