We're in the basement of the flagship Heights location of Tipton & Hurst at 1801 N. Grant St. in Little Rock, and it's like an international bazaar. There are boxes from Colombia and Ecuador, and they're filled with fresh flowers.
I'm being given a tour of the building by Howard Hurst, the president of Tipton & Hurst, one of Arkansas' oldest family-owned businesses.
"There's a jewelry store in Camden that's older than we are [Stinson's Jewelers, founded in 1850], but that's about it as far as retailers go," Hurst says. "Our business started on Main Street in 1886."
Howard's grandfather, Joe Hurst Sr., was born in England in 1859 and raised in Scotland. He came to this country at age 18 to work on railroads and wound up in Little Rock, where he entered into a partnership with flower-grower David Tipton. In a box on his desk, Howard Hurst has the original partnership documents.
For years, the company had greenhouses at 14th and Park near Little Rock Central High School. Those greenhouses can be seen in the background of some of the photos shot during the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis, which was the biggest news story in the world that fall.
"The Tiptons were into growing orchids, which were used frequently by women as corsages," Hurst says. "They would put them on ice and ship them out by rail. They had glass greenhouses."
Tipton & Hurst now has almost 30,000 square feet of warehouse space near Ninth and Thayer streets. Hurst says he has a dream of using open property adjacent to the warehouse for growing flowers, adding vibrant colors to the inner city.
"We buy directly from growers all over the world," Hurst says. "Those flowers you see from Colombia and Ecuador are generally flown to Miami and then trucked from there in refrigerated vehicles."
Buyer Freda Rice, who has been with Tipton & Hurst for 35 years, works out of the basement of the Heights location. The floral designers are upstairs.
"Freda has worldwide contacts that she has developed through the years," Hurst says. "She knows who to call and when to call them."
This location was built for Tipton & Hurst in 1966 when Howard was 9 years old. It was remodeled in 2009. There are additional stores at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock and in North Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Conway. Even though Tipton & Hurst is recognized as one of the largest florists in the country, only about half of its sales come from flowers. Various gifts and accessories make up the additional sales.
"We provide customers with whatever they need," Hurst says. "We don't want them to go to different places."
Hurst's grandmother, a Little Rock native who was much younger than her husband, ran the company at a time when it was unusual for women to operate businesses. Hurst's father, Joe Hurst Jr., entered the University of Arkansas in 1939, joined the U.S. Army Air Forces at the start of World War II, and never graduated.
"My grandmother died in 1945, and my father had to take over," Hurst says. "When I was a boy, we often would stop by an event that Tipton & Hurst was handling and help put out arrangements before going to dinner or whatever. I've never gotten a check from another employer. I remember going to the train station with my father to pick up flowers from the Railway Express Agency offices."
Howard Hurst earned a business degree from the University of Arkansas and returned to Little Rock to work for his father. He was promoted to company president when he was 26 and his father was 65. Hurst's father lived to age 89 and continued to show up at Tipton & Hurst.
"We went to lunch almost every day," Hurst says. "He might not recognize the Internet world in which we now live. We've tried to keep up with the times with website updates that make it easy to place online orders."
Chris Norwood, the company's vice president, is an internationally known designer. He has been president of the American Institute of Floral Designers and is past chairman of the AIFD Foundation. Norwood, a McCrory native, began designing floral arrangements when he was 14. He moved to the capital city at age 17 to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and worked at Friday's Flowers & Gifts. Norwood graduated in 1982 and later owned two shops, Petals and Crocus.
"My father farmed, and I hated farming," Norwood says. "I knew how to chop cotton, but I preferred the floral work. When I was 19, I became the youngest competitor in the America's Cup design competition. I came to Tipton & Hurst in 1990. Howard had been calling for three years, and I finally gave in."
"I recognized Chris' design and merchandising talents early in his career," Hurst says. "What I didn't know was his incredible work ethic and business acumen."
Norwood says Hurst allowed him to "try things and integrate new ideas into the business. What we have built is a mix of old and new."
Hurst says people from "New York to Los Angeles, Dallas to Atlanta, even Europe and Asia, call Chris to pick his brain about floral design, party planning and merchandising. He has really made his mark on the industry."
In 2012, Norwood was named a Fellow of the Institute by AIFD, among the youngest people ever to receive the honor. Norwood conducts design workshops and makes regular television appearances.
"We take pride in the interactions we have with our customers," he says. "We try to be there for them at every stage of their lives. It's not just about the flowers. It's about relationships and our ability to go above and beyond to meet customer expectations."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 09/25/2019