Forecasting supply needs ahead of time is an important part of managing cash flow in a small business. But Dennis Whitaker has to take into account a factor that most small businesses can easily ignore: the season.
"Our business is of a highly seasonal nature, so we have to watch economic trends very carefully for clues to what may be happening as much as eight to nine months ahead," said Mr. Whitaker, founder and president of Whitaker's Flowers Inc., a nursery and garden center on Route 144 in West Friendship in Howard County.
At the end of each season, Mr. Whitaker and his wife, Sylvia, make detailed notes about "what sold, and in what colors, sizes and prices," he said. Before they place orders, they compare those notes with information taken from the same season over each of the previous four years, he said.
Poinsettia sales during last year's Christmas season, for example, were poor because of the weather and a glut in the poinsettia market. "Since we have to order Christmas poinsettias in May, we looked at that and decided to cut back our 1990 orders 30 percent," Mr. Whitaker said.
"Now it looks like our judgments were just about right. We've sold out of poinsettias. While I frankly hadn't anticipated the economy being this bad, our predictions worked out," he said.
The growth of Whitaker's Flowers testifies to the same kind of careful attention to detail and hard work.
When Mr. Whitaker was growing up in Catonsville, his father would send him every summer to work at Whitaker's Greenhouse, a wholesale nursery and cut-flower business owned by his uncle, Edgar Whitaker, in Severn.
After Mr. Whitaker graduated from high school, he joined his father in the poultry business. When that business suffered from an economic downturn in the mid-1950s, Mr. Whitaker went to work as a restaurant chef to support his growing family.
"During that time, we had moved to some land in Howard County," he recalled recently. "One spring I said to myself, 'I think I'll grow some tomato plants.' We set them out on a table on the front porch, and that was the beginning."
Shortly afterward, Mr. Whitaker built a small greenhouse behind his house and began growing plants for sale. He also began to study greenhouse culture, horticulture and landscaping part-time at the University of Maryland. In 1965, he bought an acre on Route 32 in Howard County, opened a 1,000-foot-square greenhouse and went into the plant business full-time.
"Back then, we couldn't find anyone who was able to finance a small black business, so we took money from the household and what I was able to make on the side, and we made it on our own, with the goodwill of a lot of people," he recalled.
Within a few years, business was so good that Whitaker's Flowers needed room to spread out. Mr. Whitaker and his wife found a 9-acre plot on Route 144 that fitted their business needs, but money was again a problem.
Even though the Whitakers had equity in their property on Route 32 and Mrs. Whitaker's mother was willing to pledge her house as additional equity for a business loan, bank after bank refused to make a loan, Mr. Whitaker said.
"Finally, we went to Commercial and Farmers Bank in Ellicott City. They listened to us, and they loaned us $25,000, and we've been growing ever since," he said. Today, Whitaker's Flowers has 10,000 square feet of greenhouses, a retail shop and as many as seven employees in peak seasons.
Mr. Whitaker says he agreed to share his business experiences at a seminar sponsored by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development in the hope that he could spare other entrepreneurs some of the pitfalls he and his wife encountered.
"I don't want people who are just getting started in business to be overcome by rose-colored glasses," he cautioned. "There are lots of sacrifices of time and self and family and the good life to get a business going. It's definitely hard work."