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Business blossoms from baskets

Decorators first came to Val's Basket Warehouse to find baskets. Now they come for everything else.

Published October 29, 2004

CARROLLWOOD - When Val and David Harding opened a home-decor booth at the Oldsmar Flea Market back in the 1980s, they had no idea they would someday compete for business with national discount chains.

Call it the American dream. Or call it luck.

A combination of good timing and the stamina to work 14-hour days pushed them into the game.

"It was the 80s, a time in history when every other housewife had a gift basket business," Val recalls of their early days selling mostly baskets and silk flowers.

The couple met when they were 16 at the sprawling flea market on Race Track Road. David's grandfather ran the food concession; Val's mother sold toys. They married at 18, spent a semester at Hillsborough Community College, and then plunged into business by the time most people their age were hunting for their first real jobs.

Now both 36, the couple owns the 15,000-square-foot Val's Basket Warehouse on Gunn Highway in Carrollwood and a second store on State Road 60 in Valrico. They have 21 employees and a wholesale client list that includes interior designers and major corporate accounts. Neiman Marcus, Publix and Busch Gardens all buy holiday decorations from the Hardings.

What do they sell, exactly? Well, that's hard to put a finger on.

Regulars come often and buy fast.

First timers just stare, amazed.

"Anything to decorate the house," Val says. "From candles to wall sconces to floral arrangements. Obviously, we don't just sell baskets and silk plants anymore."

Though thousands of baskets still take up a portion of the store's square footage, the inventory spans the entire home decorating market. They sell everything from patio furniture to artwork to garden ornaments to holiday supplies. The holiday season is their boom time.

"We're lovin' this time of year," Dave says.

Halloween decorations put out in the early fall - priced from 97-cents to a few dollars - flew off the shelves so fast, they were nearly all gone by mid-October.

By early last week, the Christmas inventory was already out: silvery wreaths and ornaments, and lots of shimmery, ice-toned accessories.

Aida Diop browsed the store for decorative accessories for her hair-braiding salon, Pretty Lady, on Busch Boulevard. Dressed in a pale-blue bubu from her native Senegal and in shimmery sandals to match, she bought faux palms, ferns, bamboo pots, African sculpture and a leafy autumn door decoration.

"I'm redecorating my shop and the guy who's doing the building said to come here," Diop says. "I never knew this was here and when I walked in the door, I was like, "Wow, this place is beautiful.' "

Elaine Shearer, an engineer and mathematician, who, along with her husband, Mark, moved to Hudson a few months ago from Alaska, stopped in to buy a "great, cheap" Halloween decoration after spotting the massive metal warehouse from the road.

Val's remains a landmark along this busy stretch of Gunn Highway because of the giant woven basket out front and the shiny streamers that catch the Florida sunlight like silver coins.

The baskets, the Hardings say, are a perennial favorite among wholesale customers, particularly real estate agents who like to make holiday gift baskets for their clients. The Hardings are proud of the fact they can compete with the corporate giants. But their success was hard won. Nine years ago, their first store, located in an 11,000 square-foot former Port Richey hardware store, burned down shortly before Thanksgiving. Under-insured ("You never think someone's going to steal baskets," David says) and still faced with daunting bills, it took them years to pay their vendors and regain confidence to open a business again. Their success, they say, is rooted in a decision to buy in volume.

"We can do it because we buy by the trailer load just like the big guys," David says. "We look for vendors who will give us a good price. Most of our customers are looking for home decor bargains. Why go and pay $20 when you can get it here for $6?"

Figuring out how much to buy and when to ship it is a problem. The Hardings, who do a lot of their business overseas, particularly in China, prefer to have merchandise shipped at off times during the year so they're not competing with major chains. They also avoid over-buying so that they don't have to offer the same products the next season and "the merchandise always stays fresh," explains Val, who regularly shops competitors' stores to look at prices and trends.

The Hardings carry a large selection of weatherproof, wicker-look-a-like outdoor sofas and chairs because there is so much demand for the product. (A newly arrived West Indies style that incorporates wood accents into the design is already on back order.)

"We get a lot of customers from Avila and New Tampa, so we really have to keep an eye on trends. If I don't like something, I don't buy. I never went with "shabby chic' and now look, it's done and gone."

The Hardings still work long hours in a business that has allowed them little time for hobbies. The store is open every day. They devote any free time to their 15-year-old daughter, Brittany, a sophomore at Berkley Preparatory School, who helps out in the summers.

"We run back and forth taking her to volleyball games and tournaments," says Dave. "She gets all of our free time."

They live in an ultra contemporary house in Lakes of Keystone in Odessa. The home is a showcase of high ceilings and glass walls and Art Deco decor, with little room for the more traditional home accessories and holiday knick knacks from which the Hardings make their living.

When they need to get away, they go to Sand Key, explains Val, "even if it's 11 o'clock at night, especially if we have a problem to work out. We'll just walk the beach."

As they celebrate their 17th year of marriage, they say their teamwork has paid off because, like good home accessories, they complement each other. Val slogs through the payroll and bookkeeping; David manages the employees.

On a Tuesday afternoon as they sat at a picnic table outside the warehouse, a Val's delivery truck sat by a back loading area, painted on its side, the Harding's motto: "We Help You Decorate for Less."

The big question looms: Do they see Val's Basket Warehouses dotting the Florida map?

Maybe someday, they say. And that's a very big "maybe."

For now, they want to enjoy their daughter while she's still in high school, says David, who is asked frequently when they're going to expand. He's been approached by people wanting to form partnerships and open stores in Ocala and Jacksonville.

"When it's hands on, you can run it yourself and everything stays at a certain level of success. You don't have to entrust as much to others," he says. "The happy ending is we do get a day off every now and then."

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