A Green Thumb and a Generous Spirit
Monterey County’s Orchid King Helps Deserving Students Bloom
BY Renee Brincks • PHOTOGRAPHY BY
Ask Salinas Valley CEO Andy Matsui about his personal history, and he refers to a collection of newspaper clippings, magazine features and photographs showcasing his ventures with Matsui Nursery and the Matsui Foundation.
Often, he also hands over a copy of the 2005 Po Bronson book, “Why Do I Love These People?”
Sixteen pages of the book chronicle Matsui’s life, starting with his childhood in Japan and continuing to his current efforts in orchid growing and scholarship giving. Matsui first came to the United States in 1961, on a one-year farm training program. Impressed by California’s landscapes and opportunities, he returned with his wife and daughter later that decade. By 1970, he had saved some money and secured a loan to purchase 50 acres south of Salinas.
“In those days, [local farmers] bought five or ten acres,” he says, “but I wanted 50.” Matsui Nursery sold mostly chrysanthemums in the beginning, eventually expanding into roses and various cut flowers. In the late 1990s, with imported flowers flooding US markets, Matsui decided to restructure. He spent nearly five years meeting with successful orchid growers worldwide. When his passport was full, Matsui came home and converted his operations.
“We had the greenhouses, but the challenge was to grow a completely different kind of crop,” he says. He met that challenge: Today, Matsui has approximately 200 employees growing 11 million potted orchids in 3.3 million square feet of greenhouse space.
As he built his greenhouse empire, Matsui also raised a family. He and his wife have two grown daughters and two grown sons. “I knew the kids didn’t want to do this business,” Matsui says. “So I said, ‘If you don’t want to grow flowers, you have to graduate from Harvard.’”
All four did.
After giving his children an educational advantage, Matsui turned his attention to other local families. He was particularly concerned about the children of field workers. “If none of the family went to college, if parents don’t have any idea what college means, what about the students?” he asks. “Those kids don’t know what to do.”
Determined to help, Matsui launched his own foundation. In just four years, he has awarded $1 million in individual $40,000 college scholarships. By eventually giving out at least one annual scholarship in each Monterey County high school, as well as Hartnell College and Monterey Peninsula College, the Matsui Foundation will award approximately $100 million over time.
“I’ll just keep giving until my money is gone,” Matsui says.
Scholarship applicants must meet income, grade point and residency guidelines. Upon graduation, winners are expected to return to the area and improve the quality of life in Monterey County.
Cecilia Nava, a 2006 Gonzales High School graduate and scholarship winner, is now a biology major at Whittier College in Whittier, California. The first-generation college student plans to attend medical school. She meets with Matsui every six months to share her grades and progress.
“He tells me it is hard work, but to keep on working hard,” she says.“To be able to go to college makes me so happy and proud.”
“I think number one is education,” says Matsui. “It’s the only way to change anything in this world.” He laughs: “Otherwise, you have to work like me, 14 hours each day.”
“If you give a seed to someone, they can grow it,” he adds. “Mine is seed money.”
As he walks through one of his greenhouses, where employees work at long tables laden with orchids in various sizes and vibrant shades, Matsui talks again of the Po Bronson book.
“I bought 6,000 copies,” he declares. He’s been handing them out when he presents to Rotary clubs, and he shares them with certain new acquaintances and old friends. Each scholarship winner gets a signed copy, of course, and Matsui would like 500 books handed out at his funeral.
“I’ve given away 2,000 already. Have to quit giving. I’m going to run out of books,” he says, laughing again.