Horace Hagedorn’s Little Miracle

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That’s when destiny walked into Horace Hagedorn’s office in midtown Manhattan. Hagedorn had been born in Manhattan in 1915, the son of a real estate speculator, and had gone to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in business. Working at an advertising agency in New York after the Second World War, he met the well-known advertising man Martin Small, who is credited with inventing roll-on deodorant. Small, Hagedorn remembered, offered to tell him in five words how to make a million dollars: “Find a need and fill it.”

“Martin,” Hagedorn replied, “that’s six words.”

“So I lie a little,” answered Small.

Hagedorn recalled the advice when Otto Stern came to see him in 1950. Stern, a German immigrant, owned a nursery in upstate New York and wanted to buy advertising time on a New York radio program. He had come to Hagedorn’s office because his thick German accent made it difficult for him to be understood on the phone.

Stern sold many plants by mail order, and he complained to Hagedorn that they often arrived in poor shape. Hagedorn and Stern hit on the idea of including a little packet of fertilizer with each order to help revive the plants. There was no fertilizer available in convenient form, so they hired a Rutgers University professor and orchid expert named O. Wesley Davidson to develop one.

The necessary active ingredients were well known—indeed the government requires that they be listed on fertilizer packaging—but making them into something that could be easily dissolved in water and applied directly to plants took a little chemistry. Hagedorn believed this fertilizer had much larger commercial possibilities than merely helping revive plants that had been put in the mail. He sensed a need in the new suburbs for an all-purpose, easy-to-use fertilizer available in small quantities, and he decided to fill it. In 1951 he and Stern each put up $2,000 to buy an ad in the New York Herald Tribune offering the new fertilizer. In days orders totaling $22,000 rolled in, and the two men were on their way. Within four years the company’s annual sales exceeded $500,000, and Hagedorn left the advertising business to devote all his time to fertilizer.

In his new career he stuck to what he understood best, marketing and advertising. The company contracted with other companies to manufacture, package, and distribute the product. This “virtual company” proved to be a winning business model, to put it mildly. In the mid-1980s Hagedorn bought out Otto Stern, and in 1995 he merged his operation with the Scotts Company, the largest gardenproducts firm in the country. The Hagedorn family ended up with 42 percent of the stock in the new company, and James Hagedorn, Horace’s son, is now chairman and CEO of Scotts.

But for all Horace Hagedorn’s talents as an advertising and marketing man, it was his wife, Peggy, who came up with the name for the little blue-green crystals that made them so rich: Miracle-Gro.