The Flowering of Gus Pappas

A businessman readies a last century business for a new century world.

By Joe O’Donnell    Photo by Beau Gustafson

Same day delivery and fresher flowers are the backbone of Norton's successful business practices

The formula is deceptively simple. Fresher flowers. Same day delivery. That has become the mantra at Norton’s Florist, the old-line Birmingham florist founded in 1921 that has thrived under the ownership of Gus Pappas.

Pappas was the chief financial officer of the company that owned Lorch Diamond Centers when he got into a friendly chat with his neighbor across the lawn. That neighbor, Phillip Norton, was the owner of his family’s floral company, one of the city’s oldest, most respected retail establishments. Norton told Pappas that he was ready to sell the business, and whether he was certain of it at the time or not, Pappas was ready to buy.

That was almost a decade ago, and the intervening years have seen Pappas manage the business for a new era and thrive by delivering what is high on the list of everyone’s favorite gift, flowers.

“We deal with a product that makes people happy,” Pappas says. “It is fun to see the looks on the faces, the wow people get from looking at flowers. There was a study done at Texas A&M where they measured the reaction of receiving certain gifts — clothing, jewelry, things like that. The reaction they got when they tested flowers blew everything else off the charts.”

An older line in the retailing industry, floral has been transformed, like almost every other type of business, by the Internet. The rise of 1-800-Flowers and similar teleflora services have been a blessing and curse to the small retailers who populate the industry.

“One thing that is changing our business are order gatherers like 1-800-Flowers, which gather orders from web sites and send them to florists to fulfill,” Pappas says. “They spend millions of dollars marketing their services. This has changed our business because that order that you placed with them replaces an order that we would have gotten previously from you directly. But at the same time, we are in a good position to fill and deliver that order that comes to us from a third-party Internet marketer because we have the selection and the delivery trucks to get them to the customers. We fill those orders anyway, but the customer never knows.”

The industry is very segmented, Pappas says. More than two-thirds of all florists have five or fewer employees. At one time, Norton’s was the 75th largest flower shop in the country. Today the company has approximately 25 employees. “It is unusual to find an operation this big,” Pappas says.

Over the decade he has owned the business, Pappas says, the operation has enjoyed good growth and top-of-mind awareness. They purchased gift basket companies, and that has helped put them on the map for that segment of the business, he says.

The floral has become increasingly global, with Norton’s product coming from all over the world, places such as South Africa, Ecuador, Chile, Israel and New Zealand, in addition to the flower-growing regions of the United States.

“The cold chain — moving product in refrigerated trucks and airplanes — keeps flowers cold throughout the distribution process,” Pappas says. “They are kept at  34 to 36 degrees from the time they leave the farm until we get them ready here at the store. We have the advantage of doing enough volume to be able to get the very freshest flowers. Same day delivery and fresher flowers are our two bullets.”

The company’s future growth is likely to come online, Pappas says. “Our growth is in our own Internet business. We work real hard on that, and that area just keeps growing. People just go to the Internet now instead of calling. Our statistics tell us that for every order we get on the Internet, two people will call while looking at the screen. Up to half of new customers come from the web. We have a floral app now we are going to implement. As we think about the future, we know people are still going to wait until the last minute. The fact that we have so many trucks and people who can deliver that same day is a big advantage. One of our challenges it to make sure we can offer the service and same products as any other .com.”

Along with procrastination, the other thing that has not changed in the world of flowers is the importance of holidays. “Valentine’s Day is the biggest day of the year,” Pappas says. “We will do 1,200 deliveries. Mother’s Day is about the same. You do the same volume but spread it over a longer period of time.” So while continued globalization and online growth are on the horizon, the beauty and attraction of flowers is one thing that seems constant.

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