WALTERBORO, SC — A crowd of about 80 staff and guests lounged on the lawn outside the Floralife headquarters in Walterboro, SC, on a sunny day late in May, gathered to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the world’s first commercial flower food for cut flowers.
It all started in 1938 in a small greenhouse in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago during the tail end of the Great Depression. William J. Bussert, a rose-grower in Maywood, IL, was looking for a remedy for a “bent neck” problem with his roses. He had experimented with home remedies such as sugar, pennies, aspirin and 7UP, but was not happy with the results.
He pulled into the project the general manager of his main customer, Amling, a wholesaler in nearby Melrose Park, IL, a man named James Sykora Sr., who had a degree in agricultural chemistry. Sykora had helped plan the floral exhibits at the Chicago World Fair in 1932. The two men set up a lab in an Amling building and soon came up with a five-cent powder capsule that users stirred into a sugar solution. It worked, and the world’s first cut-flower food was born.
Fast-forward to 75 years later, in 2013, when it is unusual to buy cut flowers at a supermarket and not get a packet of flower food — usually Floralife — with them. Flower food has become a universal, and Floralife today holds about 80 percent of the U.S. market and 25 percent of the market in Europe, officials estimate.
What started in a small lab now is a global enterprise with operations in 20 countries and a range of products from grower to consumer, from harvest to vase and all the stops along with way.
Floralife has its main research facilities here, largest commercial research and development lab for cut flowers in this country, officials said, with additional facilities in Miami and Kent, OH, in the United States, and in China, Colombia, England, Holland, Kenya and South Korea.
Floralife’s secret of success? “We followed the flowers,” Jim Daly, vice president of Floralife, told the assembled celebrants. “We changed our business model as the industry changed. We went from developing products for growers to serving wholesalers, retailers, designers and decorators,” he said.
“When supermarkets started selling flowers in the 1960s,” Daly recounted, “we adapted our business model again. Steve Daum started our supermarket division, and now it represents half our business. And today, as a division of Smithers-Oasis Co., we have a global business model.” Three key precepts for Floralife, he said, are “follow the flowers, surround yourself with good people, and innovate.”
Other speakers included Charlie Walton, former owner of Smithers-Oasis, who engineered the acquisition of Floralife in 2007, and Robin Kilbride, president and chief executive officer of Smithers-Oasis, who presented a commemorative plaque. She noted Floralife’s impact on the floral industry and credited its many longtime employees, some of whom relocated when the company moved from Chicago to Walterboro in 1999.
The picnic May 30 on the lawn of the Floralife campus offered a hearty buffet, music by a local band, a bean-bag toss, flower arranging and a photo booth for souvenirs of the occasion.