What a Small Milwaukee Flower Shop Teaches Us About Trade and NAFTA

Dec 15, 2017 - 3:00pm

Senior Editor, Strategic Communications

bloomberg_manhattan_flowers_1200px.jpg

A pedestrian walks past plants displayed for sale in Manhattan's flower district in New York.
A pedestrian walks past plants displayed for sale in Manhattan's flower district in New York.

On Above the Fold, we recently examined the 12 states that would be hit hardest by a withdrawal from NAFTA. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a close look at one small business in each of those states that depends on NAFTA. Check back for future installments.

A year after she moved Floral Alchemy from her basement to a small storefront shop on Milwaukee’s North Avenue, Liz Egan hasn’t had a chance to finish decorating.
 

There are a few mounted ferns on the wall. But that’s about it. There’s work going on in the small boutique flower shop. Exotic flowers lay on desks and sit in vases amid rows of assorted jars. There’s a chalk checklist on the wall of things that need to get done, and the built-in cooler and large utility sinks that she uses to wash buckets have been busy. After years of sweat and tears, dreaming, working two jobs and surviving running a flower business out of her house, this is just how Egan likes it.

It isn’t easy carving out space in the flower industry. The sector is worth $31.3 billion in the United States alone – and growing. But more than anything, the flower business can be erratic.

Trade accounts for 64% of the fresh flowers sold in the country and has allowed shops like Egan’s to look globally for product, allowing her to succeed in a marketplace that used to be reserved for the giants of the industry, she says. Sometimes that means sourcing her product from her home state, California, or from states as far as Alaska. And sometimes that means looking to South America, Mexico or Holland, depending on the season.

The reality: The flower business is complicated. There is so much to know. From which flowers do well in which season, which flowers perform well in cold Milwaukee nights or 90-degree summer days. Knowing which flowers don’t need water, and which flowers always do, what’s in season and when, and above all, how to get these flowers perfect for her clients’ weddings so they don’t have to think about any of that.  

‘We don’t live in a vacuum’

“Nature is unpredictable, and if it wasn’t running this business would be a breeze,” she says. “We don’t live in a vacuum. Being able to count on a farm in other parts of the world helps keep our business running. Without it a lot of brides would be holding a lot of dry flowers.”

 

Trade is often misconstrued as the exclusive domain of large multinational companies. In reality, technology and trade have opened the door to small companies and startups and to billions of individuals around the globe, allowing them to compete alongside the largest companies and sell their wares around the world.

The benefits of trade haven’t been lost on the state of Wisconsin, where Egan has set up shop. In particular, the Badger State and many small businesses like Floral Alchemy have benefitted from the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which supports nearly 250,000 jobs across the state.

Wisconsin’s economy and small businesses like Egan’s would suffer acutely if – as some in Washington have suggested – the United States withdraws from the deal. Such a damaging decision would potentially put at risk $9.6 billion in annual exports to Canada and Mexico from Wisconsin.

It’s worth noting that small businesses like Egan’s make up 97.7% of all Wisconsin businesses, employing more than half the population, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. More than 86% of those businesses trade their goods and services abroad.

Living, working and creating jobs in the community means a lot to Egan. Known for her creative designs and customer service, Floral Alchemy is fast becoming a staple in the Milwaukee community. She grew up a few hours north in Green Bay, where her love of nature was born while wandering the woods of northern Wisconsin.  And nature came calling again in in 2013. What was at the time a side gig to be creative and get relief from the corporate rat race, became more, and eventually she made the plunge to full-time small business owner in 2015. Hundreds of weddings and events later she hasn’t looked back, and now employs five part-time workers.

“It’s a large responsibility and honor,” she says. “Being a small business owner means experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but it’s truly an experience that I love.”

“The state as a whole has gone through harder times of late, but it’s a beautiful community of hardworking people,” Egan said. A reduction in trade, she added, “would be felt at all levels of the community.”

She’s doing her part to use her business as a force for good. As her business grows, she’s hoping to start an apprenticeship program for young people interested in trade and skilled labor jobs while also using her platform to influence sustainable and innovative farming practices worldwide.

“You need people at all levels from all walks of life to make business go, and to help our society learn from one another,” she said. “At every wedding I’m a part of, and all the flower arrangements I deliver, there are a lot of people involved in that that help make that moment personal and special.”

To learn more about how trade affects small businesses in Wisconsin, check out TradeWorksforUS.com/Wisconsin

About the Author

About the Author

Cordell Eddings
Senior Editor, Strategic Communications

Cordell is a senior editor and content strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's strategic communications team.