The company that is now Sutton Ferneries got its start more than 30 years ago in the back of a Honda hatchback.
It was in that Honda that Michelle Sutton was going door to door to Miami’s florists selling ferns that her former husband’s family was growing on a farm in central Florida that they had recently bought. Sutton would receive the foliage via the U.S. mail and then put it in her home’s bathtub with ice to keep it fresh until she would make her rounds.
That was the humble beginnings of Sutton Ferneries, a Certified American Grown farm, that now employs 130 people at its farms in central Florida and its processing facility in Doral, Florida. It sells its ferns and foliage to retailers, wholesalers and mass-marketers in the United States and around the world.
All that hard work in going door to door amounted to an education in the floral business that formed the basis of Sutton Ferneries.
“They got me where I’m at,” said Sutton, the company’s president. “They taught me everything that I needed to know about running my business in the sense of understanding what the needs of a retail flower shop are and what was the demands of the consumers are.”
Sutton has flipped the usual model of being a grower that has expanded its sales.
“We weren’t farmers and then selling,” she said. “We were selling and then had to work our way back to figure out how we could get the product we needed because we weren’t getting it from the growers.”
One of the catalysts for the company’s growth was timing. In those early days, Sutton’s contacts with Miami florists eventually led to businesses that were just starting to make bouquets for supermarkets.
“Once we got in with them, we start started having problems with supply. We didn’t have enough supply,” she said.
While seeking new farms to buy from, Sutton discovered she couldn’t get the quality she needed. Buying ferns in bulk resulted in too much waste. Her customers weren’t traditional wholesale buyers. They were using every single stem.
“There were very rigid requirements,” she said. “The quality had to be excellent and all the stems had to be good and it was just very difficult.”
It was a challenge to get growers to understand that Sutton wasn’t just being picky or trying to cherry pick their crops. The company was just responding to the market.
“Retailers would tell you straight up, ‘I’m not buying from you again,’” she said. “And it was the same with the bouquet makers.”
That led to Sutton getting into the growing business. At first, they leased acreage from an existing grower before buying their own property and adding to it over the years. They now have about 100 acres.
“We learned the (growing) business, from getting cutters to crew leaders to packing and the whole operation,” she said.
Existing growers “were very traditional and that wasn’t really working for us. So, we had to basically get our own crews, train them on the exact specs that we wanted and have them go in our fields and cut to meet those requirements for us.”
By the mid-1990s, Sutton Ferneries had established itself. Since then, it has had to adapt as demand and tastes have changed. As the bouquet business shifted to South America in the mid-1990s, Sutton turned to creating new products, such as its Ready to Go Greens, which are premade arrangements of greens that require retailers to just add flowers.
Sutton has also embraced the supermarket sector as the business has shifted away from traditional flower shops. During her career, Sutton said she has seen retail florists in Miami dwindle from about 1,500 to less than 60.
Although florist shops make up a smaller part of her business, Sutton still sells to some of the same florists she started selling to from the trunk of her car. She appreciates the lessons they provided her when she was starting out.
Sutton is proud the company has continued to grow in the face of harsh blows delivered by Florida’s sometimes devilish weather. The company has survived the Storm of the Century in 1993 and multiple hurricanes, tornadoes and freezes. The risk is so great that business insurance isn’t available, Sutton said.
“We’ve been through multiple catastrophic losses over the years between freezes and hurricanes,” she said. “You name it, we’ve gone through it.
“We’ve been able to stay on course, see beyond the problems and maintain a vision for the future,” she said. “I don’t give up.”