Co-owner, chief operating officer
Al’s Garden & Home
OAN member since 2009
• Government Relations Committee Chair (2021, 2022)
• Political Awareness Award (2019)
• Past President (2017)
• OAN Executive Committee (2011–2017)
• Young Nursery Person of the Year (2002)
• Yard, Garden & Patio Show Chair, Committee (2000)
Tell us about yourself.
I am part of the third generation to run a family-owned-and-operated business that began back in 1948. My grandfather, Al Bigej, first set up his roadside fruit stand in Woodburn to serve people traveling Highway 99E. In the late 1950s, my father Jack jumped in to add plants into the mix. Today, Al’s Garden & Home is a full-service garden center with a growing operation to support it.
I grew up in the business, working on weekends and during school breaks. Some of my earliest memories include a trip to Hawaii for the OAN Convention — and I also loved competing in the Nursery Olympics. After graduating from Canby High School, I was lucky enough to receive scholarships from the Oregon Nurseries Foundation four years in a row. 1994 was a big year for me: I graduated with a horticulture degree from Oregon State University, joined the family business full time, and married the love of my life, Amy.
I have two sisters who also came back to the family business and are co-owners with myself as well as my dad. The four of us have expanded Al’s into one of the largest grower-retailers in Oregon with four retail locations in Woodburn, Sherwood, Wilsonville and Gresham and growing operations in Hubbard, Mt. Angel and Gresham. I currently oversee the retail portion of the business.
What’s your guiding principle?
When I think of guiding principles, two come to my mind. The first is no matter what the situation is, always try to do what’s right. The second would be never to take myself too seriously. Life is too short. If you can’t laugh at yourself, who are you going to laugh at?
What’s a goal you have yet to achieve?
My biggest goal is to turn Jeff Stone into a true Beaver Believer. I have seen him wear black and orange (yes, he looked good) and have even heard him utter the words “Go Beavs” — alcohol may or may not have been involved. I consider these things progress and I am hopeful to achieve my lifelong goal.
Best business decision?
Our best business decision was to take a chance and build our Sherwood retail store in 2005. We located the store on what was then a newly opened road out in the country between Sherwood, Tigard and Beaverton. That was a decision we do not regret!
Hardest business decision?
The most challenging and stressful business decisions I have made were around navigating the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every week, I helped make decisions that greatly impacted our employees, our customers, and our ability to stay in business.
Who is your most significant mentor?
My most significant mentors would be, first, my dad: who has taught me everything I know about hard work and treating people fairly. Second, a professor and friend from my tenure at Iowa State University, Dr. David Koranski. He challenged me intellectually like I had never been challenged before. He made learning and critical thinking fun. He was also an outstanding example of following your guiding principles and always doing what you think is right, no matter the cost.
Best business advice?
The best business advice I have ever heard came from my dad. I quote it often: “The only way to coast is downhill.” This philosophy speaks volumes as to how this business has been built over the past 73 years.
What do you love most about the nursery industry?
I have said often that what I love most about the nursery industry is the people. People in this industry, by and large, truly care about one another. The industry is just filled with great men and women. No matter where I go, people are willing to help each other learn and grow — it doesn’t matter if you are in direct competition down the street from one another or across the country. It is truly a sharing and caring industry.
What is your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge is continuing to learn and develop as a leader. I am blessed to be surrounded by amazing people in both our business and in the OAN. I am forever trying to learn how to encourage people, let them do what they do best, and stay out of their way as they take things to new heights.
What motivates you to go to work every day?
I would say my biggest motivating factor to go to work every day is my wife. Every morning she puts two feet squarely in my back, pushes me out of bed, and says, “Get to work!”
What are you most proud of?
Without hesitation, I would say I am most proud of my immediate family — my amazing wife and kids. I have been blessed beyond belief with my wife of 27 years and our five children. Amy and I couldn’t be prouder of the good-hearted, independent, caring and hardworking young adults and teenagers they have each turned into.
Involvement with OAN
I have been going to OAN functions for as long back as I can remember. On a chapter level, I worked the Retail Chapter plant auctions to support that ONF for years. My wife and I helped with the kids’ program at a couple of OAN conventions, where my most outstanding memory is babysitting a then-rebellious teenager named Kyle Fessler (an OAN president). I started sitting on the Yard, Garden and Patio Show Committee in 1994 and eventually served as chair in 2000. I was asked to join the Executive Committee as Member at Large by Jerry Simnitt in 2011, working my way through the various positions until serving as president in 2016. I have enjoyed sitting on the Government Relations Committee since 2012 and am currently serving as the committee chair.
In your opinion, what are the most critical challenges facing the nursery industry today?
I believe the most critical challenge facing the nursery industry is remaining relevant in the eyes of the younger generations and new gardeners. While the COVID-19 pandemic has had many negative impacts, it has also made a positive change for our industry. More people have turned to plants to improve both their indoor and outdoor spaces than ever before. I believe our next challenge is to retain those gardeners. We have been given the gift of the attention of a whole new generation — the key to our future. We need to be in tune with all those new to gardening and find a way to keep them engaged and visiting our stores and buying our products for years to come.