I will never be in the flower business.
Thats the vow Tom Lavagetto made to his father when he left high school, after spending a good deal of his childhood helping out in the family-owned greenhouse business here.
Yet, Lavagetto, 56, has spent most of his adult life in that business, working all over the U.S. as, variously, a grower, a wholesale florist, a mass marketer, and an importer. In 1995, he received his industrys highest honor, Floral Marketer of the Year, from the Newark, Del.-based Floral Marketing Association.
Now, Lavagetto is using his experience to help others in the floral industry; two years ago, he founded Floral Consulting Group here, and based on his wide contacts in the business, the venture has taken off, he says. Currently, he has more than 25 clients in the U.S. and in Europe.
If my father could see me today, I just kind of think hed be blown away, he says.
Floral Consulting Group offers clients the wealth of experience Lavagetto gained in his 30-plus years in the industry, he says.
It all started when, after graduating from Gonzaga University and spending two years in the military, he ended up back in Spokane with nothing to do. Lo and behold, I went to work in the greenhouse, he says, which by that time was owned by a cousin.
In a short time, Lavagettos horizons expanded: His familys greenhouse business joined together with a wholesale florist, other growers, and some retail florists to create a company called Blossom Shops. Lavagetto took on the job of visiting local grocery stores and persuading them to let Blossom Shops open and operate retail floral departments inside the stores. Blossom Shops then gave a percentage of sales to the grocery stores.
The purpose was to promote the flower business in an area where service is not provided so that it didnt compete with retail florists, he says.
The concept clicked, and so did Lavagetto. After a year in that job, one of Blossom Shops suppliers enticed him away, and he went to work for Bachmans, one of the largest retail florists in the country, he says. Bachmans, which is based in Minneapolis, Minn., sent Lavagetto to oversee the companys Houston operation.
From there, he went to Giant Open Air Markets, a 10-store grocery chain, in Norfolk, Va. The Giant stores had full-service flower shops, with delivery and wire orders. They were a florist, Lavagetto says. In his four years with that company, he increased floral sales by 110 percent, and Giant became the first grocer to be included in FTDs wire-order network, he says.
Next, Chicago-based Jewel Food Stores came calling, and hired Lavagetto as floral merchandising manager for the 200-store chain. When he started that job in 1978, Jewels floral departments were doing $4 million in annual sales with a 10 percent gross profit margin, he says. By the time he left six years later, the companys floral sales were $26 million with a gross margin of 45 percent, he says.
Theres money to be made in this business, he says. The flower shop in a supermarket can be the most profitable department if its run right.
The key to his success at Jewel was buying the best quality products available, and in the flower business, that means the most long-lived, he says.
When you buy flowers you will not remember what you paid for them, but you will remember how long they lasted and where you got them, Lavagetto says. Quality is defined as something that lasts a long time.
Were going home
Lavagetto left Jewel and entered a new, but related, businessimporting nonperishable floral products, which are the pots, baskets, and silk flowers that many florist shops sell.
In the perishable business, Mother Nature determines a lot of times what it looks like. In the nonperishable business, you can create things, he says. The downside, however, is that nonperishable items dont diethey just sit there, reminding the of the bad decision he or she made in buying it.
As a supplier, youve got to work to make sure the retailer sells through, he says.
After eight years as general manager of the importing business, Lavagetto worked for another eight years as general manager at Whites Nursery, in Chesapeake, Va.
In 1999, however, he said to his wife, Were going home, and returned to Spokane. He spent a few months thinking about his next move, and concluded that the key to his success had been his ability to get different facets of the industry to work toward a common goal, he says. As a grower, hed worked with mass merchandisers and retailers to grow what they could sell; as a grocery-store executive, hed worked with growers so theyd supply him with the variety and quality of products he knew he needed to make sales.
A consulting business was a natural extension of that, he reasoned, so late in 1999 he founded Floral Consulting Group. His sister, Carlotta Lavagetto, who is general manager at Jones Wholesale Florists here, helps him in the business when her time allows, he says.
Most of Lavagettos clients want to increase their sales, but there are many different ways to accomplish that, he says. One client, for example, wanted to sell more potted gloxinia plants and had high-quality plants to sell, but they were gigantic, Lavagetto says. Consequently, by the time they hit grocery-store shelves, they cost more than $15, which is too high for that market, he says. Lavagetto advised the client to reduce the space the plants were grown in so that they didnt get so big, and put them in smaller pots. By changing the spacing and the size, he was able to make a profit, Lavagetto says.
He advised another client to quit growing Easter lilies, which have flat or declining demand, and switch to stargazer lilies instead, Lavagetto says. The client still cant keep up with (the demand for) stargazers, he says.
Lavagetto says that technology will play an increasing role in the flower business, with growers using automatic seeders to plant their products and retailers using scanners to keep track of sales and inventory.
No matter what changes are in store, however, the industry will continue to thrive, he believes.
Says Lavagetto, When times are off, the flower business does better. Its an inexpensive way for people to feel good.
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