Originally created 02/09/00

Florist rejects chain's offer



At the same time florist Michelle Driggers is opening her second location, a national chain has asked her to sell out.

She'll admit she's thought about it. That one lump sum would be nice -- initially. But then the money would be gone, and she would have no way to support herself and her 10-year-old daughter, she said. Ms. Driggers is opening her second All About Flowers location, this one on Peach Orchard Road, but shunning the advances of the national Gerald Stevens chain means she will have to compete against them. And in her mind, it's David vs. Goliath.

"It's this big conglomerate coming in and trying to wipe the little guys out," Ms. Driggers said. "Their goal is to own all the florists in Augusta -- not just a portion, but all of them. Someone approached me last year and offered me $100,000, but that may be gone in a year. I want something that's going to be here for the next 20 years. This is my livelihood, this business supports myself and my daughter."

She was one of 35 local florist who recently received a letter from John Partridge, vice president of market development for Gerald Stevens Inc. Mr. Partridge has invited the florists to a meeting at his home Feb. 21 to explain his company's acquisition process.

If you read the company's literature, its goals are clear: Gerald Stevens wants to become the Blockbuster of the flower industry.

"There's no name recognition in the flower business; the business is so fragmented," said Mr. Partridge, whose company also aims to increase national flower sales.

In November, a group of 21 local florists joined forces to form FLORA (Florists Locally Owned Retail Association), a cooperative marketing association to pool advertising dollars and formulate a campaign promoting hometown businesses. Its main objective is to encourage consumers to shop locally.

The campaign's primary target is Gerald Stevens. Gerald Stevens operates the largest company-owned network of floral specialty retail stores in the United States with more than 300 locations in 33 markets, which is set to reach 1,000 by 2005. The Fort Lauderdale-based company also markets flowers and gifts through the Internet, call centers and direct mail.

"Consolidation is not a bad word," Mr. Partridge said. "Pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, funeral homes -- if we only wanted to use those services that were locally owned, it would be hard finding a place to go. Part of the problem with the flower business is that profitability is so low because of the cost of doing business. If I can buy 100 rose vases instead of five, then that's a tremendous opportunity to save money."

Gerald Stevens' appetite for growth has gobbled several shops in the Augusta area. Since last year, Gerald Stevens has acquired Anderson's Flowers & Gifts, Suzanne's Floral Co., Country Florist, Augusta Flowers & Gifts and Mr. Partridge's family business, Martina's Flowers & Gifts. The former Anderson's and Suzanne's stores have remained open, but the others have melded into Martina's store in West Town Shopping Center in Martinez.

Gerald Stevens' first entrance into the Augusta market was the merger of Martina's Flowers & Gifts in September. Martina's, which was founded in 1975 by Deborah Partridge and her mother, Martina Clark, was then owned and operated by John and Deborah Partridge. Mrs. Partridge continues to manage the daily operations of the business, assisted by her daughter Heather Johnson and other employees, and Mr. Partridge accepted the position of vice president of market development for Gerald Stevens. He has been working out of the Gerald Stevens office at Martina's to help the company acquire other area flower shops.

But is bigger better? That depends on your point of view.

"They've got their own growers, their own nurseries," said Ms. Driggers, who two years ago bought her family's 30-year-old florist on Jackson Street. "We can only do what we can do -- we're trying to survive. They want to own the market. I've had to open up another store just to compete. It's not fair that they are trying to hurt us the way they are. There's plenty of business out there for everybody."

"If nobody in Augusta wants to sell to us, we would be OK, but we certainly have room for more growth," Mr. Partridge said. "If at the meeting they say, `I don't want anything to do with Gerald Stevens,' then we'll shake hands and be friends. It's not for everybody. But it doesn't cost anything to listen, and everything's for sale. It would be foolish to pass up an opportunity without listening."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.

Online information For more information on the Gerald Stevens Company and what they offer, visit http://www.geraldstevens.com/.

You can also visit the Web site of these local florists:
Martina's Flowers,
Fat Man's. A complete listing of local florists.