Discussions of flowers, Valentine’s Day and the changes the flower industry has undergone in his six decades in the business.
Tom Boesen is part of a third-generation Des Moines family floral business. In fact, the Ingersoll Boesen’s store opened the day Tom came home from the hospital with his mother. We asked him to lunch recently to talk flowers, Valentine’s Day and the changes the flower business has undergone in his six decades working there. He chose Wellman’s Pub on Ingersoll.
“I like to support my neighborhood. I have two, though — Beaverdale and Ingersoll. Beaverdale is mostly full of places for dinner. I practically live at Christopher’s. Flying Mango is great. Neither of those places is open for lunch. Almost every restaurant on Ingersoll is open for lunch and dinner — Jesse’s Embers, Noah’s Ark are the senior citizens. I am really happy to see The Station come along and upgrade the Zimm’s business. There seems to be a new place opening on Ingersoll every month or so lately.
“Wellman’s Pub fits in a happy spot for me. I have great memories of (business founder) Mark Wellman, and I love what Tom and Annie Baldwin have done with it. They are fabulous people and wonderful philanthropists,” he explained.
As we discussed the state of the city over an iconic clam chowder recipe, tacos and salads, I noticed that Boesen asked more questions than most interviewees. He just seems to genuinely care about other people.
“That’s why I love the flower business. In the end, it’s about personalizing relationships. You did a story recently about Dave Beveridge of Miller’s Hardware. As different as nuts and bolts are from flowers, our businesses are similar in that they both come down to personalizing relations with customers. There are lots of places today where people can buy hardware and flowers, but our stores survive because many people prefer a personal relationship,” Boesen said.
You are among the few survivors from 50 years ago when there were lots of florists and lots of family hardware stores. Why do you think Boesen’s stayed viable when others went away?
“We are a family business. My grandfather started it in 1923. My son Tim runs our planting and maintenance business. We take care of all that for city beautification areas like downtown, Ingersoll, etc. I have never had another job. I started working in the shop when I was too young to get a paper route. I only lasted a year and a half at Creighton. I like to say I lettered there. The school sent my parents a letter saying I had chosen the wrong place.
“Four generations of Boesens have kept the store going. Lozier Florist went out of business after Dick Lozier’s children all went a different way with their careers. He sold it to a doctor. Same thing with Codner’s. Jamie Krist was not a florist. It really helped that we had generations of heart and soul in the flower business. When other local florists went out of business, we did a ‘tuck-in.’ That means we bought their website and their phone number but not their real estate. If a customer had them on speed dial, now he calls me,” he explained.
What is the competition today?
“It’s just us and Hy-Vee now. We sell as many flowers as they do.”
What about the online services?
“That isn’t as imposing a competitor to us as it is to other businesses. A lot of online marketing success is that they can sell for a lower price than a store with a mortgage, taxes and overhead to pay. In the case of flowers, it’s more expensive to shop with Flowers.com or Amazon. As big as Amazon is, they don’t deal with flowers, they don’t grow them, warehouse them or have greenhouses. They deal with local shops like us. That tacks on additional middleman costs for wire service and other charges. Besides, flowers are a personal thing. Customers want to engage us in their decisions. They trust us with the right message. They also know that Amazon doesn’t sponsor Little League teams or local charities,” Boesen said.
Are there any principles that Boesen’s maintains?
“Since Grandfather, it’s been the same. Treat everyone well, especially your help. Try to be sure everyone leaves feeling better. He also said that life is easy. People make it hard,” he recalled.
What are the demographic differences among customers?
“For the most part, men are not usually sure what they want. Ladies almost always know exactly what they are looking for. Our generation knows better than younger ones that flowers and messages are important to occasions,” Boesen said.
Is this a good time for your business?
“Oh, yes. This is a fantastic economy. I don’t ever recall so many people wanting the most expensive options we have. More than anything, though, this is a great time to live in Des Moines. I am amazed about all the wonderful changes I have seen. I consider Des Moines to be like a great fishing hole. You really don’t want to tell anyone about it because then it might change. I have never wanted to work anywhere else, or to live anywhere else. I love Des Moines. I will get away after Valentine’s for a few weeks in Florida, but I will be sure to be back
before Easter, Mothers’ Day and wedding season. I feel so honored that people share those important occasions of their lives with me, by letting me provide a part of the experience.
“Within the flower business, air freight and the Internet have done fabulous things for florists. We only have 40,000 square feet of greenhouse space now. We don’t grow, just warehouse. We used to have acres of it before the world changed. Our flowers now come mostly from Holland, Columbia, Ecuador and Hawaii,” he said.
Not Mexico or California?
“No, and that’s a pity. Those are perfect places to grow flowers. California makes water so expensive that their flowers are overpriced. Mexico’s problem is the border. It can take days to clear customs and other hurdles, and flowers are perishable. The Port of Miami is the opposite. They expedite clearance for air-freighted flowers from South America that are on their way to us in hours rather than days,” Boesen explained.
Are there any things to remember about shopping for Valentine’s Day?
“We will do 9 percent of our annual business on Valentine’s and the two days before it. Christmas and Mothers’ Day are similarly busy. The floral business tried to interest people in flower symbolism — like red roses for romance, white flowers for sympathy and yellow flowers for friendship. The red rose is the only thing that caught on,” he said. ♦