July 26, 2019
Article by Dr. Debra Kawahara, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Distinguished Professor at California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP)
As CSPP celebrates its 50th anniversary, I had the fortunate pleasure of connecting with Dr. Ken Altman. Dr. Altman is a CSPP alumnus from the founding class in Los Angeles. Born in Los Angeles, he went to UC Berkeley and then started at CSPP (pre-Alliant days) in 1970 and continued until 1976 when he received his PhD in Clinical Psychology. While in graduate school, he and his wife, Deena, started collecting and selling plants, eventually filling their backyard with mostly succulents and cacti. Once he graduated, he interviewed for a few jobs, but he soon realized that he really wanted to work for himself in the plant business. So, he focused and spent more time selling succulents through a truck route and a mail order catalog.
From these humble beginnings of selling plants from the back of a truck, Ken and Deena Altman have grown this one-time hobby and avid interest in plants to a wholesale nursery business that has more than 3,800 acres in 6 states. Altman Plants is now the nation’s largest horticultural grower and it specializes in drought-tolerant and water-efficient plants.
DK: What made you choose the field of clinical psychology?
KA: I was always interested in understanding how people think and I have interest in people’s stories.
DK: As CSPP was only in its beginning and you were a graduate in the first class, what made you choose CSPP in those founding years?
KA: I liked the emphasis on clinical studies, so it seemed like a good match.
DK: You then went on to become the largest succulent grower in the world. How did your career path lead you to become “The King of Succulents”?
KA: My wife and I have a tremendous passion for plants. A big work ethic combined with the patience to reinvest everything back into the business led to continuous business growth. We were not trained in the field of horticulture, so some things came with more difficulty. But at the same time, we were in position to create our own solutions, many of which were quite unique and creative and led to success. In addition to being the largest succulent grower in the world, we also grow annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Altman Plants is the largest horticulture business in the US now, with over 30 million square feet of greenhouse and over 6,000 employees.
DK: In reflecting back on your career, what are important qualities in being successful?
KA: Honesty, respect at all times for employees, vendors, and customers, a genuine interest in their success, work ethic, creativity in solving the problems our customers have, and a love of our product.
DK: What advice would you give anyone wanting to “go on their own”?
KA: Make sure you have a product that you stand behind and that has value to others. If you don’t have business experience, it wouldn’t hurt to read up or get mentorship. Make sure you have enough capital to support your life needs and to run your business. It generally takes three years to get a new business or business division to support itself well.
DK: Describe one of the most impactful/significant events in your career.
KA: Target stores was our biggest customer, representing around 35% of our business at the time. They decided to go out of the garden business. Things looked grim, but we were able to keep employees engaged. In the end, we replaced all the business, plus 15% more, and we were able to maintain everybody’s job. This was important because it was during one of the bigger recessions and people were very worried about whether they could find new jobs.
DK: Do you have any other thoughts to share?
KA: My dissertation was on Sexual Satisfaction in Couples. I compared an educational approach to an open free form “encounter group” approach. The educational structured approach showed more effect in helping couples. If I had stayed in the field, my interest in business would have led me to creating educational programs to help in many of the common problems for individuals, couples and families. I think that would have been very successful, but in the end, I am happy that I chose the nursery business and the enjoyment I have had in this field.
In closing, what is amazing to me, as Dr. Altman reminded me, is that when he began in the 1970’s, succulents were not as popular as they are now, but the Altmans stuck with it and they were able to gradually grow the business. Dr. Altman’s journey from clinical psychology graduate student to entrepreneur parallels the pioneering and innovative spirit of CSPP to the perseverance and persistence of excellence in professional psychology.