As a small business owner, you typically wear several hats, ranging from a customer service representative to a CEO to an accountant to a cashier. Maybe, in a pinch, you even serve as a delivery driver. At the end of an exhausting day, the last thing on your mind is locking up the store and volunteering your time with a community organization.

However, as some florists can attest, participating in a civic club, coaching a youth sports team, or sponsoring a charity race is not only good for the soul—it’s also great for business. Here are three unique stories from successful business owners in the floral industry detailing how they get out in their respective communities and why it pays to do so.

Caring For the Less Fortunate

At age 14, Heather De Kok, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, fell in love with flowers. Her parents were both in the floral industry and her dad started the Grower Direct franchise, where she worked part time when she was a teenager. At just 21 years old, De Kok bought her mother’s Edmonton, Alberta shop when she was looking to retire—and she hasn’t looked back since.

Initially, De Kok kept to herself, as she was still finding her feet as a young business owner and didn’t have a lot of time to give. “If I’m going to give, I’m one of those people who gives 100 per cent,” she said.

At age 26, she joined Rotary International, of which she’s been a member for 16 years. “I joined Rotary at that time because I knew I wanted to give back, but wasn’t really sure where or how,” she said. Founded in 1905, Rotary International has more than 1.2 million members and clubs on six continents.

After a few years learning the ropes of volunteerism through the large and established humanitarian organization, De Kok branched out to others, as well. Now she primarily works with The Lurana Shelter in Edmonton, a safe place for women who have been victims of domestic violence.

“When you live and work in your city, you want that place to be as amazing as it can be,” De Kok said. Hearing that others in her community struggle through difficult times pulls at her heartstrings. “I live a really lovely life.

I don’t make a gazillion dollars, but I’m fortunate enough to have a wonderful home, a wonderful family,” she said. She sees it as her duty to help others have a future of hope and to ensure Edmonton has strong safety nets for people in times of trouble. “You just never know when you may need one of these programs,” she said.

Although De Kok has never tracked the business benefits of her community involvement, she knows it makes a difference. She doesn’t advertise what she does, but said people take notice nonetheless.

“I think likeminded people who donate their time and money like to support those businesses that also give back,” she said, adding that all the Rotarians in her club buy her flowers. “You develop relationships. Over a period of time, you grow those relationships and those people won’t go anywhere else for flowers when the need arises.”

Stepping Up As a Role Model

Italo Paris’s family has been working in the floral industry since he was just a kid. His father, Eligio emigrated from Italy in the mid-1950s and, in 1976, started Ital Florist in Toronto, where Paris and his two sisters worked during summer breaks from school. Paris officially joined the family business in 1989, after he graduated from the University of Toronto.

He and his sister, Ester, have been actively running the business for more than 20 years, adhering to their father’s vision of becoming one of the largest floral shops in Toronto’s Italian community. Throughout their tenure, they have seen their small shop grow into a large company that acquired one of Canada’s oldest floral businesses, Tidy’s Flowers. But as busy and successful as Ital Florist has been, the Paris family always makes time to be a part of the local community, namely with other Italians.

“The immigrants, when they come over, they form their little communities because they have a social need. I think that’s exactly what happened when Dad came over,” Paris said. “Their first social group was everyone from the same hometown in Italy. I don’t think any immigrant group is different in that respect.”

“The immigrants, when they come over, they form their little communities because they have a social need. I think that’s exactly what happened when Dad came over,” Paris said. “Their first social group was everyone from the same hometown in Italy. I don’t think any immigrant group is different in that respect.”

Ital Florist is involved with several community organizations and events, but most notably, the shop hosts a dance for Festa Della Donna (observed on March 8, International Women’s Day), which raises money for “Because I am a Girl,” a global initiative aimed at ending gender inequality. The Paris family also participates in the “Ride to Conquer Cancer” with a team of 15 to 20 riders, coaches several community sports teams, and belong to the Italo-Canadian social club.

“Because of the store, we coach, we teach, we get involved in fundraising,” Paris said. “We don’t just attend these things; we want to organize them. It’s always been in our nature.”

Being a leader in the community draws in customers, Paris said.

“It’s way more valuable than these networking groups. What’s a networking group? Just a bunch of people getting together for the sole purpose of sharing business cards,” he said. “People don’t want a business card. People want to get to know you.”

Organizing an event or coaching a team—heck, even just playing on a team—helps you know people on a more personal level. “If we like each other, and clearly we do —otherwise we wouldn’t be involved in the same group—we tend to do business with people we know, people we like,” he said.
Though community involvement naturally leads to more business, Paris stresses that you shouldn’t participate solely for the financial benefits. It should be about giving back.

“If you’re part of the fabric of the community, it’s a relationship—a give and take. I don’t believe that a business can always take. That’s not community,” he said. “The essence of the word is common. You have to have a common interest and a common goal. You can’t just always be taking. The more you give the world, the better.”

Promoting Your Passion

Poppy Parsons, AIFD, CAFA, has always had a passion for arts and crafts. In the ‘90s, she was doing a circuit of craft shows when a job opportunity became available at Smart Flowers in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

She worked there for a little less than two years and then left for a job outside of the floral industry. However, when the owner wanted to sell the business a few years later, he called her at home and asked if she might consider buying it. She said yes and has now been the proud owner for a decade.

Off the clock, Parsons is heavily involved in the local arts scene by both sponsoring and donating money and floral art to several organizations.

One of her biggest endeavours is sponsoring a one-night concert at the Long Day’s Night Music Festival, a four-day event that brings artists from all over North America to the stage in Swift Current. In addition to writing a cheque, she donates a floral art piece to be auctioned off.

This gives her a chance to showcase beautiful flowers, artfully designed, to her community. She also lends a hand to the Lyric Theatre, which is housed in a historic building that the city is refurbishing, and volunteers with the local Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“Currently I like to give back through things I’m passionate about,” she said. “It drives you more to be involved.”

Though it’s hard to describe what her charitable work means for her business in concrete sales numbers, she has no doubt that it makes a difference. “People will write thank you letters or pop by after winning a raffle,” she said. “People see me if I’m attending these events. It builds long-term relationships and this leads to business.”

The most important thing is putting your passion into the place where you live, she said. “If you show what’s meaningful to you, the community remembers that,” she said. “When your community thrives, your business thrives.”

Jamie Birdwell-Branson
Jamie is a freelance writer and editor with over nine years of editorial experience working as a writer, editor, fact checker, social media specialist, proofreader, and layout artist.
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