By any measure, John “Jack” Chidester’s career has included lots of responsibility – thousands of employees worldwide as a telecom executive, not the mere hundreds he has led since he became chief executive of the Delaware Valley Floral Group in 2008.
Chidester, 58, held titles of executive vice president, chief operating officer or president at MCI, WinStar Communications and Broadwing Communications Enterprises, some with more than $1 billion in sales, not the $160 million to $170 million that the Sewell-based wholesaler takes in each year.
At Delaware Valley Floral Group, the company’s wholesale network stretches across the eastern United States, but in telecom, Chidester had responsibility for national networks – “huge capital requirements to go out there and build the networks and deploy the switches and build the ubiquity that you need to compete on a national basis.”
“You know, it’s funny,” Chidester said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been a CEO and I’ve got to tell you the job looked so much easier when I wasn’t a CEO.”
One is the burden of leadership when you’re responsible for 500-plus people and 300-plus families. When you go home, you sit back and you say, ‘Wow, that responsibility is pretty significant’ vs. any prior jobs that I’ve had. When the buck stops here in the CEO’s office, you have a newfound appreciation for the role.
It’s almost unbelievable, given the difference in size.
The second thing, technically, is the challenge of predicting the future. The investments we make today are based on how we believe the industry will turn five years from now. What will customers’ needs be three, four, five years from now? Despite my roles in the past, I never really had the responsibility of deciding, OK, what’s important and how do we sequentially do it today so we can meet the opportunities of tomorrow.
What have you predicted?
I’ll tell you what’s one of our biggest sellers right now and hadn’t been, surprisingly. One flower I really loved was hydrangea. When I came here, they said, ‘That’s not a big deal.’ So, in this sense I was a floral visionary. And you know, it’s probably one of our fastest growing products now in terms of selling.
Speaking of the future, do millennials like to buy flowers?
Millennials buy differently. There are many more choices for the consumer today than when you and I were growing up, where flowers were the traditional Valentine’s Day gift and Mother’s Day gift. In fact, they still are. But, millennials are interested in more choices, and different things. They buy by way of the internet. They buy by way of their smartphones. They’re probably more impulse buyers, meaning that it used to be a time when we’d start getting our Valentine’s Day orders two, three weeks in the retail florist in advance. Now we get 24-48 hours’ notice. But, the millennials still like flowers.
Your company has been on a buying spree, acquiring smaller wholesalers in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Pennsylvania and New England. What’s going on?
Some of them are struggling. Many are family businesses. Some don’t have a next generation. We also do acquisitions once we’ve made an acquisition in that market. That becomes a density play or a tuck in.
Describe your business.
One of the competitive advantages we have is we’re in the northeast quadrant of the U.S., which is where there is 37 percent of the population and 41 percent of the discretionary income. That’s what makes our hub-and-spoke model work.
Every day we bring flowers around the world through this hub in Sewell, N.J. Every night, from let’s say midnight to 3 a.m., we load our 18-wheel tractor trailers to go out to one of our eight distribution centers.
This is personal, but most of the male chief executives I interview are tall.
I’m 5 foot 5. Call me a cocky guy, but I never saw it as a handicap. There’s one thing in my life that’s really impacted me and that’s the sport of wrestling. It always gave me a level of self-confidence. It’s a brutally tough sport. Even though I was a short guy, the big guys didn’t want to pick a fight with me, because they knew I knew how to wrestle.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.