Archive for Wednesday, October 13, 1999

The Flower Depot just keeps on growing

October 13, 1999

Ten years ago, Jim Bennett was selling flowers door-to-door from the back of his pickup truck.

Today, Everlasting Specialties, the dried-flower company Bennett owns with his brother-in-law, Steve LaForge, is selling flowers across the country.

Business is good, Bennett said. In 1998, sales increased by 70 percent.
"So far this year, we're up about 50 percent over 1998," he added.
This is a far cry from the company's beginnings.

"It wasn't too efficient going door-to-door," Bennett said.
Everlasting Specialties is a wholesale company that buys dried flowers and wreaths and sells them to businesses.

Three years ago Everlasting Specialties had 650 businesses on its customer list.

"We have almost 13,000 now," Bennett said.

The company's sales skyrocketed in January and February 1998, LaForge said.

"Those were record months for us," he said. "Now there are weeks where we sell more than we would sell in a month two years ago."

New technology is partly responsible for the recent boost in sales. In January, the company established an Internet website, www.tfdepot.com, to sell flowers and wreaths to wholesalers. In September, they added a retail website, www.wreathdepot.com.

The wholesale Internet site has done well in its first nine months and it is hoped that the retail website will take off soon, LaForge said.
"Our main business is with florists, home-based businesses and craft stores," LaForge said.

The majority of the company's customers live out of state. When Bennett and LaForge started Everlasting Specialties, most of their customers were in Kansas. Now their primary buyers are in New York and Pennsylvania.

As the company's reputation grows, so does the demand for its catalogs.
"Last month we had 1,100 inquiries for catalogs," Bennett said. "Not long ago, we wouldn't have had that many in a year."
With the business growing so fast, it's a challenge to hold it together, Bennett said.

"It's hard to make sure we buy enough flowers and wreaths, get them in and send them out again," Bennett said.

Helping, of course, are the employees, all of whom Bennett and LaForge said they couldn't do without.

For instance, it's the women who answer the phone and take orders who cement the bond with their customers, Bennett said.

"They don't know Steve and me they know Sandy, Emma, Rebekah, Donneta, Vickie and Cindy (LaForge's wife) because they're the ones who handle customer service," Bennett said.

Although Bennett said this business could easily be located in almost any part of the country, it is in part the geography that keeps it here.
"The people who work for us have this Midwestern friendliness and concern for the needs of the customer," Bennett said. "That's a real important factor in our success."

Along with the recent growth of the business comes a need for the business to find a new home. Currently, the company's primary home is the 130-year-old former Tonganoxie depot that Bennett and LaForge refurbished in 1990. Inside, twig wreaths made by a farm family in Nebraska hang from beams across the ceiling. But as delightful as the owners find the building to be, they need more space and are looking at locations in the area

"We're getting ready to take the business to the next level," Bennett said. "That will mean more travel, getting out there so we can be closer to our customers."

The men have more in common than a love of flowers and gardening. Both are 49, and have known each other since they were 14 and growing up in Turner. Their wives, Kara Bennett and Cindy LaForge, are sisters.

The men have long worked together in businesses that ranged from rock bands to woodworking shops. Bennett said his ability to take on new ventures with Steve started when they were teenagers.

"When all of my other buddies didn't want to take on a challenge, I could always count on Steve," he said.

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