The Secret Life of Planterra

Creativity and quick thinking are musts in a business that’s rooted in cultivating rare specimens of flowers, designing special events inside a unique greenhouse and producing intricate, massive interior landscapes (think palm trees and water falls for a corporate lobby or a living wall to soften the harsh edge of a Vegas casino). And it’s all just another day at Planterra in West Bloomfield.
For the 41-year-old interior landscape company the need to move quickly, be flexible and tap into creativity was never more apparent than in 2010. That’s when Planterra was tasked with curating plants and designing interior landscaping for the renovation of Rideau Hall in Ottawa, the equivalent of the White House and the official residence for Queen Elizabeth II’s appointee to Canada. 
The request for very specific and historically significant plants put Planterra on a horticulture hunt that employed a guy in a truck in Palm Beach, Florida.
“He would drive around the neighborhoods, asking people if they would sell their trees,” says Shane Pliska, president of Planterra and son of founders, Larry and Carol Pliska. 
When the Rideau project was done Planterra took pride in knowing their greenery and lively colors welcomed Prince William and his new bride Kate on their first royal visit as a married couple.
The royal renovation is one of several stories that show the layers of the greenhouse business that started in 1973 and grew into a leading interior landscape provider and caretaker for companies small and large, for shopping centers such as Somerset Collection in Troy and for hospitals and casinos such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, where Planterra built a living wall that greets visitors daily.
Pliska, a member of the Oakland County Executive’s Elite 40 Under 40 2012 class, took over as company president about four years ago but his parents still work at Planterra and travel the world bringing back knowledge and ideas for the company’s clients. They’ve been surprised by Planterra’s evolution. 
“Every business goes through its changes,” Pliska says. “All businesses have cycles. I think my parents would agree we’re operating at a whole other level. It’s not about how can we sell begonias for less, it’s about how can we provide an experience and an environment that has an effect on people.”
Brother Zach Pliska is manager of a conservatory that includes a centerpiece greenhouse designed in Belgium and constructed at the Drake Road offices – look for the VW bug made of flowers. It was part of a major office renovation a few years ago. Zach Pliska oversees several aspects of Planterra’s growing operation that sells nurseries that grow to Planterra’s specifications. He also works with collectors who deal with Planterra, among other duties.
“We will contract for a certain species that might be grown in Florida,” Shane Pliska says. “We’ll request a cultivar that comes from a test tube in Netherlands or use cane from a Costa Rica that’s grown in Florida or Hawaii. It’s a very interesting business. It’s fascinating and always changing and challenging.”
At it’s root, Planterra is about the importance of human interaction with nature, and what Pliska sees as the crucial role of biophilia – the human condition that values nature – in a business’s ability to make customers and employees feel comfortable and want to come back and have a good attitude at work.
“Plants and nature have a calming affect on people, whether they realize it or not,” says Pliska. “When someone is anxious, they’re less likely to be productive at the office or to want to come back to a restaurant, and they may not even know why.”
Pliska has thought deeply about the impact of nature on his clients, and people in general. “This value of nature can be seen in the cost of real estate. A high rise, for example, costs more if there is a view of nature. This is a universal value,” he explains. “The shopping industry has a huge amount of data on this subject and how nature influences consumers. Grocery stores, for one, heavily study plants and music and lighting. It’s why you’ll almost always find flowers and the produce section when you first walk in. It’s a feeling of I’m in a Garden of Eden.” 
Pliska is regularly invited to conferences and hired as a consultant to companies wanting to employ biophilia and he holds biophilia lunches for local companies inside the greenhouse.
Planterra’s projects are varied and demanding and fun and a prime example of the creative class channeling talents into commercial success, Pliska says. 
“The core of it isn’t actually about horticulture, it’s about visual arts. When people talk about liberal arts and humanities and what does that teach you, well, in our business it’s very important. Our floral designers all have visual art backgrounds. It’s about color, texture, form…not about following color by number,” he says. “Our business is a very good example of the creative class actually producing value.
Pliska should have such an appreciation. He has a film degree from Emerson College in Boston. He happily stepped into the role of producing events at Planterra instead of pursuing films in Los Angeles, where he lived before returning to Michigan to work in the family business he grew up around. 
“I always had an interest in the business. I never thought I would run the company, but I got the entrepreneurial thing,” he says. “And it’s a meaningful thing to be in a family business. It’s also meaningful to do something where you’re not locked into one thing. I love hospitality. I love putting on productions. What we have going on here is a show and in a good way.”
That love of show can be seen in the main greenhouse and conservatory, an 11,000-square-foot wonder of architecture from Belgium – the Benelux region – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Benelux is the horticulture capital of the world and greenhouses from there are the gold standard. The greenhouse was sent in pieces and reconstructed to the millimeter as there’s no room for error in a structure growing finicky plants from other parts of the world. The greenhouse is the centerpiece of a renovation from a few years back. Unexpectedly, calls came in asking if it was for rent and the events division was born.
In the hands of Planterra’s event planners, graphic artists and designers the open, airy space, which envelops visitors in tropical warmth, sounds and smells on a step through the door, is transformed into almost anything a customer can dream up: A Thai wedding getaway, a French Riviera reception, a James Bond movie in Asia for an product reveal. A car or two has been driven into the conservatory for events. 
Planterra also caters the events and serves the alcohol as well, often connected to flowers in some way. Elderberry-infused vodka, for example. Weddings are held every weekend in the greenhouse as are events for groups like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
The greenhouse is also a showroom space for walk-in customers to shop. The conservatory is open to visitors through the week. 
Behind the tranquil space, which has an unusually long and ornately carved bar made of tropical wood as its centerpiece and a floor to ceiling living wall behind it, are Planterra’s offices.
While Planterra’s events people oversee the weddings and other special events, co-workers in Planterra’s commercial landscape division, designers, technicians, graphic artists, tend to their clients and projects. On the residential side, staffers see to some of metro Detroit and Michigan’s wealthy. “These are homes that function something like boutique hotels,” Pliska says.
Another division of Planterra revolves around off-premise specialty displays for seasonal changes, holidays and special events.
Pliska is always looking for new employees, and the 55-employee staff includes creatives from Michigan and around the country. Planterra’s director of events comes from the Noguchi Museum in New York City, and the director of display moved to metro Detroit from Boston, where he worked for a high-end floral company.
“We want to attract creative, fun people,” he says. “We are always looking for someone who has great ideas. We are all about satisfying the human experience and we want people who feel the same way.”