In today’s tech-savvy, digitally-driven, and global marketplace, the existence and role of family businesses have become increasingly shaky. Few organizations have had the resilience, agility, and vision to navigate the ever-changing global marketplace. Gardens America Incorporated is a rare example of a family-owned and operated operation that has been in operation since 1969, starting by importing fresh-cut flowers in bulk from Colombia and selling them to wholesalers and retailers in the United States.

After years of dedication, the floral distributor now engages in sourcing, importing, marketing, and distributing fresh flowers from all corners of the globe. With over 150 years of combined staff experience and a respected presence in America’s billion-dollar flower industry, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Gardens America is an established powerhouse that looks set to continue on its growth trajectory.

We decided to get a closer look at the powerful mother-daughter duo that has been at the heart of this organization’s past and continuing success. To keep things fun and interesting, we’ll present them with the same set of questions but won’t let them see each other’s responses until we publish this piece. 

Let’s dive right in. 

Colleen Taber’s Interview

Even though she is now retired, Colleen’s spirit of dedication to the business continues to shine through in her attitude and words. Even though she has handed over the reins of control to her daughter, she maintains an active presence in the company’s operations on a volunteer basis. Here are her thoughts.

To better understand this Florida-based corporation and what makes it tick, you’ll need to look at the duo at the heart of this family corporation – the mother-and-daughter team of Colleen Taber and Kristin Gilliland. We’re going to have some fun talking with both of them, asking them the same set of questions separately, and seeing how much their points of view converge – or diverge – as it were. Colleen, who started working with her mother, Kristin’s grandmother, is arguably the cornerstone of the operation, so we’ll start our interview with her.

Q: Please share a little about the history of Garden America.

A: Two gentlemen walked into Pennock Company (a Miami Wholesaler). They were from Colombia and were interested in finding someone to help them distribute flowers from their farm in Bogota. My mother (Peg Gillice) was the bookkeeper then and BOLDLY said, “YES! My husband will”. Her husband (John) was an ex-priest and was currently selling carbon paper to office stores.

They all met and felt they would work well together. The Colombian gentlemen helped finance the startup equipment (basically, a HUGE telex machine) that they put in their bedroom, and thus, their journey began. The “office” moved from the bedroom to the back porch, then to a double-wide trailer, a five-bedroom house, to brick and mortar offices, and has gone full circle as the sales and management teams all work from their homes in both the US and South America.

Q: Who is the boss?

A: I WAS! When I retired, I handed the business over to Kristin. She has 100% ownership and has been an AMAZING leader. Kristin steered the ship through all the challenges of COVID and brought the company to a new/better level. She is THE BOSS!

Q: What is the best thing about working together?

A: For me, it was working with a trusted partner and spending more time with a FRIEND.

Q: What is the worst thing about working together?

A: The ONLY bad part was that we still would talk about business when we got together. We had to focus on NOT discussing business when not in the office.

Q: What is the funniest story you have of each other?

A: There are SO MANY! I have Loved working and joking around with her. But here is one: We often took “road trips “ to visit our clients.  It would usually be for a week with LOTS of driving from one client to another and we were always in a time crunch.

After a long, hard day, I was rushing to get to our last stop. Kristin saw a tourist spot that she had been wanting to visit and begged me to stop. She wasn’t happy as we continued on. We arrived at the town but couldn’t find the location. I called the shop to find out exactly how to get there, and the owner said that if I didn’t get there in five minutes, he was leaving. It took about 8 minutes. And he had LEFT! Kristin was FURIOUS! She lost her big chance to see “Waltons Mountain.”

Q: When did you realize you would be working together?

A: Kristin used to “help out” during her summer vacations and holiday breaks. I SWORE that I would never hire her because I worked for my mother, which was not a good environment. My mom couldn’t separate business from personal. We had a married couple that worked for us, and they decided to move up North. I called Kristin (& her husband, Scott) and told them I needed their help until I could find new employees. I assured them that it would be “short term”. They never left! We made a GREAT TEAM. I had no regrets.

Q: Who is the troublemaker?

A: Me! 

Q: What does each of you do in the company now?

A: I am assisting Kristin in getting all of the products that Gardens carries published on the website. I am a volunteer.

Q: What is some advice you would give a mother and daughter team working together?

A: ENJOY your differences. Embrace each other’s individuality and strength. Don’t judge. Don’t refer to each other as “mom” or “daughter”. Use first names when referring to each other with co-workers. If you have a difference of opinion or argument, walk away until your tempers have cooled, and then work it out AT WORK. Don’t let it flow over to your personal life.

