By Lou Sorendo
Making the jump from being an employee to a business owner: Fulton florist and owner of DeVine Designs by Gail parlays experience, knowledge into gratifying career
Q.: When did you launch your business and what steps did you take to become an independent owner?
A.: I opened the business in April of 2009. I worked at Tops Markets in the floral department for 18 years until they closed. After that, I went and worked for several area florists, some of them that aren’t here anymore. My last opportunity was at Dowd’s House of Flowers, which my girlfriend owned. She eventually sold it and I did not connect well with the new owner. I said, “You know what? Dowd’s is not going to be Dowd’s any more. It was my main competitor, so I believed that was the time to open. That’s what I did. “Fly or die” is what they say.
Q.: You were an employee at that time. Where did you learn the basics to open the business?
A.: One of the best steps I took was taking a class through the U.S. Small Business Administration in Oswego. I give them credit for taking me step by step through the process of writing a business plan. I then got a $10,000 loan from a bank and cashed in my 401(k) that I had from Tops, which wasn’t huge. That’s pretty much how I got started. I started in 1986, so had 23 years of experience before opening my own business. I worked in six or seven shops, and I found niches in each shop that I liked and incorporated them into what I like now.
Q.: What were some of the foremost challenges when launching the business?
A.: Being the new kid on the block is the biggest challenge. People don’t know you and people don’t trust you, even though I was born and raised here. I did have a lot of friends, but still everyone was saying, “I don’t know if I want to call that new florist. They don’t have any background.”
Q.: How was the competition at the time?
A.: When I started, there were four shops in town and now there are only two. To tell you the truth, this isn’t a challenge because I am blessed to be located at one of the busiest intersections in Oswego County [Broadway and South Second Street], so I am very fortunate to have this. I get a lot of drive-by traffic.
Q.: Did you have any strategy to be more competitive?
A.: I visited a lot of businesses, and did things like place flowers in the lobby of Fulton Savings Bank and on tables at Mimi’s Restaurant. I would drop in on businesses with a little arrangement and tell them if they need anything to let me know. I also did a lot of personal deliveries to businesses. That’s really how the word got out. I felt I needed to get out and personally go meet people. We created a Facebook page and developed a website right away. Other than that, it was just meeting and greeting people and getting out there, which is important especially in a small town. Let them put a face with your logo. I also did a lot of things in schools in Oswego County, like meeting with teachers for proms and giving kids discount coupons for prom wear.
Q. Were you solo when you first launched the business?
A.: Yes. When I first started out, it was a very lonely, long day because it was not busy. That can really wear on you, and you wonder about not having a paycheck or money coming in. It is very scary to open your own business. I thought, “oh, if I can just make it to five years.” When five years came I said, “oh, if I can just make it to 10 years.” Things do get better and I don’t worry about it as much as I used to, but it is still scary. It’s just the kind of environment that we live in around here. We live in a depressed area and flowers are not milk and bread.
Yes. When I first started out, it was a very lonely, long day because it was not busy. That can really wear on you, and you wonder about not having a paycheck or money coming in. It is very scary to open your own business. I thought, “oh, if I can just make it to five years.”
Q.: What were some of the significant lessons you had to learn early going of running the business?
A.: Other vital steps I took when I first launched the business included getting to know wholesalers as well as your products, knowing how much product to have on hand and not over-order fresh products, and knowing what is trending. Customers want something that is going to last and they want value. Those are my two key things when handling orders for flowers. When customers spend $40 or $50, they want it to look like they spent $40 or $50. The shop features fresh flowers, a large variety of containers and plush. I am just bringing back tuxedos after a two-year hiatus, and also do events that include weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations of life and holidays.
Q.: How did you initially develop a passion for flowers and plants?
A.: Believe it or not, I used to tear up my mother’s flower garden and rearrange everything. I just always have had a love for working with plants and flowers. When I was in high school, I went to BOCES for horticulture. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to college for horticulture. I went to SUNY Morrisville and loved it. It was the best two years of my life. It was just a great program and I really got a lot out of it. It definitely gave me a little bit of a backbone and something to fall back on. With the degree, you can work as a state inspector, florist, or landscaper and go in any direction you like. I still do a little landscaping at home but that is not as interesting to me as flowers.
Q.: Do you enjoy being a business owner?
A.: Everyone thinks running your own business is fun, but the work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock. I like all aspects of it, except holidays are a little bit nuts because there is not much family time. We are here until 1 or 2 in the morning, and your family time suffers a little bit. I like to think I make it up after the holidays. That’s just the way it is.
Q.: Does running a business too tough on your family life?
A.: I recently got remarried to Rick Jones, who has two adult children. It took him awhile to try to determine what time I was coming home on holidays, because I really don’t know at times. It could be 10, 2 or all night. I get extra help during the holidays for deliveries, and my husband fills in as well.
Q.: What have been the keys to your success and longevity?
A.: The keys to my success involve the ability to move quality product and not feature the same things all the time while keeping it fresh. I think sometimes more people come in to see my dogs than anything else. I am a dog lover, and try to carry things for dog owners. I also let customers control how much they would like to spend.
Q.: How do you keep a competitive edge over other businesses that are doing the same thing?
A.: My only business is customer service. Everything is easy past that. People who deliver excellent customer service are a dying breed. There is a little bit of a drawback because everyone who calls wants to talk to me. I do have an office manager and part-time worker who designs, but everyone expects to see and talk to me here. Even if you don’t talk to me, I’m still going to attend to your order. I am the main designer and I do almost everything myself. In terms of grocery stores, there is just no customer service there and no delivery. I don’t feel they are on a competitive level with me.