Entertaining and compelling real-life stories with valuable
lessons on how to succeed in business and in life.
The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on November 3, 2009

Today: A successful entrepreneur who got her business idea in a most unlikely place.

She was Mary Lou Heard from Orange County, California, a place famous for such attractions as Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. She created Heard’s Country Garden which you may not be familiar with but over the years, it too attracted thousands of people.

It was a nursery known for its lush and colorful flower selections that would captivate the senses. Picture yellow flowers bright as sunshine, reds deeper than crystal cut rubies and blues as light as the sky at sunrise. Its green flowers appeared to have grown alongside an Irish stream.

Yet Mary Lou had very little business experience when she started her Country Garden. And she didn’t even start it until 1985 when she was 40 years old.

Where did she get her business idea? In her 30’s, Mary Lou went through a difficult divorce and struggled to raise her 10 year old daughter, while she fought depression.

The depression spiraled out of control and Mary Lou was hospitalized and put under psychiatric care.

One day on the hospital grounds she saw a garden that had gone to seed. She got down on her hands and knees tending to the soil, nurturing the flowers and pulling the weeds.

Mary Lou loved the feeling of the soil on her fingertips and was uplifted by the flowers responding to her touch. Soon she stopped being so depressed and tearful and would awaken each morning and dress quickly, anxious to tend to her garden.

“My heart was at peace,” she remarked many years later. “And though I didn’t know it at the time, the long road to healing had begun.”

After her discharge from the hospital, Mary Lou took horticulture classes at a local college and began avidly planting flowers in the apartment complex where she lived. On weekends she’d sell her flowers at a swap meet.

Without realizing it, she had gotten into business. Soon, every bit of dirt in the apartment complex was covered with her flowers. Yet she needed more space. But where?

Mary Lou drove the streets of Orange County looking for a cheap vacant lot to rent, for she didn’t have much money. Then when it seemed like she’d never find anything, while driving on an “out of the way street,” she discovered a lot with a small rundown building.

Its potential hit her immediately as she pictured the old building as a “doll house.” Mary Lou found the courage to approach the family that owned it to see if they’d rent part of their property to her.

To them she was a stranger and it took the family a week to finally agree to rent to her. And when they did, she was so excited Mary Lou didn’t worry about having no business plan.

It didn’t matter. “I threw myself into the cleanup effort (I was never short of elbow grease), put a coat of paint and some curtains on the building and it became my cottage,” she wrote with great satisfaction years later.

“I couldn’t wait to get there in the morning, and I hated to leave at night. I was gardening and my heart was at peace.”

Mary Lou learned to buy plantings from wholesalers and then apply her magic to make them as lush as possible and what she could not find wholesale, she planted from seeds.

Even though the location was “out of the way,” it didn’t matter. A writer from The Orange County Register wrote a warm article about it and customers came to see it and clearly loved what they saw. Word of mouth spread and Mary Lou’s little nursery soon became very popular.

As it did, the owners offered her much more of their property. But it was risky for her.

To add additional property would sharply raise Mary Lou’s overhead. Her monthly rent would be higher and she’d need to hire more people and invest in more buildings and in more plants.

And what if the family later cancelled her lease or raised her rent to the unaffordable? But Mary Lou didn’t hesitate and joyfully said, “Yes.” And here is something that may stun you. Her contract with the family was just a handshake for the relationship was based upon mutual trust.

“At the end of each day,” she later wrote “I would look around at trays full of plants all ‘cleaned up’ like little children with freshly scrubbed faces and in clean pajamas ready for bed.

“I would be covered in dirt and exhausted – but it was a wonderful feeling. All my energy spent in tasks that I loved – I wouldn’t realize how tired I was until I finally sat down for the first time.

“I ached – but felt good. I usually fell asleep before I had a chance to watch a single television program.”

For an entrepreneur, this is what a successful business is, doing what you love. The money will follow. And for the next 17 years, Mary Lou ran a very successful business.

Then tragedy struck.

“I always knew our crew was special,” she wrote. “We were more like family than co-workers. But I never knew until June of 2000 when I was diagnosed with colon cancer. They were right by my side throughout the ordeal and without a complaint they took on the additional work load and kept the place running without ever missing a beat.”

Of her customers, she wrote “You have become more than customers to us – you have become friends. We laughed with you when you had joy to share and cried with you when you hurt. You made it all possible – you are Heard’s Gardens and you blessed us.

“I know I speak for all of us when I say thank you. Thank you for standing by us when conditions were less than ideal. Thank you for your loyalty and friendship. Thank you.”

For two years, Mary Lou fought valiantly but on September 18, 2002 she passed away, survived by her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. She was 57.

But in rising from the ashes of what had been a deeply troubled depression driven life to one of joy and purpose, Mary Lou Heard uplifted thousands of lives and brought warmth and color and friendship to each person. Today she may have uplifted your life as well.

Success Tip of the Week: Like Mary Lou, find your joy in life and pursue it with all your heart.

Editor’s Note: Today’s quotes were taken from Mary Lou’s goodbye letter written in the Spring of 2002. To read that letter and learn more about her and the charitable work her foundation does, including annual garden tours, please visit: www.heardsgardentour.com.

In the next KazanToday: How a multi-billion dollar business was started with just $7,000.

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Many of these short, inspirational success stories are about people from all walks of life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve remarkable results. These stories contain practical advice and a recipe for success for each of these renowned individuals. Some of their stories may help you to avoid some of the costly and time consuming mistakes that many of us make in life and at work. Learn from some of history's greatest winners on how to become a winner yourself, no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how daunting the task before you may seem. Good luck!
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