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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 6 years ago

Stem sell

What if an entrepreneur sells his company but doesn't really leave? Two self-assured businessmen tackle that atypical challenge.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

After three decades of running a business as an independent florist, one of the largest in the Sarasota-Bradenton region, Art Conforti knew it was time to sell last year.

Conforti was spread too thin, spending time on a thriving related software and web development firm, in addition to the flower shop. His two adult children weren't interested in taking over the business, Sarasota-based Beneva Flowers. A onetime Sarasota County bus driver, Conforti and his father, who owned a neighborhood flower shop in the Bronx, N.Y., for 30 years, opened Beneva Flowers in 1986. The younger Conforti bought the business outright in 1992.

Next up: Find someone Conforti trusted enough to buy Beneva — a challenge many business owners confront. “I didn't want sell this company and see it fail,” says Conforti.

There was one more challenge, more unique to Beneva Flowers. Conforti's other company, Bloomerang Solutions, handles web analytics, sales data and online reputation management for roughly 60 independent florists nationwide, including Beneva Flowers. Bloomerang, which Conforti didn't sell, is run out of an office across the parking lot from Beneva Flowers. So the new owner of Beneva would not only buy the florist, but would inherit a large piece of Conforti, a driven and assertive entrepreneur.

The pending arrangement complicated the search for a buyer. “I was driving my (business) broker crazy,” quips Conforti.

Conforti found his match in Dave Shuel, who ran an industrial supply distribution company in Chicago for 20 years. Seeking a change, Shuel and his wife, Shannon Shuel, nearly bought a contract cleaning business in Clearwater.

Then the Shuels discovered Beneva Flowers. “I had no experience in the retail business, I had no experience with flowers and had never been to Sarasota before,” says Shuel. “This was all new to me.”

Despite his inexperience, Shuel shares a lot of similarities with Conforti. They each spent time working with, then trying to surpass what their fathers accomplished. They have a passion for customer service. And while Shuel is all Chicago and Conforti hails from New York/New Jersey, the pair has similar big-city, straightforward leadership styles.

Shuel and Conforti spent four months last summer and fall in a courtship process. The deal, for which financial terms weren't released, closed in December.

The transition was initially difficult, given Conforti's unusual presence next door. Shuel says those first few weeks brought “some hiccups.” Conforti concedes: “I was running around like
I owned the place.”

Conforti has since settled into a role more like a Beneva Flowers consultant, who also calls his former company a client. (“That's weird,” says Conforti, of the second part.) Shuel pocketed his ego so he could learn from an industry leader like Conforti. The pair now texts or talks almost every day like brothers — who get along most of the time. Says Conforti:
“Understanding I'm not the lead dog anymore has been hard.”

Shuel and Conforti have also spent 2016 preparing aggressive growth strategies. Shuel, for example, plans to enter the office plants leasing and maintenance business. And he spent at least $200,000 on upgrades and other investments into Beneva, including new coolers for flowers and two new delivery vans.

Bloomerang Solutions, meanwhile, recently picked up several non-florist clients, in restaurants, medical practices and law firms. Conforti believes Bloomerang, with 14 employees, can grow significantly in a niche of web-based services, including website design and software apps. “Everybody in the area knows Art as the flower guy,” says Lindsay Zimmer, who worked with Conforti at Beneva and now works at Bloomerang. “Now we can really expand our brand.”

Words to Live By
The sale of Beneva Flowers brought together two entrepreneurs, Art Conforti and Dave Shuel, who are passionate about being...entrepreneurs. Conforti and Shuel constantly talk business strategy. Here are their business mottos.

Conforti: “You can't just sit back and count on what you did yesterday to work for you tomorrow.”

Shuel: “If you don't diversify, you die.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigrodon

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