COMING SOON - Sense of Source in 2021
To capture a true sense of the source of the world's most beautifully grown flowers, you have to travel from Colombia’s mountains of Medellin to the streets of Bogota, and then north to Miami. Over 36 years, I have lived in the underbelly of an industry of beauty - civil war, drug violence and climate change. My experiences have exposed me to CIA operatives in Haiti, bombs in Bogota, boardroom infighting in Silicon Valley, the Halls of Congress to negotiate a trade deal, and corruption - in both the USA and Latin America. I've had my life threatened on two continents, been involved in a car chase with police down the streets of Ecuador’s capital, and gotten lost in the jungles of Colombia looking for coffee. This is an industry of beauty used to show our affections, soothe our losses, and show our thanks in a very primal way. The gift and adornment of flowers goes back to the beginning of man. I've spent my life working in this industry, during some of the most interesting times of modern history. This book offers an insider’s look at the beauty and the pain inherent to sourcing the world’s most coveted flowers.
What this book is about:
This book details my 36+ years in an industry that's often as beautiful as it is deadly, corrupt, and full of unregulated challenges that the average person never hears about. From the early days of Colombian drug violence to the greedy side of organizations trying to make a difference, this book details an insider's perspective, providing a true sense of what the floral industry entails.
Why it's being written:
My goal in writing this book is to engage consumers directly by increasing awareness of sustainable agriculture and why it's essential. Mine is a unique company -- transparent in its sourcing, that addresses the inequalities and environmental impacts of the floral industry, and what can be done about it. With this book, we want to attract, engage, and inform consumers on how they can make lasting, positive environmental changes through their understanding of this industry and the companies they support. The anecdotes of each chapter illustrate the challenges, and allow readers to understand that the choices they make in floral purchases really do matter.
Why I’m qualified to write on it:
I'm an industry veteran with nearly 40 years’ experience that includes a background in Central and South American imports and exports. I was one of the first Americans to form a company in Ecuador for floral exports, and I have done business with the largest US national retailers for the majority of my unique career. As CEO of Organic Style, I spent some 10 years in Silicon Valley/San Francisco developing the industry's
e-commerce side, focusing on organic and sustainable floriculture. During those years, I witnessed the good, bad and, often, ugly side of raising capital, developing viable sustainability standards, and working side by side with various organizations in the Bay area. Better than most, I’m qualified to share the dark realities of being active about environmental change, but I will continue fighting the good fight and stand by the importance of educating others about it.
Target Market / Audience description:
As a 38+ billion-dollar global industry employing nearly 100,000 people in the U.S., the details of my flower-powered career will attract an audience comprised not just of fellow industry veterans and employees but, as well, any mainstream consumer who purchases flowers and cares about sustainability, the environment, and the products they bring into their home.
The current global pandemic has also created a strong news hook for this book: consumer interest in the plant, floral and home/garden space has exploded over the past year, with people discovering floriculture as a source of interest like never before. People will find the three-fold purpose of this book -- “a peek behind the kimono,” the sustainability key learnings, and the storytelling – to be an engaging trifecta that entertains, influences, and raises awareness.
From a business book perspective, this perishable industry provides a true working example of supply and demand theory. As an export product, flowers remain a major part of life in Europe and Latin American, both in terms of employment opportunity and cultural consumer purchases. Colombia alone ranks as the world’s third-highest flower exporter.
A few of the chapters you can expect to see...
Growers, Guerrillas & Really Bad Coffee - As kidnappings and guerilla warfare in Colombia increased, so did the impossibility of finding a decent cup of coffee.
Unintentional Drug War Violence Experiences - Pulling into carnation farms will never look the same to readers again.
Adventures in Real Estate, Helping Another Floral Business & a Car Chase with Cops in Quito - Diving into the real estate craze, consulting for other companies and being in a car chase with police on the streets of Ecuador's capital.
The Good CEO Fight & Why Organic Isn’t Always Best - Cleaning up after a failed IPO, what it takes to save a company, and why I visit each farm I work with instead of just accepting that it's organic.
Chapter Four: Unintentional Drug War Violence Experiences
After five or so years I moved fairly freely throughout Colombia. Escobar was dead and there was still a civil war, but at least buildings were not bombed daily. Weekly maybe but not daily. Kidnapping was mainly a domestic or big corporation issue. No one wanted a little player like me. At least, that’s what I believed. But still, the civil unrest and narco-trafficking continued to torment this beautiful country.
I was visiting some farms during one trip, riding with a grower friend of mine. After a full day of farm visits my friend suggested that we stop at a carnation farm on the way back to town, and that this would be just one last stop. “Oh, let’s just pull in here and take a quick look,” he said. And then he nonchalantly told me about an incident on the farm that just occurred the day before. The guerrillas had been there. They shot the farm’s guards and locked the staff in the flower coolers. After he told me this, I indicated that I didn’t need to see this farm, since I’d already seen so many farms that day and they were likely dealing with the aftershock of the horror they’d experienced.
Despite my pleas, we did a quick tour. Nothing happened, but it became clear to me how the abnormal had become normal in Colombia. FARC fighters were often sent to move throughout a region on foot, and they were not a formal military with troop transport. As they walked the countryside, they would often stop at farms or small businesses and take what they wanted. Food, clothing, rest, or money. They typically seized things by force and killed whoever resisted. Even today, the fighters still rule entire villages in the more remote parts of the country. Just last week, I read an article where COVID-conscious FARC rebels were killing people for not wearing a pandemic-appropriate mask. Pretty scary, disturbing stuff.
