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.”
But attractive, economically priced varieties from Colombia and other Latin countries were beginning to penetrate the U.S. market, and Continental Flowers entered the market as this trend was developing. Today about 80 percent or more of cut flowers sold on the domestic market are imports. “I got into the business at the right time and the right place,” Fernandez said.
In the 1980s, the U.S. flower market also underwent a major change. Supermarkets began selling retail flowers, cutting into the business previously dominated by florists.
Fernandez supplemented his phone sales by personal visits to wholesalers. When he and his wife travelled by car on vacation, he would stop in to make a sales pitch. On these early trips, Fernandez would pack his car trunk with guava paste and sidra (cider from Spain) and drop off these “exotic” gifts to American flower distributors who had never seen these popular Latino food products before.
Fernandez’s business grew slowly at first. He hired two employees in 1976 and later moved Continental Flowers out of his mother’s shop, bought two trucks, rented a 5,000 square-foot warehouse in Doral and hired some sales personnel. As the list of customers expanded, Continental contracted more and more truck lines that made regular deliveries in small and mid-sized cities. Truckers, who sometimes arrive at stops when wholesalers are closed, have keys to enter their warehouses and drop off Continental shipments.
During the 1980s, Fernandez advanced two initiatives that gave Continental a key competitive edge.
In 1985, a grower in Colombia developed a new rose variety, Madame Delbard, that Continental introduced in the United States.
Fernandez was the only wholesaler to display this new, attractive variety at a major wholesale flower event in Doral, placing this new rose in each room at the hotel where buyers were staying and setting up a large display of the roses in the hotel lobby. Madame Delbard was a big hit, and Continental, which had an exclusivity agreement with the grower, saw its sales soar.
The same year, Continental made its first major investment in a flower farm outside Bogota.
That and subsequent investments allowed Continental to breed and develop its own varieties of the very popular Alstroemerias at its Colombian farms, introducing its own trademarked line called Alstroejewels in 2002, with vibrant colors and large blooms. These large blooms were a product of debudding in the field, a costly manual process that involves cutting off some buds to allow larger blooms to develop.
Continental also became the largest grower of Forever Young roses in Colombia. These highly attractive roses have a high petal count and long vase life and are popular among florists.
“We researched what kinds of new colors and varieties florists and wholesalers wanted to see, and developed them on our farms, which gives us a great competitive edge,” Fernandez said. Sometimes using plants developed for them in Holland, Continental is able to offer a wide range of new products to the U.S. market. Continental sells high-quality flowers from its own farms under the Dos Niñas brand.
Continental’s customers say they appreciate the company’s consistent quality, reasonable prices and ability to deliver the perishable flowers rapidly.
Clifton Wholesale Florist in Saddle Brook, N.J., has been buying from Continental for about nine years. “We found out about them by word of mouth,” said Donald Lalama, Clifton’s owner, buyer and salesman. “They carry a particular red rose — Forever Young — and I saw that it was a superior quality to what other suppliers had,” Lalama said. “I began buying other flowers from Continental and now I’m buying more and more from them. Continental consistently has very good quality flowers and, a distinguishing factor [from other suppliers] is that when the market is low and things are down, they adjust their prices and maintain their quality.”
Wil Guzman, branch manager and buyer at wholesale florist Pikes Peak of Texas in Houston, has been working with Continental for over a decade. Pikes Peak also buys directly from farms and other suppliers. “Some farms are not consistent. They can sell a very good product today and tomorrow, it’s junk,” Guzman said. “Continental has a good quality product and they are reliable.”
They are also fast, an essential quality in the cut flower industry. “I can call Bill [Fernandez] on Monday at 11 a.m. [Houston time] and the flowers will be in my cooler by Tuesday night,” Guzman said. “It’s a tough business — we’re dealing with a perishable product. We have a three day window — to sell it or chuck it.”