COMING SOON - Sense of Source in 2021
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To capture a true sense of the source of the world's most beautifully grown flowers, you have to travel from the mountains of Medellin to the streets of Bogota and Miami. Over 36 years, I have experienced 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, lobbying Congress for a trade deal, and corruption in the U.S. and Latin America. I've had my life threatened on two continents, been involved in a car chase 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.
What the book is about:
This book is about my 36+ years in an industry so beautiful but often so deadly, corrupt and full of unregulated challenges the average person never hears. From the early days of Colombian drug violence to the greed and money side of organizations trying to make a difference from Silicone Valley. This book is from the perspectives of insiders not a writer studying the subject.
Why it's being written:
I am writing the book to engage consumers in a direct conversation raising awareness of why sustainable agriculture is important. To be a company that is transparent in it’s sourcing and addressing the inequalities and environmental impacts that starts at the beginning. We want to attract, engage and inform consumers on what’s important in this industry and how they can make lasting change through their understanding and the choices they make when supporting companies that matter
Why I’m qualified to write on it:
I have been in this industry for 37 years now and have an extensive background in central and south American imports and exports. I was one of the first North Americans to form a floral company in Ecuador for exports and I have done business with national retailers for most of this time. I spent 10 years in the ecommerce side of the business focused on organic and sustainable floriculture as CEO of Organic Style in San Francisco, I have seen the good, bad and often ugly side of raising capital, developing sustainability standards and working side by side with various organizations that have great intentions and often greedy realities of fighting for change.
Target Market / Audience description:
The floral industry globally is a 38+Billion-dollar industry employing nearly 100,000 people in the US. Consumers that buy flowers and other perishable goods will find interest in this book. From a business book perspective there is no truer example of supply and demand theory than the perishable industries. In Europe and Latin America flowers are a major part of life, as an export product, employment opportunity and cultural consumer purchases. Colombia’s 3rd highest export product as a country is Flowers.
- SAMPLE OF TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter One: Welcome to the jungle
Chapter Two: Flowers in Colombia
Chapter Three: Growers, Guerrillas, & Really Bad Coffee
Chapter Four: Unintentional Drug War Violence Experiences
Chapter Five: My Beginning is a Look Back
Chapter Six: Dumb Decisions That Somehow Equaled Promotions
Chapter Seven: Wise Guys, Dutch Guys, & One Nasty Hurricane
Chapter Eight: Moving to Ecuador
- SUPPORTING MATERIAL
MSN.com (national / syndicated): December 8, 2020
Manatee Fresh Makes Business Pivot During Pandemic to Keep Selling its Flowers
Floral Daily (international): December 4, 2020
The Covid Pivot That Saved, Diversified and Expanded a Florida-based Floral Company with a Conscience
Green Talk (Podcast): April 23, 2013
Sustainability in the Flower Industry Blooms Through Organic Bouquet: Interview w/ CEO Robert McLaughlin
Green Biz: April 12, 2013
Organic Bouquet: Keeping the Sustainable Flower Business Blooming
Bloomberg News (TV Interview): March 23, 2012
McLaughlin Says Organic Flowers Less Expensive to Grow
Bradenton Herald: 12/8/2020
Manatee Fresh makes business pivot during pandemic to keep selling its flowers
WFMJ.com - 12/1/2020 (TV/ Broadcast - NBC Affiliate / Youngstown, OH)
Spot on Florida.com: 12/8/2020
Herald Tribune: June 11, 2018
After 125 years, Manatee company delivering fresh flowers differently
Bradenton Herald: May 8, 2018
A look behind the scenes at how cut flowers arrive for Mother's Day
Bradenton Herald: May 8, 2018
Those cut flowers you buy for Mother's Day used to be grown in Bradenton. Not anymore. Here's why.
Toxic-Free Talk Radio: (Radio interviews with leading industry innovators on being toxic-free): Dec. 9, 2013
Digital Commerce 360: Feb 15, 2013
Candy and Jewelry Play Big Valentines Roles
Orlando Sentinel: May 8, 2011
His Organic Flowers Help Mothers Around the World
SAMPLE Chapter Six: 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, telling me about the farm and the day before when the guerrillas had been there. They shot the farm’s guards and locked the staff in the flower coolers. I said that I didn’t need to see this farm since I had already seen so many farms that day, but 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 took whatever they wanted by force and killed whomever resisted. Even today, the fighters still rule entire villages in the more remote parts of the country.
Last week I read an article where FARC rebels were killing people for not wearing a mask in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pretty scary, disturbing stuff.
Owners of farms in the 1990’s often traveled in armored cars and used radios to check on guerrilla activity before venturing out of the city. Despite the violence and armored cars, I rented a small packing room corner on a flower farm in a town named Suba. I used the farm for specialty packing and to put flower bunches together for our supermarket customers. The grower allowed me to rent the space and labor during his workers’ time off. We used both 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 in the hotel, a bomb exploded on one of the floors two weeks after a visit. The explosion took out most of that floor, and I unsurprisingly 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 bomb the people staying in the rooms next to me. You never know who is staying in the room next to you and what other people want to do to them.
