Business was blooming Monday at Capitol Hill Florist, with poinsettias, red-and-white flowers, pine cones, ribbons and more a flyin'.
But co-owner Kent Whitnah, 46, remained cool — so cool he could have been standing inside the shop's gigantic walk-in cooler. Whitnah grew up in the business, which was founded by his paternal grandparents in 1932 and managed by his parents — before he and his wife, Cindy, took over 22 years ago.
When the family broke ground on its location at 5809 S Western, there was “nothin' but mud from there to Norman!” his grandmother liked to say. Today, the 5,000-square-foot shop is rooted in a sprawling metropolis and has a sister shop five miles south.
Every holiday season, as they have for the past 80 years now, the family counts on all of its members to help.
His mother‘s apt motto is “Many hands together and soon the work is done.”
Whitnah, who employs 18 full-time and part-time workers, took a break from the Christmas rush to sit down with The Oklahoman and reflect on his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots. Did you know your grandparents well?
A: Sure. They lived just right behind this store, and when I started working here, making deliveries and processing flowers after school at age 16, my grandmother — with her signature red hair — still pitched in, making bows. She didn't know a stranger. My grandfather would sit in a chair near the front door, smoking and watching what was going on. We celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1978, a few years before my grandfather died.
My father, Jack, is their only child. He met my mother, Burny — whose family owned Higdon's Florist and Greenhouses — at a florist convention in 1952; they married the next year. I'm the youngest of their four children. My brother is five years older, and sisters, eight years and 12 years older.
Q: Did you always know you'd carry on the family business?
A: Not really. After graduating with a business degree from OU, I'd advanced to a customer services supervisor with Cox Communications, with whom I started working nights in telemarketing my freshmen year. My brother was a firefighter; one of my sisters is a teacher — but I, and the whole family, pitched in every Valentine's Day and the week of Mother's Day.
My dad, when he turned 62 in 1990, gave Cindy and I the opportunity to buy the shop and pay it out over 15 years.
I always did want to own my own business, and am thankful to have the continued support and part-time help of my family that, with my nephews and my mother's sister, numbers 26 strong. My 16-year-old son, who's a sophomore at Westmoore High School, now is working here after school, just like I did years ago.
Q: What changes have you made since you and Cindy took over?
A: We're doing about five times the business we did in '90, partly through reinvesting the money we made. In '94, we acquired the phone number “FLOWERS,” or 356-9377, which has proved to be a very successful marketing tool.
That same year, we hired Patty Wiggins, an OSU horticulture graduate, who manages our costs of goods, design personnel and daily operations. In 2009, we opened a second store, leasing about 1,200 square feet at 11904 S May. We're the only floral shop in that area, whose ZIP code has the highest per capita income in the state.
Q: The name of your store is Capitol Hill Florist and Gifts. What gifts?
A: Most of them are at our May shop. Leopard covers for mace spray, picture frames, lotions, candles, custom sachets, flower vases for your car, jewelry and more. We used to carry more gifts in our main store but, with the growing competition of Walmart, Homeland and others, we've concentrated on making home deliveries of fresh flower arrangements.
More than 95 percent of our flowers are shipped from the farm in a climate-controlled environment. Here, all of our flowers are kept at 34 degrees, in a 7,000 cubic foot walk-in cooler we built in 2005.
Q: What do you like about the floral business?
A: It's rewarding in a lot of ways, whether it's providing flowers for weddings and getting people started out in life, or flowers for funerals and getting notes from a family that they were just what their lost loved one would have wanted.
Most times, you get to brighten someone's day. In deliveries to offices, everyone you pass wants to know, “Oh, are those for me?”
• Position: Co-owner of Capitol Hill Florist and Gifts
• Website: capitolhillflorist.com
• Birth date: Feb. 6, 1966.
• Family: Cindy, business partner and wife of 23 years (they were sweethearts at U.S. Grant High School); children Chet, 16, Shaley, 14, and Cooper, 8
• Education: 1988 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, bachelor's in business administration/management information systems
• Associations: Greater and South Oklahoma City chambers, Society of American Florists and Oklahoma State Florists Association
• Pastimes: OU football games; family getaways to Lake Texoma, where his grandparents in 1966 bought waterfront property; and periodic trips with Cindy to California, Florida and Mexico to visit friends and scuba dive.