In the 1990s, farm owners often traveled in armored cars and used radios to check on guerrilla activity before venturing in and out of the city. Despite the perpetual violence and inherent risk involved in setting up shop, I rented a small packing room on a flower farm in a town named Suba. I used that room for specialty packing and to put together flower bunches for our supermarket customers. The grower allowed me to rent the space and his laborers during his workers’ time off. We used flowers from his farm and those I procured from other growers to create bouquets and consumer bunches. I would travel to Colombia with a hard suitcase full of plastic flower sleeves and big flower cutters stuffed inside.
My bouquet operation was coming along quite nicely, but it didn’t make me immune to Colombian guerrilla violence. I used to stay at the Bogota Plaza as it was the closest thing to an American hotel. It offered a bilingual staff, so I didn’t have to embarrass myself with my terrible Spanglish. The hotel’s location also made it easier to hire drivers who would take me to various meetings. As much as I enjoyed my stays at the hotel, two weeks after a visit, a bomb exploded on one of the guestroom floors. The explosion took out most of that floor and, unsurprisingly, I lost interest in staying there. Sure, no one was looking to blow me up since I was an insignificant low-key importer, but that didn’t mean guerrillas didn’t want to kill people nearby. You never know who is staying in the room next to you, or what other people want to do to them.
So I moved on to the Hotel Tequendama since it had a great casino where I felt like a big man playing blackjack with my stacks of pesos. Some 20 years later, I saw a documentary on Escobar and learned that his wife and children were holed up there for several months under military protection while the Cali Drug Cartel looked to kill them. I’m not sure if any of my stays overlapped theirs, but again, you never know who’s in the room next to you and if someone wants them dead.
I decided to banish such concerns from my mind. A grower I’d gotten to know pretty well offered to set me up in the Andinos Apartmentes, apartments in a small, quiet neighborhood “off the grid,” as I liked to call it. Even the street was sectioned off with an armed guard at two gates on either end of the road. Cab drivers who took me to Andinos had their cars inspected for bombs, including under the vehicles and inside the trunks. I didn’t mind this at all because it helped me feel safe.
My sense of security wouldn’t last. In those days, going to South America always meant staying for a week or two because traveling there wasn’t nearly as easy as it had been in the past 15 years. One day I was in my apartment, working at my desk and listening to the birds chirping sweetly outside my window. The fresh mountain air was flowing through my room, adding to my sensory experience when, suddenly, I heard automatic gunfire in the street just below.
I rushed to the window to see people scrambling frantically and heard more gunfire. I couldn’t see where it was coming from, but I knew it was close. Then it hit me -- well, the gunfire didn’t hit me, but I realized that hanging out the window like a dummy made it easy to get caught in the crossfire. Not wanting to die senselessly, I ducked down and sat on the floor. In my head, I began working out the safest place in the room, in the likelihood of a stray bullet making its way in. After a few minutes, the shooting stopped but I was reminded again that I was far from home and had to keep significantly different considerations in mind if I was going to keep traveling to Colombia without accidentally or intentionally getting shot.
One night, as a friend picked me up for dinner, I told him what had happened. He said, “You know, I always wondered why you stay here, this is a Colombian Mafia neighborhood and the former mayor of the city also lives here.” After some contemplation, he figured it was probably safe because the mafia was there, but it could be dangerous if someone went after the ex-mayor. That mayor was politically powerful, and Colombia has a bloody history of killing its political figures.
One morning as I was reassessing my safety and waiting in the apartment lobby for a car to pick me up, I noticed another American. It wasn’t commonplace to see Americans in those apartments, so my interest was piqued. We exchanged pleasantries and he began to question what I was doing in Colombia. He showed much interest in hearing about the country’s floral industry, and I was happy to talk about it.
After a few minutes, he told me he was with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and asked if I would consider working with the organization or becoming an agent. Colombia was obviously a drug hot spot and the administration needed people who knew their way around. I began imagining myself running around the country in a Miami Vice-style suit with rolled-up sleeves and loafers without socks, thinking that I was ready to do it.
Time passed and I didn’t call him, though I did look into how one joins the DEA and what the requirements were. One of them was a college education, something I didn’t have and was self-conscious about. Someone in my family once wrote in a letter to my wife that I will never forget: “I do worry about Robert’s lack of formal education. It is often the deciding factor in business, and he will never be the social equal to those with a good education.”
I worked hard throughout my 30s and 40s not to let those comments define me.
Down the street from my apartment in Bogota was a Japanese steakhouse. One night, several cars pulled up to the establishment and a group of men walked in. The growers I was dining with became visibly agitated, and quickly put down enough cash to cover our food and drinks. They rushed me into their car and down the road, telling me the men were narco traffickers and the steakhouse was no longer somewhere I wanted to be. The Cali and Medellin drug cartels, once united as the world’s largest cocaine producers, were now at war with each other. No one on either side was safe anywhere in Colombia and everyone in their proximity was at risk of being caught in the crossfire. Gunfights between the cartels plagued the cities during those times. It was time to reassess my business goals and consider moving to a safer country.