Seeing the forest for the trees… er, flowers
After working in the floral industry for about 25 years, Alex Lim wanted her own shop. But she did not want to take on all the responsibility for every aspect of the business, knowing how difficult it is to succeed and find work-life balance in that scenario.
She and her partner and co-owner, Rick Vienneau, decided a Forest of Flowers franchise would offer the right blend of calling their own shots while receiving marketing, training, technology, merchandising and other support from the head office. In November 2016, they opened their Forest of Flowers shop in Brantford, Ontario, about halfway between a cluster of FOF shops in London and another group in the Greater Toronto Area.
Forest of Flowers has 16 locations, including nine in London. Before opening the store in Brantford, Lim had worked for three years in a shop in Mississauga, where she grew up. Lim and Vienneau met while both worked at a Mississauga floral wholesaler.
“We just recently had a growth spurt in the company,” adding five new locations in the last couple years, Lim said. The Brantford shop, converted from a previous florist, is the largest, with about 2,400 square feet, which can be “both a blessing and a curse,” she said. It’s a lot to clean and maintain, but she loves having enough room for a second storage cooler, in addition to the front display cooler, as well as extra workspace.
The fact that several of the newest franchisees were designers at other FOF locations is “a good reflection of the brand itself,” Lim said. “We all believe strongly in the brand and in the company.
There’s strength in numbers.” Lim saw numerous benefits of going with a franchise versus opening her own independent shop, particularly the company’s marketing. “It was always a thorn in my side to have to wrestle with that,” she said. “Advertising is, number one, very expensive, but also extremely laborious and time-consuming. It was very tedious.”
Each franchisee localizes its marketing at the community level through charitable fundraising, business networking or other means. Lim also benefits from Forest of Flowers’ long-standing relationships with both fresh flower and hard goods suppliers. “As a new business owner, that’s a weight lifted off your shoulders,” and a time saver, she said. The company’s website touts its economies of scale: “Our proprietary supply network and purchasing power yield above-average gross profit margins.”
Still, there are “never enough hours in the day,” Lim said, and she and Rick knew going into it they would have to sacrifice some personal time at the beginning. They have no regrets though. “It’s so worth it,” she said.
Forest of Flowers, founded in 1996, has 23 percent of the London regional market, according to its website, with sales 12 percent above the previous year, in the most recent quarter. Lim, who graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design in 1998 with a degree in industrial design, knew she wanted to work in a creative field. Her entrée into floral retail was at three shops owned by her ex-husband’s mother.
“That’s where I started learning all aspects of the business, not just floral design,” she said.
Working in the wholesale side of the business added to her knowledge base. “I’m proud to have had that little stint of experience,” she said. “Most florists don’t have both sides of the equation. There are a lot of great floral designers who aren’t great at business, and … there are a lot of great business people who aren’t great floral designers. You have to kind of find a happy medium. That definitely has been a recurring theme in my life, find a good balance.”
Interested in pursuing her “passion for flowers and serving customers,” Lim hinted to a then FOF vice president, Richard Overbeek, that she would be ready to open another outlet for the chain. Later, Overbeek encouraged her, telling her “you’re meant for bigger things.”
“He saw something in me,” Lim said. “He believed in my potential.” Overbeek pitched Brantford to Lim and Vienneau because he had long ago owned a shop there. After research, the city’s demographics and market appealed to the new franchisees. MoneySense, an online personal finance magazine, named Brantford the best city in Canada to buy real estate in its 2018 annual ranking, based on the health of the local economy, cost of renting, and other factors.
“Even just in the short time we’ve been open, we’ve seen a change … for the better,” Lim said. “It’s becoming more multicultural.”
As the clientele transitions beyond its prior base of seniors to include younger couples and families, Lim sells a mix of traditional and contemporary designs. That wide customer base is ideal for the Forest of Flowers model, Lim said. “We present ourselves as targeting a mainstream audience, not like an independent shop that would maybe target a more high-end boutique store clientele. That’s not what we’re about.” As Forest of Flowers describes it on its website, the company targets the “value-conscious consumer,” offering “field fresh for less.”
Forest of Flowers’ focus is fresh flowers and plants, with only some greeting cards and plush toys filling out the inventory. The company deliberately steers away from giftware, which visually differentiates it from other shops.
Lim’s shop is on the main road in a shopping plaza that includes a grocery store and ample parking. The shop is “all about” cash and carry, she said. Lim and Vienneau have two full-time employees who worked at the previous shop before it was converted.
The home office dictates a price list for consistency across locations. Each shop has the same website, and follows recipes to have certain arrangements on hand at all times, with some freedom for custom pieces to meet local needs. Sticking primarily to the corporate guidelines ensures franchisees use what’s in their standing orders, maintain fresh product, keep costs low and improve profit margins.
To minimize or eliminate waste, FOF has a weekly and seasonal purchasing template, as well as a production template “to ensure stores are buying the correct mix while driving their bottom line,” said Kelly Kailis, Forest of Flowers’ field operations manager. Templates are adjusted using data from the point-of-sale system. The franchisor also tries to “keep in front of industry and economic challenges,” she said.
Buying into a Forest of Flowers franchise requires a start-up investment ranging from $125,000 to $210,000, the company’s website says, with annual operating costs estimated at $170,000 to $309,000. Owners pay FOF ongoing royalties of 5 percent of gross sales, and another 2.5 percent of gross sales for advertising. Owners can expect gross profit margins including royalties ranging from 58.5 percent to 60.5 percent, FOF says.
Kailis noted that customer count has grown 8.3 percent in the last 12 months. Opening a franchise is less risky than starting a new business, Kailis said.
Acknowledging the risk of opening any new business, Lim said feedback and advice from other Forest of Flowers owners bolstered her confidence. “You have the opportunity to go visit these stores, or to see or discuss with the owners how it’s been for them. That’s sort of a comfort before going into it yourself.”