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  • A Staff to Lean On
    By Annette Winter


    A Michigan florist meets the challenge of finding — and keeping — great employees.

    When Fred Holland considers the success of Avalon Floral — the Spring Lack, Mich., store he and his wife, Penelope, opened five years ago — he is quick to praise Penelope's talent as a designer. But he is also generous in his recognition of the shop's hardworking staff. And he might also credit his own ability to find those employees and keep them productive, a skill he acquired in the restaurant business. "I managed as many as 157 employees at one point," says Holland of his previous career. "And the biggest challenge was motivating people."

    While Penelope handles the creative component, Fred Holland has adapted his management skills so successfully to the flower-shop environment that Avalon combines an unusually well-paid staff with a very healthy bottom line. The secret is hiring the right people to start with — an inexact science, Holland concedes — then making sure they understand how their participation affects the business.

    At Avalon, that includes giving employees total access to the books. "It helps them understand what's going on, good or bad, and why we follow certain policies and procedures," says Holland, who has five full- and six part-time employees, including three full-time designers and two part-timers who also double as salespersons.

    Finders Keepers

    When it comes to hiring salespersons, Holland favors former waitresses ("They know how to handle people and lots of stress," he says) and former nurses ("They've had experience counseling people"). But mainly, he says, "I have to like the person." And while he admits he can train people in customers service, design is another matter entirely. Then, says Holland, "you really need someone with the God-given eye."

    Once hired, Avalon employees tend to stick around, for a couple of reasons. "I have one of the highest-paid staffs in the area," says Holland. "Labor costs can go to 19 percent when we're really slow, but by year-end it's typically around 15 percent." In addition to a good base pay, Holland is also generous with bonuses and other perks. "If it's been a really busy week, I might give a cash bonus," he says. "Or if the driver has had a rough day, I might slip her some money. After the holidays the staff get bonuses or gift certificates. I make the decision based on attitude, stress levels, etc."

    Holland sweetens the pot by paying any taxes due on the perks, but his support goes beyond the financial. "I've banned four customers from coming in here because they treated my staff badly," says Holland, flying in the face of the service-industry maxim that says the customer is always right. "The customers is never always right. There are two sides to every store." What he loses in sales from those rare cases, Holland figures he more than makes up for in employee loyalty.

    On the other hand, a righteously unhappy customer gets lots of pampering, with Holland refunding money and replacing arrangements or plants as necessary with no argument. Again, it doesn't happen often, but when it does the residual goodwill is well worth any additional expense. Holland also solicits feedback from clients by making follow-up phone calls after weddings or other special events to make sure everything went smoothly.

    Rough Beginnings

    The couple started the store as a way to spend more time together. "Penelope had been a designer for some years at various shops in a neighboring town," says Holland. "I was working 90-plus hours a week in the restaurant business and never saw my family."

    The first year was hard: While Penelope worked full-time at the shop, Fred stayed on at his job as maitre d' at an upscale restaurant on Lake Michigan, often getting only three hours of sleep a night while he also kept tabs on Avalon's cash flow. He did, however, manage to parlay his connections with the restaurant's patrons into a valuable source of clients for the new venture.

    Holland took an unconventional approach to the business right from the start. One of the country's best-known floral designer specializing in dried flowers, Reini Moser, AIFD, of Moser's Dried Flower Barn, is "just down the street," Holland Says. "When we were looking for a site, I told her we wanted to open a shop nearby and asked if she would mind.

    The upshot was that Avalon Flowers sells no dried flowers, and Moser uses Avalon's cooler for her rare fresh arrangements. The stores also share designers, with the understanding that they don't "poach" the other shop's style.

    A Versatile Style

    Not that Avalon stays with any one style for long. Unlike many store owners, who deliberately cultivate a particular look as a hallmark, the Hollands like to experiment. "We have always done an English garden look, but otherwise we change styles regularly," says Holland. "We give seminars to our staff showing, say, 12 different designs, such as our Canadian Woods look for a guy, our American Prairie look or our French Country look." An important source of inspiration for new approaches is provided by frequent trips into the local woods to study nature, says Penelope Holland.

    But how do the Hollands decide what styles will best serve the shop's image? Among the strategies, Holland sends "secret" shoppers out several times a year to monitor what the competition is doing. Geographic considerations apply, too, he notes: "The East Side of Michigan is more liberal and we can take chances with the arrangements, while the West Side is more traditional."

    Currently, the shop specializes in European hand-tied bouquets. "Our least-expensive hand-tied costs $12," says Holland, "but because of the way it's assembled, it looks like a $24 arrangement." Premium roses are another specialty. "We sell 60-to-70-centimeter roses for $19.95 a dozen," Holland reports, "and we're moving, on average, 700 a week."

    Watching the Numbers

    Holland keeps a very close eye on the shop's books. "I had to work with a 2 percent margin in the restaurant business," he says, noting that "most florists don't seem to watch their percentages. If I'm off 2 percent, I have to know why. If I'm aiming for a cost-of-goods-sold of 35 percent and it goes to 36 percent; that's OK. But if it goes to 37 percent, I stop right there and go check. Perhaps credit-card charges aren't getting put through; maybe the cooler is off and so we're having to dump more flowers than we should."

    Avalon's future plans call for a tropical cooler and a walk-in cooler where customers can pick their own blooms. And, says Holland, the store will likely continue the same kind of unconventional advertising it has chosen in the past. One campaign, for example, used horribly incorrect grammar to get people's attention ("It worked," Holland notes). Another depicted a harried mother shouting at her child to clean up his room. The message? This mom deserves some flowers.

    One recent advertisement summed up the shop's approach to selling flowers quite nicely: It featured an appearance by Fred, unabashedly singing a holiday ditty. "Our ads usually deal with emotions, thoughts, reactions, which are the reasons you send flowers," says Holland. "We sell emotion — and great personal service." It's a winning combination.


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