Learning From the Ground Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Lisa Howell took over Paul's Flowers in Fullerton four years ago, she was an accountant with a five-year plan: Buy it, build it and sell it.

She didn't pencil into that map for success the possibility that she would come to love running a small business, despite the long hours, marginal profits and endless stream of headaches that come with it.

"I didn't know anything about flowers," Howell, 38, said during a 4 a.m. drive from her shop to the Los Angeles Flower Market. "Now I love what I do."

In the course of one day, from the time she leaves her house before 4 a.m. to the time she drops her son off at baseball practice about 5 p.m., Howell crosses paths with more than 30 people locked into their own work worlds--people as otherwise unconnected as a flower vendor, a tennis instructor, a car detailer.

And there are hundreds of others whom she doesn't meet this day, yet whose work makes hers possible. People such as the fieldworker who nurtures and harvests the flowers that she buys, has arranged and delivers--as often as not to someone at work.

While Howell's work life is intertwined with the labors of many others, it hasn't always been entwined with flowers.

A certified public accountant, she decided about five years ago to leave her job as finance officer with the Laguna Beach Unified School District for the riskier but personally more rewarding life of a small-business owner. A prime goal, she said, was to work close to the Fullerton home she shares with her husband, Steve Howell, owner of a food brokerage, and their 10-year-old son, Philip.

"We looked at everything from lube-and-oil places, to card and gift shops, to a couple of consulting-type services--taxes, things like that," she said. "But I've always kind of liked the idea of having a flower shop."

Now she has one.

"I'll probably stay in it indefinitely," she says. "I couldn't go back to a desk job, working 8 to 5."

At 4:45 a.m., the sky above the Flower Market has an unearthly glow from the all-night lights of downtown Los Angeles. The market is the hub, the pivot point, for flower distribution in Southern California.

Howell steers her van into a reserved lot, edging in among vehicles from other flower shops. Sound carries this time of day, and the air is filled with the murmurs of people at work.

Over the next two hours, Howell will write checks for more than $1,000 for supplies to fill the coming week's orders at her shop.

Most of the flowers here are imported. Shipping containers bear labels from the Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador. Other flowers are grown regionally, in fields around Oxnard and to the south in Carlsbad and Oceanside.

Howell spends about two hours at the market, making several trips to her van pushing a flower-laden cart over concrete floors and the potholed parking lot. Even loading the cart--and the van--takes experience. Not all flowers are equal in resilience, and fragile petals can easily be crumpled or bruised.

"When I first started doing this I ruined about $100 worth of stuff because I didn't load it right," Howell said.

Howell, born and raised in Dos Palos, a small farm town between Fresno and Merced, grew up knowing two things: She didn't want to go into teaching, her parents' profession, and she didn't want to stay in Dos Palos.

"I couldn't wait to leave," Howell said. "I graduated a half-year early and went to Arizona State and never went back [to live]."

Howell studied accounting, hoping to land a job with one of the then-Big Eight accounting firms, in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Love intervened, though. Her boyfriend, whom she eventually married but divorced a short time later, was from Fullerton.

"So I packed up and came down here," she said.

On this school day, schedules make the family's morning tight. Howell needs to make the flower market run; her husband has a breakfast meeting; Philip must be ready for classes at the private Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda by 8:30; and it is unclear whether the family's nanny, Flory Peseda, will make it to the house in time for Steve Howell to leave for his meeting.

Lisa Howell fights the early morning traffic. She drops the van off at the flower shop about 7 a.m. and calls one of her employees to come in early to unload and clean the flowers.

As it turns out, Peseda is already at the house, a sprawling ranch-style home with a pool and a stable.

Howell prepares her son's breakfast--toaster waffles--as they map out the day, which will conclude with Philip going to baseball practice then on to Peseda's home while Howell goes to Long Beach for an evening banquet tied to her husband's work.

The retail flower business runs on odd cycles. During the summer, the season of weddings and reunions, anniversaries and graduations, business is slow--in large measure because of vacations. Business booms in the winter and spring, with Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Professional Secretaries Day, as well as an increase in deaths.

During the busiest times, Howell employs about eight people, including a main designer and a delivery person. In the dry times, she cuts hours and lays off workers, keeping about five employees and filling in on jobs herself. She draws about $30,000 a year in salary from the business.

"It's been a tough two years, but we've turned it around," Howell says. "The economy is up. Sales are up. I know what I'm doing now. When I started, I didn't know diddly squat about flowers. I started learning from the ground up. I did everything from cleaning flowers to delivering.

"But I don't design. It's something I can't afford the luxury to do."

The transition from public finance official to private retail business owner was difficult, she says. "I wanted to do everything. The first year, I didn't feel comfortable delegating."

Adding to the difficulties, she said, was the discovery that the business was in a more precarious financial condition than she had realized, which led her to renegotiate the purchase price with the seller.

Howell slides into a management school discourse on pricing and the cost of production. Little of the discussion of her work involves the key product: flowers.

"I probably am more passionate about the numbers than the flowers," Howell admits. "After you go through a couple of holidays, flowers are work. There is not a flower in my house."

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INTERSECTIONS IN A DAY'S WORK

Lisa Howell, 38, is the owner and manager of Paul's Flowers in Fullerton. She does just about everything it takes to keep the place running--from making trips to the Flower Market to delivering bouquets. The work of many--some of whom she's met and some she hasn't--supports her own. In a five-day series that begins today and continues in Life & Style, we visit a handful of the people whose lives intersect with Howell's in one workday.

* TODAY on A30

Eleno Cervantes Navarrete, 37, works in the flower fields of San Diego County that supply the fresh blooms to Howell's shop.

UPCOMING STORIES

* TUESDAY in Life & Style

Isabel Lolmet, 21, is a cashier at the Los Angeles Flower Market where her customers include Howell.

* WEDNESDAY in Life & Style

Troy Collins, 38, is a tennis pro at Sunny Hills Racquet Club in Fullerton, where Howell takes lessons about once a week.

* THURSDAY in Life & Style

Colby McGehee, 19, owns a car-detailing service, whose clients include Howell.

* FRIDAY in Life & Style

Ginger Castillo, 35, recently cut back her work at Nordstrom to spend more time with her children. On her last regular workday, she got a gift: flowers, which Howell delivered.

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