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Daily Journal
     April 1, 2022      #61-91 KDJ
 

Nancy Tholen, the face of Tholens' 

By Lee Provost
lprovost@daily-journal.com


Nancy Tholen always enjoyed working outdoors, especially with her hands.

Growing up the daughter of a farmer in rural Reddick, she was no stranger to hard work and farm life.

“I’m a farm girl. I grew up and learned farming,” she said.

In the spring, summer and fall, she was on a tractor and loved every minute of it.

“Don’t ask me to cook,” she added.

Now 66 and having been a part of the Kankakee- and Bourbonnais-based Tholens’ Landscape & Garden Center Inc., business, Nancy is front and center when it comes to the operation of this Kankakee County business mainstay.

It would be fair to say that as far as Kankakee County goes, the words Tholens’ and landscaping have become interchangeable. When people think of landscaping, they think of Tholens’ and when they think of Tholens’, they are thinking of Nancy.

As a result of her influence in the business she and her husband, Steve, operate, along with their son, Chris, and his wife, Amy, Nancy has been named Female Entrepreneur of the Year as part of the Daily Journal’s 2022 Progress Awards.

ONCE A LAB TECH

For the 1973 graduate of Reddick High School who attended Kankakee Community College to become a medical lab technician, this is an honor for which she could have never imagined.

As the company’s corporate secretary and treasurer, she notes she doesn’t even have the title of president or owner.

She does understand, however, that she has — rightly or wrongly — become the face of Tholens’, a company that operates three stores and an 80-acre nursery near the Greater Kankakee Airport.

The company grows 30,000 trees, another 15,000 to 20,000 broadleaf evergreens and many other plants.

The company employs some 60 workers, of which 45 are full-timers.

It was a business that started almost on the day Nancy and Steve returned from their honeymoon following their Sept. 20, 1975, wedding.

Steve’s father, Wayne, had discovered a south Kankakee location where they could begin a gardening business. Wayne had operated a nursery in Clifton as he worked full time at the former A.O. Smith water heater factory in Kankakee.

BUSINESS STARTs, THEN GROWS

The new business took root in 1976, literally only a short walk from the A.O. Smith site. At first, it was strictly retail sales. The company gradually added land surrounding the site at 31 Seedorf School Road and the firm began raising stock.

The bulk of the company’s sales today are what they grow themselves.

Nancy is quick to emphasize that while she may be the face of the operation, she would not claim for a single moment to be the reason for its success and longevity. She credits each and every employee for their commitment.

“There are a lot of things that have happened over 46 years,” Steve interjected. “We have had a lot of ups and downs like everyone else.”

But through it all, they have not only sustained but have grown. Grown quite a bit, actually.

Through the expansions at the location that would most certainly be considered the business hub, the company added the 3-acre Bourbonnais location, 1401 N. Convent St., in 1989, and the Busse & Rieck Flowers, Plants and Gifts location, 2001 W. Court St., became a division of Tholens’ in November 2004.

After realizing that working as a medical lab tech and in a small business would be more than she could handle, Nancy made the switch to working full time at the family business.

It is a decision she has never regretted.

“We’ve worked hard. We’ve been blessed. But you have to have good people,” she said. She insists upon it.

‘HANDS-ON FROM DAY ONE’

While much has changed for the company over the course of time, many things haven’t.

Steve and Nancy are on site each and every day. The hours are long, but when someone does what they love, time somehow floats by.

Another staple of the business is its radio jingle: “When you think of trees, you think of Tholens.’”

Nancy notes another constant is — well, it’s her.

“I’ve been hands-on from Day One,” she acknowledged.

And she knows she’s the face of the business, like it or not.

“It sits fine with me. There is not a day that I go to bed when I don’t think about what tomorrow will bring, and when I wake up, I think about what we will be doing today,” she said.

She is involved in every meaningful decision regarding the business operation. She can’t help it. She knows details matter and she freely admits she is a stickler when it comes to details.

As the sunshine gains its intensity and the weather begins to break away from the clutches of winter, Nancy and the entire crew know the coming months will bring challenges and opportunities for them to shine.

She notes perhaps up to 60% of the locations’ sales volume takes place from April 1 to June 1. That fact means everyone — from the owner to the newest landscaper — must be performing and performing well.

NEXT GENERATION, NEXT CHALLENGE

In her daughter-in-law, Amy, it would be fair to say Nancy likely sees much of herself.

Amy spent a large part of her professional career in the world of medicine having worked for Riverside Healthcare for about 20 years. She left that industry behind and the woman who once was set on a course to be a flight attendant for United Airlines now manages the Tholens’ store in Bourbonnais.

The Bourbonnais location was once Nancy’s to manage.

Amy, a 1997 graduate of Herscher High School, listens and absorbs the knowledge Nancy shares. She knows one day, probably not too many years from now, she and Chris will be in charge.

“I still have much to learn. I lean on these guys a lot. Whenever I get in over my head, I’m on the phone with one of them. Thank goodness they answer the phone,” she said jokingly. “There is an overwhelming amount to learn. I do my best.”

And just like Nancy, she loves what she is doing. Thriving trees, beautiful plants, blossoming flowers light up her eyes.

“I try to learn as much as I can from her. There is only one Nancy Tholen. There just aren’t words to describe her. She’s an incredible lady.”

So when the day for retirement calls, what will keep Nancy busy? She knows she is not likely to just be content sitting around.

“I’m still figuring it out,” she said. “I’m not a sit-around person.”

Anyone who has come to know Nancy knows she will figure it out. This pint-sized former farm girl has always been able to figure it out.

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