Gay Smith-Chrysal Americas

Gay Smith is not a cut flower grower – has never been a grower – but unlike many of the growers profiled here, she has a degree in environmental horticulture. Just like those growers who come to the industry without a formal horticultural education, it’s Gay’s experiences and career opportunities that have shaped her rather unique role in the specialty cut flower industry.

You probably recognize her name. You can find her column just a few pages over, but she’s more than a byline in the Quarterly. She’s been involved with the ASCFG since its inception. She served as secretary for the organization’s board in the 1990s and regularly works with ASCFG members solving problems related to postharvest handling.

Gay has been a technical manager for Chrysal Americas since 2001, but her career started in wholesaling in the early 1980s. She recalls that the exchange rate was such that one U.S. dollar bought four Dutch guilders. It was a good time to be a flower buyer. Working for a wholesale house in San Francisco, she had the opportunity to make connections with folks in the Dutch flower industry.

In the United States, retailers ordered by genus and color. Gay learned quickly that variety specifics are important to postharvest and the quality of product delivered to her customers. The product availability would come via Telex, a predecessor to the fax machine, with row after row of variety names. If Gay was looking to buy freesia, she would have had to choose from ten or more varieties. If she chose the wrong one, the shipment might be ruined by botrytis by the time it reached the retailer. She believes this moment of awareness was a pivotal point in her young career.

In 1985, Gay seized the opportunity to move to Holland where she found herself sitting on the clock at the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. For six months she learned “flower Dutch” by befriending an older gentleman she sat next to. When she arrived one day to find her tutor had gone on vacation, she picked up her plaat card and started buying. Gay recalls, “The auction was a gentleman’s club with very few women. I had to stand up for myself more than once.” When the exchange rate changed, she headed back to the United States, working again as a wholesaler in Los Angeles, then Seattle, before heading to the East Coast.

In Miami, Gay worked for CFX, now defunct, but once a top five importer of fresh cut flowers. The company wanted to be market driven rather than product driven, and Gay’s job was to work with more than 40 growers in Central and South America developing seasonal programs that would coincide with market demand. It was the 1990s and Gay says, “Unlike now, there were enormous cost pressures on the economics of local products; land and labor in Colombia were cheap and lots of money floated through Miami.” The position gave her a valuable understanding of Latin American production and East Coast product movement. It allowed her to work with breeders to impart the importance of postharvest handling vigor for shipping.

Ultimately, the Pacific Northwest was calling her name and she headed back to a wholesaler position. When that company folded, she followed up on business relationships she developed at Chrysal, whose North American headquarters are in Miami. As a technical manager, her role is distinctly different from the sales force. The company recognized that customers may be wary of taking technical advice from sales staff, and they acknowledge that sometimes, Chrysal may not carry a product that addresses a grower or florist problem. The bulk of research on Chrysal products happens in Holland, the UK and Colombia, so Gay can glean from a wide body of resource information for various treatment results on specialty cuts.
Her job includes answering individuals’ questions, providing training workshops, developing reference materials, even shooting Flip videos. While Gay’s resources might be posted on Facebook or e-blasted, she leaves all the outreach through social networking to “a very capable 25-year-old who works in Miami.”

Gay says most of her time is devoted to supermarket clients, followed by growers and then wholesalers. She has observed that the wholesale market has changed dramatically over the years. “People used to wander around the wholesale house and buy five bunches of one flower, 10 bunches of another and so on,” she recalls. “Today, it’s all over-the-phone sales, simply filling orders with more consideration of price than flower quality.” It’s an odd shift, she reflects, since flowers are such visual buys.

Gay has found that she can be especially effective as a workshop leader for the supermarket sector. Being an outside expert brought into a special event setting, she can poke fun at common though ineffective practices, and be a little irreverent to make an impression on her attendees. She addresses quality control standards, inspection guide-lines, best practices and effective ways to identify and report quality problems.

No two weeks are alike and that’s one thing Gay loves about her job, and a commonality she has with growers. She tries to be accessible to growers and their problems. “People often apologize for bothering me,” says Gay, “but, really, it’s no bother; it’s my job and I want to help them find a solution.” She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but since Chrysal is an international company, she can tap into technical support from managers in other countries where a species in question is more common. Although Gay sees a postharvest trend toward treatment-specific products (e.g., for roses, for gerberas, for bulbs) her experiences will help her keep the big picture in mind to offer the best solution to help growers offer the best flowers.

Megan Bame

Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]