Cultivating a career

Howard K. Freilich started his horticultural business out of the back of a humble camper in late-1970s Westchester.

Today, he stands as the president of Blondie’s Treehouse Inc., a multimillion-dollar enterprise that’s one of the 10 largest interior horticultural companies in the country.

But don’t expect Freilich to be a humorless executive complete with a designer suit and slick surroundings.

No, it’s a laid-back and welcoming man – a study in casual style with jeans, zippered pullover and earring – who welcomes a pair of visitors to the company’s Mamaroneck headquarters on a recent morning.

Freilich’s light-filled office, nestled within a 19th-century former factory, is vibrant with an eclectic mix of art and books, antiques and vintage finds, rock music and plants – lots and lots of plants.

“Sometimes they say the shoemaker has no shoes. I have lots of plants,” he says with a ready smile.

“It was always a hobby,” Freilich adds. “I was really fortunate. I have a green thumb.”

But Freilich, a Queens native, actually began his studies to become a veterinarian before he would turn his attention to horticulture.

“I started out really as an animal husbandry major, to be a vet, but I have allergies and it made it really uncomfortable,” Freilich says. “Being young and stupid, I continued that for two years in college.”

At some point, he says, “I finally said, ‘It’s not for me.’”

That wake-up call put Freilich on a path that would lead to the success that is Blondie’s Treehouse, which he has nurtured to its 35th anniversary this year.

Its name, he shares, has quite a clear-cut origin.

“My nickname’s always been Blondie. We put trees in houses. It’s what I do.”

That is, of course, in simplest terms. With a staff of more than 100, four locations and sales in excess of $10 million, Blondie’s Treehouse is an industry powerhouse. The company has won more than 30 awards for its work throughout the tristate area and has been listed as one of Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing companies.

The company has built its reputation on dealing directly with businesses and designers.

“We are not a nursery,” Freilich says. “We’re not geared to that.”

In addition to the Mamaroneck facility, the company has a floral studio in Manhattan with a showroom Freilich says is in the “heart of the plant and flower district.”

The New York-based staff is ideally poised for its work with top clients.

“We do The Plaza, Omni and The Ritz and The Mandarin and The Waldorf and The Pierre …” he says.

That work includes stylish interior and exterior plantings and floral arrangements, as well as special-event services.

But the business of Blondie’s extends far beyond New York.

“We do work all over the country now,” Freilich says. And it’s quite a leap from his earliest days.

 

PLANTING THE SEEDS

“I started selling plants on the street corner in 1979,” Freilich says.

Back then, he was buying plants at market then bringing them to Westchester and selling them out of that camper.

He also had another avenue. “You would do plant parties in people’s homes, similar to a Tupperware party.”

But already, he had set his sights on bigger things.

“During the week, I went door to door to corporations,” he says. He was soon dealing with a client list of top Westchester developers, relationships that would form the basis of his company.

His wife, Louise, then a dietician – she had the “real job,” Freilich says – was a key part of his early success, handling the billing and other details in the evenings.

“On the weekends we would do the installations together,” Freilich says of the team effort.

Through the years, Blondie’s would expand from the camper to former chicken coops to Freilich’s White Plains garage before more formal homes came, first in Larchmont and then in Mamaroneck.

“Every time we’ve made the move it’s always been to a larger facility,” he says. “We started in Westchester, and it’s still in Westchester.”

Freilich says his education played a big part in his success and his career path itself. He graduated from the University of Maryland, with a bachelor’s of science in agricultural resource, and earned an associate’s in applied science from State University of New York at Farmingdale.

Prior to that, Freilich went through the agricultural program at John Bowne High School and would go on to internships and work with the Queens Botanical Garden.

“Right now, we sponsor some of those internships,” he says of coming full circle.

Back in what Freilich calls the “old days,” customers were looking for small plants, most often in pots, or groupings of taller plants or trees.

Now, he shares, it’s all sleek statements and signature looks.

Adjusting to changing tastes while continuing to expand has helped Blondie’s.

“We starting buying out the competition in the late ’80s and that kind of fueled our growth,” Freilich says.

