Miracle grow

It’s tough enough to run a company offering a product or service you know all about. Imagine being forced to run a business you know nothing about — and you’ve never worked a day in your life.

Patte Streb woke up to that nightmare the day after her husband, Raymond Bellrose, died in January 1979, leaving her as president and CEO of United Floral Supply Inc. in Canton.

“Nine days after he bought this business from the previous owner, he dropped dead,” says Strebb, a Denver native who moved here with Bellrose in August 1978.

After the funeral, she went into the office and found financial papers piled on the desk. Confounded, she tossed them in the trash. When the accountant called to ask if she’d reviewed the P&L, she asked, “What’s that?”

“There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, and I knew I was in trouble,” she says. “I had four sons to support, so I had to learn this business.”

Strebb took college business courses and looked to industry mentors for guidance. Remarkably, she’s since tripled the company in size.

In addition to profits from advance orders, Strebb offered merchandise selections to retailers right out of “showrooms on wheels” — refrigerated stock trucks she purchased for route service. In 1991, she expanded by constructing an 18,000-square-foot facility in Jackson Township, increasing space by 40 percent. Five years ago, she further saturated the market with direct order phone sales.

Formerly a wholesaler supplying Canton and Massillon flower shops, United Floral now covers a 100-mile radius encompassing Akron, Cleveland, Zanesville, Cambridge, Ashland and out to Wellsburg, W.Va. With 23 employees and annual sales topping $3 million, Strebb claims 20 percent of the market she serves.

If three of her sons hadn’t eventually joined the company, Strebb says she would have closed the doors. (She later remarried and was widowed yet again.) Terry Bellrose, 43, is vice president; Randy, 42, is treasurer; and Doug, 39, is general manager.

“When we were boys, Dad let us work in other floral businesses he owned, so we knew the basics,” says Doug Bellrose, who came on board after college and work experience with a Chicago floral supply house. “But Mom was always a homemaker and she didn’t know the first thing about business — or about flowers.”

He laughs, recalling a silk flower arrangement she once tried to water.

Today, Strebb can peruse a P&L statement at a glance, and knows how to compete in a challenging industry.

“It’s tougher now because larger corporations like Lowe’s are threatening the mom-and-pop shops, and a lot of floral importers are bypassing wholesalers to go direct,” she says.

Fortunately, the family’s strong ties with top broker-growers in Florida and California afford United Floral a few advantages.

“When retailers buy from an importer, they have to wait 24 hours for delivery, but we can get it to them in an hour,” Doug Bellrose explains. “After 20 years, the brokers know the value of our business and our demands for quality, so they send us only fresh product, and our retailers know we get shipments three times a week.”

In retrospect, Strebb says it’s a miracle she actually grew the business — and confides that the company she thought would surely die has become her reason for living. How to reach: United Floral Supply Inc., (330) 966-3500