Floral Store Comes Full Circle

May 20, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — The story began at a train station on Jan. 9, 1960, where a large family had just arrived from the Netherlands and was greeted by Frank DeVos, a deacon of Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church.

“I was called and asked to sponsor a family that had traveled from Indonesia to the Netherlands and now wanted to come to Grand Rapids. I thought it would be a good opportunity and so I agreed. Then I went to the train station to pick them up,” said Frank DeVos, former owner of Eastern Floral. “When I got there, I saw a very big family, all Chinese, speaking Dutch. I had never seen anything like it. And from that day we started a lifelong friendship.”

From that meeting, the life of Bing Goei and his family was altered forever, but neither DeVos nor Goei ever figured they would come to this point. Goei, current owner of Plainfield Floral and Eastern Floral and its subsidiaries, has truly come full circle.

“My father was an educator his entire life but when we arrived in this country, we were just trying to get any kind of job. Frank was instrumental in getting my father a job with a local wholesale florist,” Goei said. “That started our journey. My brothers and I worked through high school and college for that wholesale floral company, and I later bought it out in 1972-73.”

Reliable Wholesale, Goei’s wholesale floral business, thrived locally and gave him the chance to develop a business plan for the future and to truly immerse himself in the floral industry. As he began to recruit business locally, he decided to make Eastern Floral his first stop.

“I was shaking in my boots. I was 23 and this is the biggest flower shop in town. I thought I might as well get baptized in the fire because then if they throw me out, I can at least say ‘Well, they’re too big for me,’” Goei said. “I spoke to Frank and he said, ‘I don’t deal with the kind of things you are doing, basic supplies,’ so I went to see Harry Dekker. And I went to him and I said, ‘I’m selling these basic supplies. I wondered if you would give us some of your business.’ He said, ‘You know, you are the only wholesaler in town’ — and there were two other big wholesalers in town — ‘that has ever come and asked me for business in person. I’ll buy what you’ve got.’ So that got me started and we built a very strong business relationship.”

However, there was a turn of events in 1986 when Goei was appointed by the First Reformed Church of North America to be its executive director for race relations. At that time, Goei sold Reliable Wholesale and worked in ministry for seven and a half years.

It was also at this point when Goei and DeVos lost track of each other. “We kind of lost touch, and I knew his father was teaching but I didn’t know what Bing was up to,” DeVos said.

After coming back to the flower business, working in Chicago for a few years and then coming back to Grand Rapids, Goei re-established his wholesale floral business. In the business plan he had developed years before, the next step was purchasing retail operations to grow his business.

And in 1996 his first acquisition was Plainfield Floral. “My business plan was always to continue to grow in the retail floral business through acquisitions and mergers along the way. But on the other hand I also had the benefit of having a wholesale floral place that I could buy direct from. So that allowed me to have some advantage over the other businesses and have an advantage over some of the discounted supermarket floral,” Goei said.

Meanwhile, DeVos sold Eastern Floral in 1998 to Gerald Stevens, a national company headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale that had a vision of entering into the floral industry by buying up major retail floral businesses across the country, establishing its own distribution center, and establishing and producing its own floral wire service.

Gerald Stevens bought the Eastern Floral stores, along with several other retail florists in West Michigan. But within three years of the acquisitions, in March 2001, Gerald Stevens filed for bankruptcy, leaving the Grand Rapids market up for grabs.

Upon discovering the Grand Rapids stores were for sale, Goei was immediately interested.

“We were negotiating with the parent company and we were able to come to an agreement and sign the agreement. But because it was under reorganization, according to bankruptcy laws they had to notify all of their creditors and if anyone showed interest in buying any of the assets, a notification went out saying this was the price we settled on. According to the bankruptcy rules, they were given 20 days to respond and to possibly offer a higher bid than I did,” Goei explained.

“Someone did — two days before it was to go through. He happened to be the president of the company here. He came in with a higher offer, which created a whole new set of procedures, which required the two of us to go to Miami to bankruptcy court, so we could have a hearing and an auction.”

Goei was successful in the bidding on Oct 24, 2001, closed the deal two days later and the next day was owner of the group of floral shops.

“It was a whirlwind buying operation but I knew this was something I wanted to do, and I knew that Frank was supporting me, so I just went for it,” Goei said. “One bank I approached said it was like the minnow trying to swallow the whale. That was true, but we were successful.”

DeVos said he was pleased with the change.

“I had heard that Bing was interested in the store and I was very excited. I knew he would be a great person to work with and I knew that he would be the person that could carry on the legacy I had started many years ago,” DeVos said. “I got very lucky to have my business in Bing’s hands because Bing knows the industry, he knows the community, and he knows how to please the customer.”

Goei said the customer service aspect just makes sense.

“To me, customer service is the most important part of a business and in the floral business there is an emotional attachment. When you send an arrangement or receive an arrangement it is either for a happy event or a sad event, and you want to know as a customer that the person on the other end of the counter understands what you are trying to do,” Goei said. “When you lose perspective and all you are looking at is your bottom line, you are going to lose customers. And this is the kind of culture Frank DeVos instilled in this store and this community, and this is what we are working to bring back.”

Not only does Goei now own the same store to which he once peddled wholesale floral supplies, but the former owner, Frank DeVos, as well as Harry Dekker and former Flowers by Maureen owner and now vice president of Eastern Floral, Maureen Konwinski McKay, all are now on board as well. Other family members involved are Goei’s wife Jean, their children Jason Goei, CFO, Rachel and Derek VanderHeide, and Bethany Goei, as well as Frank’s wife Esther DeVos, and their daughter Julie DeVos VanderWoude. This group rounds out the new management team of Eastern Floral and its subsidiaries, with 150 years of combined experience.

Goei also credits Standard Federal Bank and Northern Trust in supporting the acquisition from beginning to end.

“I think that a major part of the process was their dedication to helping minority-owned businesses,” Goei said. “We ended up going with Standard Federal because they were able to give us more support than Northern Trust, but both were very helpful and cooperative. They went out of their way to make us happy, and that is a credit to them and their commitment to the community.”

Goei’s commitment to the community is in much the same area: helping minority businesses to flourish and to receive the recognition and support they deserve. For that he was named as the Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Person of the Year.

As co-chair and active facilitator for the Employers Coalition for Healing Racism, Goei has a presence in the minority business community and has been an active voice for them as well.

“Companies today are going to have to deal with minority business people and large companies are recognizing that if they are not culturally aware of how to do business with people from other traditions, they are not going to do business 20 or 30 years down the road,” Goei said.

“Tax dollars come from a diverse background in Kent County and it is only fair that those tax dollars support and benefit minority businesses in the community. But truly, I am very honored and it is a tremendous honor for me, but it also means that I have a great responsibility to ensure that I continue to promote the need for continued growth within the minority business community.”

And DeVos is honored to have his store back in good hands.

“The public has been wonderful,” he said. “They are not only coming back into the store but they are applauding. It has been a hero’s welcome.”

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