I stayed a few times in the Hotel Tequendama since it had a great casino where I felt like a big man with my stacks of pesos playing blackjack. Some 20 years later, I saw a documentary on Escobar and learned that his wife and children were holed up for several months in the Tequendama under military protection while the Cali Drug Cartel looked to kill them, or they could lure Escobar out of hiding trying to rescue them. I’m not sure if any of my stays there overlapped their stay, but again, you never know who is in the room next to you and if someone wants them dead.
I decided to banish such concerns from my mind. A grower I had gotten to know pretty well offered to set me up in the Andinos Apartmentes, or 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, however. 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 last 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 and adding to my sensory experience when all of the sudden I heard automatic gunfire in the street 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 had to be 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. I began working out in my head where the safest place in the room was in the likelihood of a stray bullet making its way in. The shooting ceased after a few minutes, 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.
I was telling a friend of mine this story as he picked me up one night for dinner. 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.” So after some thought he figured it was probably safe because the mafia was here, but it could be dangerous if someone came after the ex-mayor. That mayor was very politically powerful, and Colombia has a bloody history of killing powerful political figures.
Down the street from my apartment in Bogota was a Japanese steakhouse, and 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.
SAMPLE FROM CHAPTER TWELVE
While I was managing director for the sustainability fund we were also invested in a USDA Organic Tomato farm in Mexico. Coming into this after investments were made, I was tasked with assessing these troubled investments and determining if it was in the funds best interest to continue funding or to liquidate. Excited to learn as much as I could beyond memorizing stacks of investment documents, I hit the road to visit the farms.
The Mexico operation was in the middle of the desert in Baja Mexico. I flew into Cabo San Lucas and drove a few hours out into the desert where you wouldn’t think anything could grow to a heirloom tomato farm that started with a $1.2 M investment from the fund. I met the grower and owner Ephraim -- Ephraim was an Israeli citizen living part time in Mexico and San Diego. It was a strange place to grow tomatoes in the desert since water was very scarce and there was nothing for about 100 miles. It seemed like a more likely place to grow something you needed to hide, but I didn’t see anything indicating that other than the oddity of a million dollar infrastructure sitting alone in the desert.
After a pleasant day of touring the farm and discussing operations with Ephraim and various non-English speaking workers, I headed back to Cabo and a dinner meeting with the Ephraim and his wife. I asked him to bring the financial documents to me so I could analyze the cash flow statements and anticipated needs. Instead, he brought me two months of bank statements. I could see immediately we were playing cat and mouse, and that I was apparently the rodent.
At this juncture the fund had increased its investment and was now in for $1.4M. Ephraim did not want to show me where the money was spent, which was more than a little shady. He claimed they didn’t have financial paperwork--just bank statements--so I requested two years of statements starting from the beginning of the funds’ investment. I left town with the agreement I would be back in three weeks to review these materials.
Upon planning my return trip, Ephraim suggested we meet in San Diego because he wanted me to meet his partners. As I read through 8 inches of agreements and legal documents, I found the name of one Mexican partner. It is not uncommon to have a national as a partner, but Ephraim said meet my partners so I was anxious to learn more.
I flew to San Diego and we met at my hotel. In comes the Ephraim with two men claiming to be his partners in the tomato farm. I later learned they were ex-military Israelis, and quizzed them on the Mexican partner. They claimed to know nothing about the Mexican named in the documents that I quickly showed them. They said, “Listen, we don’t know who that is or where you got that, but we three own this farm and need additional investment from you or we will lose the crops currently in the ground.
Since this wasn’t my first rodeo, I said “Listen. I don’t know who you two are or why I’m not seeing copies of cash flow statements on how you spend our million dollars, but not another dime is coming until we get this straightened out.”
“If you don’t send us money you will forfeit your side of the partnership,” they replied. I let them know if we couldn’t get this figured out with the money accounted for we would start liquidating assets and selling off what our funds were used to buy.
They were very clear in letting me know that if I returned to the farm I would “disappear in the desert.” At that very moment I was thankful to be in San Diego. Whoever these two men were, they were big and intimidating.
I spent the coming weeks digging through documents, talking with attorneys to explore options in NYC, Mexico City, and San Diego. Mexican attorneys said “Well. they live in San Diego,” while U.S. attorneys noted that the property is in Mexico and they are citizens of Israel. Basically I had no recourse and driving into the desert alone didn’t feel like a prudent move.
I conveyed the challenges to the main investor of the fund, who said, “Robert, I really don’t need this nonsense and the write off will probably benefit me more this year so just walk away from it instead of spending more of my money.”
He was right. But I’d never seen someone walk away from almost $2m and call it a good write-off.