Joe Kyte (“Topiary Joe”)
Tellico Plains, TN
Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?
Joe Kyte: This is a second career for me. I worked in horticulture as a sales manager. As a part of my job, I worked with a Danish firm called GRODAN, introducing hydroponics to the US and Canada. We did some field trials at Disney World, in Florida and set up an exhibit that’s still at Epcot today. I was fascinated by the all the character topiaries they had there. I took some pictures and asked about how they were making them – and then I thought to myself: “That looks fun and I can do that.” It took a few thousand pieces until I was happy with my work but I finally did it. That was twenty-four years ago. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t like me quitting my six-figures job and bending wires for a living. Everything happened within three months: I quit my job, I opened a nursery in Homestead, hurricane Andrew hit two weeks after that, and then hurricane Helen happened – my wife divorced me. It was a tumultuous time and I learned to love Ramen noodles for a few years. But it taught me a lot about perseverance and being frugal. My whole shop is an AC welder, a table vise, and that’s it.
Today, the business is going great and we are keeping busy – no more Ramen noodles. This week, we had orders go to Florida and Columbus, Ohio; last week it was Italy – a container full of topiaries for Princess Cruise Lines.
OH: What made you move to Tennessee?
JK: I’m originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Eleven years ago, I was living in Murphy, North Carolina and I was traveling often to Tellico Plains to go fishing – it’s a beautiful area and it was half way between North Carolina and Oak Ridge. The Cherohala Highway and a river stocked-full of trout brought me back home to Tennessee.
OH: What are some lessons you have learned along the way/what do you know now that you wished you knew back when? What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business?
JK: I wish I would have had more financial backing because it could have helped me get a faster start. I started my business and I kept on building it up by religiously making something every day, building up inventory, and getting better at what I did. I knew it was going to be an arduous journey but I wanted to be able to do what I loved and to create.
OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?
JK: The desire to not be poor… it was quite a motivator. Beyond that, I wanted to enjoy my work and make things – I did what inspired me. And how else would I have been able to enjoy my other hobby, fixing old cars? – 248 so far…
OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of what you do?
JK: I really love to create and see kids smile. Now I also have big kids as customers. I have a couple of customers – Jack and Sally – who wants “A Nightmare Before Christmas” for their yard. Every day is something different – and I thrive on doing something different all the time. That makes me happy.
OH: What was your most fun project?
JK: One of the most fun projects I worked on was building sculptures for sixteen different Sandals Resorts. I got to live in Jamaica for three months and I really liked that!
It’s between that and the seven weeks I spent in Ireland building a herd of thirteen
elephants. That was an extremely fun time. The bull elephant went to Prince Charles. I got to go to a party in London and met Prince Charles and Camilla – I got to step on his foot… The party was a fundraiser for ElephantFamily.org, a non-profit organization on a mission to save animals from extinction, and it was hosted at the Petersham house, a beautiful 400-year-old estate on the Thames river. I sat down next to Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and listened to Mick Jagger’s brother play zydeco until 2 o’clock in the morning. I got to sit down and talk with Annie Lennox and met Ravi Shankar and his daughter – yeah, it was a great party.
OH: Looking back now, twenty-some years later, would you do it all again?
JK: Absolutely! It’s fun being creative and free. I enjoy traveling the world for my work – and having my work pay for it. I get to have adventures, I get to teach – it’s great.
OH: What’s next for you?
JK: We are building animals two by two for Noah’s Ark in Kentucky: giraffes, lions, elephants, and camels. At the same time, I have a request to build copulating teddy bears for a hotel in Times Square, New York, to place along the walkway leading to the rooftop restaurant… oh, yeah, my work is a lot of fun.
But seriously, I love making others smile and I love being creative. It doesn’t take long for another project to come along. And now you can see us in action on the live feed on our website topiaryjoe.com.
OH: What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to go pursue a different than conventional path?
JK: Learn to love Ramen noodles… and just follow your dream. Be happy.