The company now works regularly with designers, architects, real estate developers and property management companies to create green spaces across the country.

On these projects, a Blondie’s crew will do the installation, while a local provider will do the servicing.

“This way we can keep control of the service we’re providing,” Freilich says, whether it’s a major mall in the Southwest or a new project in Hawaii.

Freilich’s reach extends even further. He has been tapped to speak internationally and travels to Europe to attend industry events and spot trends.

“Horticulture is a field where you learn by doing and seeing,” he says. “It’s hard to tell somebody with book knowledge how to grow plants.”

 

GROWING STRONGER

Blondie’s Treehouse, Freilich says, includes numerous key staffers who have been on board for more than two decades.

It’s an important factor in a field that has so many variables.

“We’re completely reliant on the growers,” Freilich says, adding that weather also plays a big part in his timetable and costs.

Over the decades, he has built a local and national network of growers, which he follows closely.

“It’s good to see where (the plants) are grown, how they grow naturally,” he says.

And it all comes back to Mamaroneck, where business is conducted out of an 1888 restored factory, complete with a vintage smokestack serving as an inactive landmark. The space, Freilich says, is 50,000 square feet on one acre and hosts the greenhouse, interior plant acclimatization center, special-event workshop and holiday showroom.

“We utilize every inch of it.”

And it seems to be true. As spring was fully arriving, the facility was coming to life.

“You’ll see hundreds and hundreds of flats and perennials,” Freilich says of the stock arriving every day.

And those plants go right back out to projects, with “eight trucks leaving here every day.”

Holiday decorations, he adds, are a big part of the business.

“We have a year-round staff doing holiday,” he says, noting the company might have 1,000 Christmas trees they decorate and rent out each season.

“My mother always said, ‘What does a Jewish kid know about Christmas?’”

Clearly, quite a lot.

“We probably have a million dollars of Christmas inventory in stock at any time,” he says, walking visitors through a seemingly endless supply of silks, dried flowers, glass balls and ribbons. There are wreaths and topiaries and so much more.

 

IN FULL BLOOM

The company, with its continuous education and accreditations, keeps up on trends. Freilich, a certified landscape professional, also teaches courses on green walls and roofs and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) practices.

Victoria Shapiro, who works in both design and marketing for Blondie’s, says a successful company such as Blondie’s has to have a broad reach.

“It’s no longer just a plant in a pot,” Shapiro says. “It’s a presence, too.”

As Freilich says, “You’re selling a lifestyle, and we’re a part of that.”

“Outdoor living has really become a major, major trend,” he adds. Lighting, he says, has also evolved.

“Certain things come in and out of vogue,” he says. “Succulents are really popular now.”

Customers, he adds, are also more aware of things such as sustainability.

It’s not just the plants they are selling, but integrating them into a story.

And Blondie’s is itself doing a bit of integrating, Freilich shares.

“Right now we’re going through a rebranding of the company.”

Today, the company looks ever forward.

“Seven years ago we got into doing exterior landscapes, building designs,” he says. And that has included terraces, water features and beyond.

“We’re doing really cool, unusual, creative type of work.”

Blondie’s now works with interior designers and also offers its own designs, such as the selection of benches he shows off. They are contemporary designs crafted out of ipe wood, a Brazilian hardwood. Blondie’s, he adds, will also integrate elements ranging from koi ponds to green walls.

It’s clear Freilich simply loves the chance to do ever more.

A Hamptons estate – with natural tributaries and water features – is a new project.

“It’s really challenging – and it’s great,” he says.

Freilich, a onetime White Plains resident, lived in Armonk for some 20 years. With his children now grown, he and his wife have recently moved into Manhattan and also have a home in the Hamptons. That’s where he continues his own gardening, though he shares that decades of lifting and bending have affected his back, so he now focuses on container gardening with the planters at waist height.

It’s clear that remaining hands-on will continue to be his signature, though.

“You can look at my hands,” he says. “They’ve always got cuts on them.”

And, he adds, a bit of soil – but you just know Freilich wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m lucky I have something I love to do every day.”

For more, visit blondiestreehouse.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *