In the good old days, leaders would assess an employee, a business unit or a company, identify weaknesses, and set about to fix them. Nowadays, the idea is to find the strengths and build on them. That’s what the recent economic recession forced a lot of leaders in the floral industry to do. Three California flower growers are a good example.
At Gallup & Stribling Orchids in Carpinteria, the recession and a desire by one of its owners to convert holdings into cash brought a decision to sell off some land and buildings, reduce staff, and focus on fewer products and customers. “We want to concentrate on what we do best,” said James Stribling, an owner and vice president who handles growing operations. He has worked there for 41 years, since elementary school.
At B&H Flowers in Carpinteria, a brush with bankruptcy brought the closing of one of its three farms, big staff layoffs and a drastic change in product lines. Hans Brand, owner and head of the company, now in bankruptcy protection, called the experience “humbling and agonizing” and said the changes represent “a good plan to come out of this in 12 months.”
Nearby, at Farmers’ West Flowers and Bouquets, General Manager Will Stewart said the company “has stopped trying to be all things to all people” and dropped from multiple flower varieties to five main ones. Boutique products like cut poinsettias didn’t work out, he said, but growing some vegetables did. The imperative to cut costs led to cross-training and productivity increases.
Gallup & Stribling, known for its cymbidium orchids sold as cut flowers and potted plants, has sold off 23 of its 45 Central Coast acres (it is leasing some acreage back to allow for a smooth transition) and will focus on cymbidiums, said Mr. Stribling. “We had 80 percent of the orchid market” he added, “and then the price dropped 25 percent to 30 percent.” Nancy Welty, the operating manager for the past nine years, said the facility changes led to staff “right-sizing.”
Rodney Stribling, board president and an owner, said because Gallup & Stribling cymbidium orchids are not forced to bloom using artificial heating, their quality is high and Canadian retailers have become big customers. “We ship our potted orchids to them in five to seven days, in six-inch or eight-inch pots that don’t need watering during that time,” he said.
“You learn what life is about,” said Mr. Brand, reflecting on his recent traumatic times. “We had to let 100 of our 180 employees go,” he recalled, “and many were husband-and-wife teams. Luckily, all but two were placed in other jobs.” The crew that stayed behind and loyal customers made survival possible, he said. B&H jettisoned iris and tulip lines that were not performing well and picked up asters and snapdragons, which are.
When the downturn began, Mr. Brand issued an “all hands on deck” call that brought family members into the operations, including son Johnny, who will begin ag business studies at California Polytechnic State University this fall. He hopes Johnny, 19, who posed for a B&H poster at age three, will run things someday. “Economic times are still difficult,” Mr. Brand concluded, “but we have been in business for over 25 years and have every intention to be here for at least another 25 years.”
Mr. Stewart developed some new practices like not carrying an inventory of hard goods for the Farmers’ West bouquets. “Instead of having them in storage, we only buy them when we need them for just-in-time delivery,” he explained. Also, Farmers’ West tries to use as much of its own products in its bouquets as it can. “We negotiate bouquet recipes with our customers,” he said. “Plan and plant, that’s us.”
Mr. Stewart, like the others interviewed, thinks the locally grown movement and the California Grown label are more in tune with consumer thinking than organic or sustainability initiatives.