Alumni News Profile: Sandra (Meyer) Richter '83
Sandra (Meyer) Richter ’83 says the success of Sandy’s Back Porch, her Belleville, Ill., greenhouse and retail garden center, is rooted in the business education she received at McKendree.
“I worked as a bookkeeper-accountant the whole time I was going to school,” says the former commuter student. “I totally loved it there. I liked the small classes and the campus was absolutely gorgeous.”
Early in her career Sandy was a financial analyst for Venture stores and later supervised accounting for a St. Louis printing company. After her first child was born, she took part-time accounting jobs closer to home. She and her husband Kevin, a Belleville attorney, have four children: Kyle, 24, a Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan; Chad, 24, a law school student; Kim, 22, a recent college graduate; and Bryce, 16, an Althoff High School senior.
Once the kids reached school age, Sandy was ready to get her hands dirty. “I needed to get back into work full-time but I really wanted to do something different. I didn’t start gardening until we had our first house and I still had small children. As a kid, I always enjoyed working in the yard, always wanted to cut the grass.”
A part-time job at a local garden center provided hands-on experience. “I had to figure out that it is a hot job, a cold job, a wet job—it’s a very difficult job to do. People come in here on a beautiful day, it’s 72 degrees and they say, “Oh, I’d love to work here.’ There are a lot of crummy days to go with those beautiful days! It’s really hard, heavy, stinky work. But I just knew that I wanted to do that.”
Eighteen months later, Sandy was ready to buy a garden center of her own. Her uncle, a greenhouse owner in Nashville, Ill., knew a Belleville tree nurseryman who might be willing to sell his business. “When I walked in and saw this beautiful building with all the windows, I knew this was it,” she recalls. Her offer was accepted and in November 2004, she incorporated as Sandy’s Back Porch, anticipating a spring 2005 opening. “People told me, ‘There’s no way you’ll be ready.’ But I thought, ‘Watch me.’ I just knew in my heart it was going to work.”
There were setbacks. The seedlings, or “plugs,” she ordered arrived well before the first greenhouse was set up. For a week in February, over 15,000 of them sat on trays, shelves and in windows, waiting to be planted. “I thought they were going to die. I must have had 25 people here—friends, family, relatives, everyone I could pull in to help me. It took a whole week to get everything planted. It was amazing. Everything just gelled. I kept saying it was meant to be.”
Sandy’s Back Porch opened that spring.
Today, Sandy and 14 staff members run the retail store and two heated greenhouses. “We sell 20,000 annuals, 2,000 perennials and 500 hanging baskets that we grow ourselves,” she says proudly. “Next year we will grow our own veggies.”
She has no formal horticultural training. Her yard and a deck full of container gardens are the test area for new products and plant varieties.
To realize her dream, Sandy says it took “gridiron determination,” a supportive family, optimism, hard work and education. “There would have been no way I could have done this had I not had a business and accounting background. This business is like farming; it’s all seasonal.”
A typical workday is spent placing orders, assisting customers and planning advertising. “Marketing was my least favorite class in school,” she admits. “I’m a debits and credits kind of girl. On my days off, I go to nurseries in St. Louis to watch what they’re doing.”
Observing that most of her customers are ladies, bright pink became her signature color. “I never wore it before this. But I wanted people to know this is a girls’ place, so we wear pink shirts.” The pink Jeep in the parking lot was her kids’ idea. “My son said, ‘You need a fun car,’ and my daughter said, ‘You should paint it pink.’”
She reaches customers through an enewsletter, website, radio ads, social media, free workshops, and community and school group presentations.
“We want people to be successful in their gardens. I don’t think it’s a ‘green thumb.’ Just have to enjoy it and devote time to it.”