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With $1,500, '58 tractor, he dreamed big

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Dean Higbee dreams big.

“I dreamed big from the beginning,” said the owner of Southbranch Nursery Co. located at 2991 S. Church St.

As a college student, Higbee saw the potential for growth in Murfreesboro and wanted a piece of the action. He decided to start his own landscaping company, Quality Land Management, and then a nursery in the fall of ’93.

“I started this with $1,500, a pile of mulch and a ’58 model tractor,” Higbee said with a chuckle in his voice, as he sat in a wooden chair under a pavilion in the middle of his 10-acre oasis in the city of Murfreesboro.

He went to a banker to request a $3,000 business loan to start his company, but being a college student and bartender with no credit he was turned down.

Sixteen years later, Higbee said that banker still shakes his head.

Even though Southbranch brought in $6 million in revenues last year, Higbee said he has more expansion plans in the works.

“I am still not where I envisioned,” he admitted. “I set my goals high from day one.”

Higbee said he hopes to create a lifestyle mall of sorts on his already picturesque grounds. He called his concept The Avenue on a Cracker Barrel scale.  Higbee sees adding restaurants, a coffee shop and other businesses on the property and the adjoining 10 acres where he resides.

He even wants to open more Southbranch locations.

Higbee said he doesn’t have a timetable for any of these projects.

“I kind of like to fly by the seat of my pants,” he said.

But, Higbee said what drives him is the desire for progress and change.

“I never really get to a point where I feel I am fulfilled,” he said. “I always feel like I have to have a project going on.”

Higbee, originally from Chattanooga, came to Murfreesboro to attend MTSU. He studied business administration and accounting, thinking he would return to Chattanooga to work in his father’s computer programming firm.

But he never moved back home or graduated from MTSU.

“They say if you walk into Davis Market you will never leave,” he said.

The drive and entrepreneurial spirit Higbee undoubtedly got from his father, led him to working outdoors.

And, Higbee said there is no secret recipe for success besides working hard and being honest. He thinks the best way to learn how to be successful is to learn from other successful business people.

Another factor is having good, hard-working employees, he said. In Higbee’s case, many of his employees know more about plants than he does.

Southbranch employs about 120 people during the peak season and about 60 for the rest of the year.

Higbee said he keeps his employees by offering benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation and retirement.

While offering landscape design, installation and maintenance services, where Southbranch has really carved its niche is in carrying plants that can’t be found anywhere else in the Southeast.

“We have over 1,700 varieties of plants here, and they are from all over the United States,” Higbee said.

This has made Southbranch a destination garden center drawing customers from all over Middle Tennessee.

“The thing that is specific to Southbranch is that Dean has looked past carrying bread and butter plants,” said Christian Varga, independent sales craftsman for Monrovia, a plant supplier.

Varga said Southbranch has the best topiary selection in the state. And, the nursery carries rare varieties of Japanese Maples, including the Coral Bark Japanese Maple.

Other rarely available plants carried by Southbranch include Kaleidoscope Abella and Sea of Gold Juniper scrubs.

Despite the nation’s recession and maybe even because of it, Higbee said the retail business is doing better than ever.

“People are getting back to the basics,” he said.

It’s always been about the basics for Higbee, who believes in living by the Golden Rule and following his dreams.

Erin Edgemon can be reached at 869-0812 and at eedgemon@murfreesboropost.com.

Southbranch Nursery Co.
2991 S. Church St.

Hours of Operation
Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Sunday noon-5 p.m.

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