From Groceries to Garden Ponds: John Olson’s Journey

By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs

John Olson is an inspiration for closet entrepreneurs who dream of turning a hobby into a multi-million dollar business. 

Olson, 46, is the CEO of Graystone Industries, a pond and fountain supplies distributor and retailer based in Cleveland, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta.  His company’s headquarters, a former executive retreat, also serves as his family’s home.  It sits on a picturesque 7.5-acre site that has a golf course, fishpond and wooded trails. 

Olson’s schedule is his own.  Typically, he starts the day at 5:00 a.m. with a light workout.  When he wants to, he can knock off work early to spend time with his kids.   

“I enjoy the lifestyle I have,” he said.  “The best part is I get to stay home with my family.”

It wasn’t always that way.  Prior to starting Graystone, Olson had a 15-year career with Publix Super Markets in Florida.  As a store manager, he worked a regimented schedule where nights, weekends and holidays were the norm. 

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“I know my customers, I know my products and I know my marketing.  That’s what matters the most.”   

— John Olson, Graystone Industries

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He also learned a lot about quality control and customer service through his employer’s frequent training programs.  Eventually, Olson led some of those training seminars himself, developing public speaking and leadership skills along the way.  In his spare time, he started a hobby: carving stone fountains and selling them to local nurseries.

Over time, the 60 and 70-hour workweeks took their toll.  The final straw came when Publix underwent a restructuring that cut compensation dramatically for its managers.  Olson took early retirement and spent six months thinking about what to do.

Meanwhile, his hobby flourished.  As orders increased, and the piles of fountain parts grew higher inside his house, Olson realized he had to do something.

“It was getting pretty cumbersome,” he said.

In January 2005, just after his 40th birthday, Olson decided to incorporate – and Graystone Creations was born.  As its online presence grew, other fountain makers began requesting supplies, so the company became a parts distributor (in addition to selling its fountains).  It renamed itself Graystone Industries and, later, added pond supplies to its product mix.

The company grossed around $2 million in 2010, a 3% annual increase that was considerably less than its 30% sales increase between 2009 and 2008.  “I had to cut back because I felt the growth was getting ahead of my ability to serve my customers,” Olson said. 

Olson describes his company as “basically a Mom and Pop operation.”  His wife, Evette, handles the accounting and programming while he takes care of customer relations and marketing.  Graystone outsources other key functions, such as warehouse orders and customer service, to contractors located in North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

Olson said he’s made “horrible mistakes,” including a few tax blunders after he incorporated.  He’s also had to find a way around his aversion to computers, which he managed to avoid while at Publix.  “I forced myself to learn one aspect,” he said.

He picked Internet marketing, figuring it had the most value for what he wanted to do:  build his customer base.  Olson taught himself about search engine optimization and other online marketing tactics, becoming so proficient that he wrote a book, “The Pond Pro’s Guide to….Internet Marketing,” to help others in his industry.

In 2009, Graystone moved its headquarters from Sunrise, Florida to Cleveland after Olson purchased the executive retreat, a foreclosure.  The site underwent a multi-million dollar construction project last year that added a new retail store/showroom and other ancillary structures.  A 3,700 square foot warehouse to service the Atlanta market is slated for completion by early 2012 (the company has another 7,400 square foot warehouse in Franklin, NC that serves other areas in the Southeast region).  

The Graystone complex – which has conference space and guest rooms, along with its other amenities – reflects another of Olson’s goals: to help others prosper and enjoy the type of lifestyle he has.  He plans to host meetings so industry colleagues and their families can convene to learn and relax, which he sees as a win-win.  “The more I can help my business customers grow, the more they are going to buy from me,” he said.

Olson said it took years to master the customer service fundamentals that became the foundation of Graystone Industries.  As a young man, he dabbled in entrepreneurship (and even tried making a movie at one point).  Back then, he didn’t have the experience or the wisdom to make it work, he said. 

Now, Olson oversees a company that he hopes will grow 10% annually once it adds to its infrastructure.  An expansion into the Midwest and Northeast is possible, he said.     

“To run your own business, you don’t need a four-year degree in computer science,” he said, “but you do need an understanding of consumer trends that relate to your industry.

“I know my customers, I know my products and I know my marketing.  That’s what matters the most.”

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About Lynne Strang

I'm a writer who blogs about 40-and-older business owners. I am also the author of "Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs: Eight Principles for Starting a Business After Age 40." Outside of work, I enjoy reading, cooking, vegetable gardening and exercise (especially cycling).
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