And now it was Kristin’s turn. 

Kristin Gilliland’s Interview

Kristin Gilliland, the current Chief Executive Officer of Gardens America, is the company’s top decision-maker. As the third generation of the family to work for the company, she brings a wealth of experience and knowledge in addition to the innate business acumen that has enabled the family to build up their business into what it is today.

Q: Please share a little about the history of Garden America.

Gardens America started in 1969. My grandmother, Peggy Gillice, was a bookkeeper for Pennock Miami. Her husband, my grandfather, John Gillice, was a former priest who was selling carbon paper. One day, a grower came into the Pennock office and asked if anyone was interested in helping him sell his product. My grandmother volunteered. I’m sure Mom has more details. I was not born yet. I know my grandparents did not have much money. They lived in a low-income area in Miami. 

As the company grew, so did they.

My earliest memories as a young child were of running around my grandparents’ mobile home and hearing my footsteps vibrate on the floors. The extra bedroom where I would spend the night had a telex machine for communicating the orders to the grower in Colombia. When I was about six, they bought their first home in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and converted three bedrooms into offices. Melex handled our product on the runway at Miami International Airport. My uncle ran the warehouse.

I have endless happy memories about growing up in the business. During grade school summers, I would go to work with my mom every day. I would help with simple tasks like folding and mailing invoices and statements or the dreaded task of licking all the envelopes and stamps for weekly mailings. Most of the time, I had great memories of being with family in a relaxed environment and slowly absorbing knowledge about the business – between playing “office” or swimming in the pool. Lunchtime was always my favorite. We would sit in the kitchen, eating and watching soap operas together. It sounds silly and simple, but it warms my heart to think of those times. 

My mother took over the company when my grandmother died, and my grandfather retired. She truly was a pioneer, and I am extremely proud of her. Mom was the face of Gardens America and is loved by so many people in our industry. I love hearing them share stories about her intelligence, knowledge, candor, wit, humor, whimsy, and lack of filter. Mom created a warm, relaxed working environment. We often had dogs and children at the office. Both my children came to the office as babies and grew up with lots of love from our team. We always had tons of fun. 

But don’t get me wrong,

Mom demanded results and demanded nothing short of perfection. She set the bar and her standards very high. I credit her with building our reputation. She treated our entire team so well that they worked harder and delivered top performances. Mom is fun, friendly, and nice, but she is also tough and demanding. I am extremely thankful to have learned from her over the years. I learned how to read people, how to succeed gracefully, how to recover from failure, and how to lead compassionately. 

We have come a LONG way.

At one point, we had a suite of offices in Pembroke Pines, and later we had our building, cooler, and trucks. We have come full circle with our team all working from home now, and our warehousing is done in the Logiztik Alliance building. However, one thing that has not changed is that we have our staff there overseeing our product. My family was always adamant that no one would ever care for our product like someone on our team would. 

That has been and continues to be true. We started in 1969 with a shipment of ten boxes of chrysanthemums to Pennock, Philadelphia, representing one grower. Now we represent over thirty growers and have an endless product catalog. I may be the only “family” member in the business, but the team I have built is my “work family,” so it will always be a family business.

Q: Who is the boss?

A: Mom was always the boss until she retired. Now I am.

Q: What is the best thing about working together?

A: We complement each other very well. Mom is super creative and a great visionary. My strengths are analytics and strategy. Together, we make an amazing team.

Q: What is the worst thing about working together?

A: Historically when we would get together for dinner or family events, our talk would always turn to business. It was hard to “turn it off” and have a non-business discussion. One time we did get into an argument over a customer who did not pay their bill. I wanted her to cut off their shipments, and she disagreed. We were on a family vacation then, and I was super angry with her for even taking the call. Now that I own the business, I realize you sometimes have to take the call.

 Q: What is the funniest story you have of each other?

A: There are too many to share. Mom dressed in a suit and stuffed socks down her pants to make a point at a board meeting where the men left her out of key decisions in the late 1980s. The time mom hazed one of our newly hired salespeople by telling her she had to answer the phone with this script “Gardens America, may God’s blessings be with you. X speaking. How may I help you”. Mom told people exactly what she thought of them to their faces. Mom told a grower she wanted to “invest in their farm” and then handed them a few pesos, which they framed and put on their wall and still have framed.

