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A Retail Flower Store Success Story

Starting Over With A Start-Up

Company: Cheshire Tree

Type of Business: Retail flower store

Owners: Sue Meany and Kent Thomas

Founded: 1991

Start-up Financing: $70,000

Background: Computer professionals

Projected 1995 Sales: $328,000

Looking back, the timing was perfect. It was 1991 and I had worked at the Purchase, New York, office of Nestl� Foods for eight years. I was a lead support administrator, responsible for the company's computer department budgets and long-term plans. My husband, Kent, was manager of host software technology and had worked there for 10 years.

Nestl� gave us an ultimatum: We could either keep our jobs by relocating to Los Angeles or take a generous severance package. It was an easy decision for me. By practically underwriting the start-up of my dream business, a flower shop, Nestl� gave me the initiative to leave and turn my hobby into a business.

They gave me a year's notice, plenty of time to research the best location. In March 1991, I began looking at shops and researching the flower business. In November, I left Nestl� and bought an existing business, the Cheshire Tree in Cross River, New York. Eight months later, Kent left Nestl� to help me run the business. The flower shop cost $70,000 and was financed by my severance package and personal savings. I didn't have to borrow a dime.

Initially, our goal was to differentiate ourselves from other flower shops in the area. They all sold the same standard flowers (loose or packaged), as well as balloons. Along with fresh flowers, we started selling dried flowers. Today, we boast an inventory of 140 different floral varieties from all over the world. Early on, we also started getting into custom work, doing floral displays for parties, weddings and corporate occasions. Eventually, we started working with interior decorators, decorating homes and apartments with appropriate shrubs and plants.

I had created floral displays for our home for 20 years. Now I could do it for others and charge for it. Our design business didn't take off immediately. But the more work we did, the better business got. Our reputation spread mostly by word-of-mouth, although we also ran ads in local newspapers.

Last year, we did more than 60 weddings; this year we'll top that by a healthy margin. The secret to our success was selling distinctive creative designs no one else was doing. We were also very promotion-minded. From the outset, we built a mailing list to communicate with our customers. In 1992, we started a four-page newsletter telling customers about new merchandise, special discounts and holiday offers. When we started the list, it had a couple hundred names; now it has over 3,000.

I'm delighted to say the business gets better each year. For 1992, our first year of business, sales were $188,000. This year, we're projecting sales of $328,000. For next year, we expect at least a 15 percent increase.

Kent and I discovered there is no mystical formula for running a successful business. Besides good ideas and prudent money management skills, it takes only good old-fashioned hard work. Most of my time is spent working with customers, buying merchandise, doing bridal consulting and giving estimates. Kent takes care of all the financial chores--bookkeeping, accounting, taxes, etc. We share the creative side of the business, working with architects and designing displays.

Unlike the corporate world, where we were guaranteed a weekly salary, health insurance, a pension and generous perks, there are no guarantees when running your own business. You're on your own and that's scary in the beginning. But once we got going and the business started making money, I felt better. Running your own business is a lot more gratifying than working for someone else. It's a great feeling when customers thank you for a job well done. We're constantly getting positive feedback from our customers. That's what makes entrepreneurship so exciting--and fun.

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