Flowers, via Social Work
MY father was a painting contractor who ran the business out of my grandmother’s house. His father died when Dad was 19, and my grandmother had to continue the business. For a long time she made believe that my father was running it, but we all knew it was she, in the background.
Every morning, the Sealtest milkman would knock twice on the door and come in. He always knew what was happening in the neighborhood.
It was a great day when my grandmother sprang for the French crullers he carried, my favorite, but we couldn’t always afford them. I’m sure she wouldn’t have bought a third of the things she did if she had to go to the store. It was all about the rapport the milkman had established.
I studied psychology
I had many discussions with Brother Tom Trager, who ran the home, on how to reach the boys. He taught me that I couldn’t just react; I had to establish a connection.
One boy was reserved and kept his cards close to his vest. After high school he’d see me tending the vegetable garden I had started. He started taunting me, saying that nothing was going to grow. The yard was in the shadow of housing projects, with no sun. His kidding gave us an excuse to talk, and after a while he opened up and started asking about things, including girls and dating.
That job reinforced the importance of relationships. I stayed for 14 years, but with three children to feed, it wasn’t financially rewarding enough. I bought buildings and fixed them up on the side and continued to tend bar. Another regular customer I called Scotch and Soda mentioned that he was selling his flower shop.
In 1976, I borrowed $10,000 to buy it and started working there weekends and after my day job. I got the idea to offer 24-hour ordering, but couldn’t afford a night-shift worker, so when I left the shop at night I forwarded calls to my home phone.
In 1986 I bought the assets of a failed floral company in Texas called 800-Flowers and took that name. I thought I was smarter than everyone else and neglected to hire lawyers and bankers to do due diligence. I unknowingly signed for all liabilities, which I later learned was a debt of $7 million.
People advised me to file for bankruptcy. Then my grandmother took me aside and said: “This bankruptcy thing? We don’t do that. Find another way.” I worked like an animal to get out of that hole.
I also got lucky. I met Ted Turner in 1987 and began advertising with him on CNN. In 1991, when the first Persian Gulf war was breaking out, some of his advertisers were nervous about being associated with the war. Ted advised me not to cancel my ads, and to let him run my commercials more often if others canceled. I agreed. Several companies canceled their ads and we got a lot of air time at no extra charge.
The big telecommunication companies started the 800-number portability wars, to keep business customers from switching carriers, and in 1992 AT&T asked me to appear in a commercial about its service. It was to run a week, but it did so well the company extended it. It ran three times a night during the Summer Olympics. Because of this ad and those on CNN, in two years we became well known without having to spend the hundreds of millions it would normally take. In 1999 we changed our name to 1-800-Flowers.com.
If you look at highly successful people, they make the same number of mistakes as others, but they recover quickly. They don’t sit around moaning about what they’ve done wrong.
As told to Patricia R. Olsen.