Bill Fernandez, the founder and president of Continental Flowers in Miami, got started in the cut flower business in 1968 when he was 14 years old, helping out in his mother’s small florist shop in Hialeah, called Le Printemps.
Six years later, he decided to start his own flower importing and distribution business, with one employee (himself) and a used pizza van as a delivery truck. Continental Flowers today has 400 employees, owns five flower farms in Colombia, imports cut flowers from dozens of growers in six other Latin nations and sells about 750 million stems (flowers) each year to around 1,000 flower wholesalers and supermarkets all over the United States.
Even though he was not the first local wholesaler to import cut flowers from Colombia, Fernandez was able to build a successful national market in a highly competitive sector by strategically targeting wholesale customers in underserved cities, providing unique, high quality flower types and providing fast, reliable service.
By the time he was 16, Fernandez, who was born in Cuba and arrived in Miami in 1960 when he was six, was making deliveries for Le Printemps in his mother’s van. He noticed that the flower boxes at his mother’s store, which came from a local wholesaler, said “Imported from Colombia.”
“Why don’t we import flowers directly and set up a separate wholesale business?,” Fernandez asked himself. He went to the cargo area at Miami International Airport, watched flowers being unloaded and took down the names and phone numbers of the Colombian farms that were already exporting cut flowers to wholesalers in Miami.
Armed with this information, some savings and a loan his father helped to arrange, Fernandez in 1974 started his own flower importing business — Continental Flowers — at 20 years of age. He called some Colombian flower growers and lined up his first shipments on consignment. “I worked in the back of my mother’s store from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and studied at the university from 6.p.m. to 10 p.m.,” said Fernandez.
At the same time, the young entrepreneur was working to develop customers for his first shipments. He studied the cut flower business in Miami and quickly realized that the established flower importers/wholesalers had already captured the wholesale markets in many large cities and that competing in these markets would be a mistake.
“So I went to the library and combed through the Yellow Pages to find wholesale flower distributors in smaller cities,” Fernandez said. “Then I found a trucking line — with refrigerated trailers — that delivered from Miami to these cities along the East Coast. I had to find out where the trucks delivered before I could start making sales. If the line delivered to Lexington, Ky., on Fridays, I called wholesale flower distributors in Kentucky and offered them flowers from Colombia on Fridays.”
Fernandez spent long hours on the phone, introducing his company and offering the most popular varieties of flowers from Colombia at competitive prices. Often, wholesalers at that time simply didn’t want to buy flowers from another country. “People then were buying flowers from California, Colorado and Pennsylvania,” Fernandez said. “About 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the U.S. used to come from California.”