Fresh Approach: Business Sells Flowers by Express-Mail

TO say Ruth Owades is a budding entrepreneur isn't exactly correct. She's more of a blooming one. Ms. Owades is founder and president of Calyx & Corolla, a mail-order cut-flower company based in San Francisco.

Eliminating the "middlemen," the company ships flowers directly from grower to consumer via Federal Express. Whereas flowers at the florist or supermarket can be as old as 10 days, says Owades, Calyx & Corolla's are likely to be less than 48 hours old, from clippers to vase. The three-year old company, referred to by the trade publication Catalogue Age as "highly successful," grossed $10 million last year.

Owades's entrepreneurial experience started in 1978 with the launching of Gardener's Eden, a mail-order company that sells garden accessories. Later, she sold the venture to Williams-Sonoma, staying on as president of the unit for five years.

After taking a year off, she started Calyx & Corolla, named after the botanical terms for the outer leaves and petals of a flower.

The company prides itself on quick delivery of long-lasting, nicely arranged flowers. A single bunch of heather is $25.00; a year's worth of orchids (delivered every month) is $450.00.

Americans' penchant for flowers is booming, yet per capita sales still lag behind Europe's, says Owades, here recently for an entrepreneurship conference at Harvard University. Supermarkets now make up the largest retailing segment in the flower industry. "There was nothing new on the upscale side," she says, speaking of the thought process behind her start-up. Enter Calyx & Corolla.

"One of the things that's really interesting is that it's a business that couldn't have happened five years ago," says Owades. Consumer confidence in the mail-order business wasn't as strong as it is now. Nor was computer technology as advanced.

"I like to say we have two products - flowers and service. We're only as good as our last shipment."

She stresses the details that make good service. When a customer calls on a toll-free number, the employees in her firm must make sure a greeting card is included and that the names are spelled correctly (all employees take a handwriting test). Employees number around 50 for most of the year, and approach 150 during peak times such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

Nearly 75 percent of their customers are women. "But we're getting more and more men," she says.

Owades takes pride in being a woman entrepreneur in an age where women are making large strides as owners of small businesses. "In some ways we've come so far and in some ways we haven't at all," she says.

Harvard Business School, from which she graduated in 1975 (her class was 5 percent women), now uses her previous business as a case study, and will be using Calyx & Corolla as another case study.

"I'm delighted to be a role model [for women] in the entrepreneurial world. We need role models in the corporate world who can cut through the glass ceiling too," she says. "We don't have an old-boy network, we have a new-girls network.... That's becoming more meaningful as more women are becoming more powerful."

Many women ask Owades about the juggling it takes to be a successful woman in business. "How do you manage to have a family," they often ask. She responds: "They're tough decisions and there are no guarantees you'll be successful."

She jokes: "It would be great if we had wives at home waiting for us with our slippers."

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