One that always makes me laugh has a hidden lesson in it.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, WFFSA had a huge show in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the first times we ever displayed at a trade show, I had the distinct pleasure of being along for the ride. Mom had never been to a trade show, and I knew even less than she did. I was a student at the time. We showed up, and the city was frozen…so much so that our rental van’s tires had frozen to the ground. Mom kept her optimism and humor and had us laughing the entire trip.

We embraced the fact that we had no idea what we were doing and needed a design, vision, or team to help us. She and I stood in our booth processing a pallet of flowers with nothing but some dull knives. We decorated our booth with empty flower boxes and endless buckets of processed flowers. By the end of two days of cutting and stripping foliage, we were punch drunk. Our hands were covered in green from all the processing.  

I remember looking around at the other companies with elaborate displays and teams of people. No owners were anywhere to be found. I looked at her and said, “Why don’t you have people to do this?” Her reply was, “We are our people.” I wanted us to be the fancy pants company that could show up right before the show, but she taught me that being in the trenches is critical. In doing the work, you find ways to improve efficiency and processes. She discovered that our growers needed to strip more foliage from the bunches to save our clients from all the extra labor we endured those two days.

She also taught me to be humble.

While other companies had limousines pulling up to take clients to dinner, we invited a large client to dinner, and they agreed to ride in the back of our rented cargo van with no seats. I sat on the van floor with that couple, and we laughed until dinner, throughout dinner, and on the way back to the hotel. Mom taught me to laugh at all the little things in life.

But the true piece de resistance was when Mom hired a company to assess our salespeople with an online test. It was supposed to give her insight into their style, strengths, and weaknesses. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mom took the test under a fake name so the company would not realize it. When the results came in, Mom spoke with the program director. Kristin was howling with laughter when he said, “Colleen, no matter what, you must fire Nancy. She is the kind of person who would sit in the middle seat on a transcontinental flight and not complain.

“She is like Mother Theresa and has no professional sales techniques.” After much back and forth and laughter, Mom came clean and said she was Nancy. The man never backpedaled so fast. He told her there was always room for a “Nancy” on all teams. If someone makes a silly mistake or has a goofball error, we refer to them as Nancy,” even after all these many years.

Q: When did you realize you would be working together? 

A: Mom always insisted that we would never work together. She had worked with her mother, and it was challenging in their relationship. At the time, a married couple worked for Gardens as the Warehouse Manager and Office Manager. They had the opportunity to move back near their family and gave their notice. I remember Mom called me and asked me to come chat. At the time, I was dating someone. 

She approached us both and asked us to jump in and cross-train with them for four weeks, hoping that, ultimately, we could help her train their permanent replacements. Four weeks became eight. The next thing I knew, things were working well. My boyfriend ultimately became my husband. He worked as our Warehouse Manager until 2018. I am still here, so things worked out well in the end!

Q: Who is the troublemaker?

A: Mom is the troublemaker! But she rubbed off on me over the years.

Q: What do each of you do in the company now?

A: Mom is no longer involved in our daily operations. She retired, and now I own the business. However, it is always in her blood. When we chat, she always asks about what’s happening with the business and loves hearing about new product lines, recent trade shows, and other industry gossip. I can call her for advice or to jog my memory about something. She helps me tremendously with organizing our online flower catalog. 

Q: What is some advice you would give a mother or a daughter that is working together?

A: Communication is key. It is critical, just like in any relationship, business or personal, that you have a healthy way to disagree with one another and always be open to listening to different perspectives. It is even more essential when you layer family into the business. Things can quickly cross over into your personal lives. Nothing is worth losing in a great relationship with your mother or daughter. It’s important to communicate your expectations to each other upfront, be honest and be respectful. Setting boundaries is also important. You can agree that set schedules will be for business discussions and then focus more on personal interests and family outside of that.

Final Thoughts

The company these two exceptional women represent is a firm testament to what they are made of. Throughout its many years of operation, Gardens America has maintained its core values in the face of multiple challenges, including severe economic downturns, global supply chain disruptions, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and more. The company has maintained its commitment to providing world-class products and impeccable service to all its clients, suppliers, and partners.

As part of the company’s efforts to help promote sustainable practices, they strive to partner with flower suppliers that practice responsible environmental management. They can implement this by composting, recycling, water management, and integrated pest management programs. 

As much fun as we’ve had with these interviews, it’s clear to see that the company is in the hands of a driven, bright, and clearly dedicated Mother and Daughter team. If you’re ever in need of the services of a Miami Flower Distributor, make Gardens America Inc. your first choice for professional, efficient, cost-effective, and timely delivery of the freshest floral products you will find anywhere in the world. Call us today!