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1-800-Flowers CEO Jim McCann on His Company’s Second Blooming

Jim McCann was working as a social worker and part-time bartender when a barstool regular mentioned plans to sell his floral shop.

 You’re facing one of the biggest hurdles of leadership—fixing a business that isn’t broken. You’re the founding CEO of the world’s largest florist, 1-800-Flowers, which has thrived for more than 35 years under your nurturing touch. You grew a business that people said couldn’t be scaled from a single New York flower shop into a retail chain and telemarketing powerhouse whose operations took root across the country. Next, you became an early pioneer in Internet sales and took your company public. But while revenues are now over $1 billion and your floral and gift company has operations in 70 countries, you know that you can’t rest on your laurels if the business is to continue to grow.

Jim McCann was working as a social worker and part-time bartender when a barstool regular mentioned plans to sell his floral shop. Having just started a family, McCann was looking for a business with growth opportunity. He put in a few Saturdays at the store, found that he enjoyed it and took the plunge, picking up the operation for $10,000. “I wanted to build a business, not just a flower shop,” he recounts. “So six months later, I opened up my second shop and we averaged one shop every six months or so.”

Then came McCann’s lightning-in-a-bottle moment: changing the company’s name to 1-800-Flowers. In hindsight, the brilliance of the moniker may seem obvious, but at the time the market was dubious. “Everyone told us it would never work,” says McCann. “People don’t need to be able to order flowers 24 hours a day, they don’t need a seven-day guarantee.”

In all fairness, the naysayers were not entirely wrong. The company’s first telemarketing station averaged less than 40 calls a day—calls, not orders. But while the concept wasn’t an instant hit, McCann’s company soon reaped the rewards of the publicity generated, in part, by its very critics. “It was so novel that we got a lot of free ink, both people saying it was crazy and people saying it was revolutionary,” says McCann. “It wasn’t an instant hit but the press we got helped us become a brand.”

Given its maverick culture, it was only fitting that 1-800-Flowers also become one of the early adopters of Internet sales, staking its claim on the virtual marketplace early on by working with AOL and CompuServe. “It was probably 1996 when we realized that our business couldn’t continue to grow in a telephonic environment—we needed to put all our bets on the Internet,” says McCann. Similarly, when the social and mobile sales channel began to gain traction, the company took a proactive approach, becoming one of the first companies to enable transactions on Facebook.


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