When Elizabeth Young heard that well-known floral shop Tivoli was for sale, she immediately saw the advantages of merging it with her own nearby shop and continuing the legacy of Tivoli’s owner. Nine years later, she has blended the best of both florists into a shared space that has quadrupled her original business’s revenues, making her story a rare instance of succession planning success.
Young started her shop Flowers Talk in 2005 in West Wellington but had long been a “huge fan” of Tivoli, a neighbouring florist in Westboro that had been in business for decades. In the spring of 2014, Young was talking with Tivoli’s owner and discovered he wanted to sell the business.
“He didn’t discuss closing with me, it was just for sale, and he wanted to sell it to someone with floral experience who would be involved in the day-to-day runnings of the flower shop and not be taken over by an absentee business owner or big company that would change it,” Young explained. “He wanted Tivoli to continue the way he had started it.
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“He’d been in the floral business for over 30 years and wanted to change his career path,” she said, adding the owner has since opened a bed and breakfast in Nova Scotia.
By August, “everything came together” and Young relocated Flowers Talk to the Tivoli storefront. The two businesses became a “blended family” known as Flowers Talk Tivoli.
A blended family is precisely what Young wanted. She kept all of the staff from both stores and managed to attract both customer bases into the new store.
“Logistically it was difficult because people who knew Flowers Talk knew it was in West Wellington and they weren’t sure where we went,” she explained. “And there was confusion with Tivoli customers who saw the new name. But it was more just working out the kinks of the name change.
“It was really wonderful because we both shared quite a few of the same customers. I already had people who were sharing the love at both, so it was nice to see so many of my Flowers Talk customers over at Tivoli.”
The main challenge for Young was trying to balance the aesthetics and cultures of the two separate businesses. Both stores were full-service florists, but Tivoli had a separate design style that Young upholds at Flowers Talk Tivoli.
Also, while Flowers Talk had a website and online store, Tivoli relied on phone ordering or walk-ins. Young said she wanted to “streamline” the ordering process for both stores.
“I felt it was really beneficial. There had been no social media process so it was about incorporating that into it and making everyone feel comfortable. Staff would say, ‘Why are you taking pics?’, ‘What do you mean we’re on Instagram?’” she laughed. “It’s the growing pains of bringing a business to a little bit more in the online space.”
While Flowers Talk had been open for eight years at the time of the merger, Young said it “still felt like a new business compared to the maturity of Tivoli,” which is now 35 years old.
“It’s unbelievable because Tivoli had an incredible following, reputation and customer base. At that time, they were four times as old as Flowers Talk with a larger customer base and staff,” she said. “There’s a staff member who’s been here for 21 years, another for 14, so it was great to have their experience with the whole changeover.”
Young said her earnings quadrupled after purchasing Tivoli and continue to increase each year.
While the purchase of Tivoli came with “a big sticker (price),” Young said she knew the benefits.
“It would have been less expensive to start something on my own, but I knew that it was worth the gamble of the purchase price because of that customer base and the loyalty of the clientele,” she explained. “It was a good strong business that I could see making my return on as opposed to gambling and starting something completely different that I had no solid numbers to look at.”
Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA), said small business owners need more support for succession plans that can prevent the closure of beloved businesses.
According to a January 2023 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, over $2 trillion in business assets could change hands within the next decade as 76 per cent of small business owners are planning to exit their businesses. The most common obstacle to succession planning for about half of small business owners is finding a suitable buyer or a successor, the CFIB report found.
According to Groulx, part of the solution is finding adequate resources and networks for small business owners who are considering buying or selling a business.
Young echoes the need for networking and resources. A good accountant, business coach and lawyer are vital, she said, when considering buying a small business so you don’t just “go for smoke and mirrors.”
More support and transparency within the small business community is needed, too, so entrepreneurs feel comfortable sharing their struggles and experiences and “stop keeping our numbers and feelings so close to the chest,” she said.
“As small business owners, everything is emotional for us. Our business is our baby, we spend so much time and energy on our businesses that we can put family to the backside and our business is so important that we can’t just get up and walk away,” she explained.
“It takes a huge amount of perseverance and grit and support to help an entrepreneur survive physically, mentally and financially and if you don’t have that support system, you’re almost setting yourself up for failure.
“We struggle and don’t want to verbalize it and risk being deemed a failure. We spend so much time and money, people put up second mortgages on their homes, for people to close a business as opposed to selling, they’re walking away with a loss and sometimes it can feel like it was all for nothing.”