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Inadequate start-up money and watering restrictions doom the nursery near Gulfport.
By SHARON L. BOND
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropical Exotics, a plant nursery and garden shop, is closing Sunday, a victim of undercapitalization, overextension and the drought.
Bernie Showman and Patricia Gauss thought they had found a niche in the nursery and gardening business by offering hard-to-find tropicals, such as coconut and Christmas palms and a variety of elephant ear plants at 2134 44th St. S near Gulfport.
Both are gardeners and knew that area shops "had a little bit of this and a little bit of that," Showman said last week. "We wanted to bring in some of the more unique."
But in the next few days Showman is holding a going-out-of-business sale. The shop did not make money, and the two are in debt. They decided to stop before the debt, which they would not disclose, became too much for them to pay off.
Showman said he and Gauss opened Tropical Exotics in March 1999, violating one of the most important rules for small businesses just starting off: Have two years' salary in the bank at the beginning.
Showman and Gauss planned to work for five years at other jobs before they launched their business. But when the 44th Street S site became available, they jumped. They were lured by the jungle atmosphere of the corner lot and afraid that another property with the right feel wouldn't come along again soon. Of course, several did after they got started, he said.
Start-up costs proved to be more than anticipated, including the need for a new truck and tools such as lawnmowers.
Showman said he would add another rule for start-ups: Have three years of advertising money in the bank.
"I think one of the hardest things was becoming known," he said. "It took more money for advertising than we ever anticipated."
Gauss said they built up a great customer base, just not a large enough one.
During the low sales time this past winter, Gauss and Showman dipped into personal savings to pay bills. Showman said they also used their credit cards.
"Toward the end of February, sales began to increase steadily. By early April, we were well over double the average weekly sales during January," Gauss said.
In April, however, the Southwest Florida Water Management District issued an emergency order restricting the outdoor use of water, and business fell at Tropical Exotics.
"People have to be able to water plants," Showman said. "Customers were asking how they could plant stuff and not let it die."
When the summer rains came, business picked up but not enough to make up for the shortfall in May and June, Gauss said.
"At the end of September, based on how bad business had become, the approaching winter months and the ongoing drought, we made the decision to close the business," Gauss said. She already was working outside the shop and started a new job last week.
Showman said the two overextended by stocking their shop with gardening books and gift items.
"Technically, we had three businesses in one. We should have stuck to one thing," he said. A retired Marine, he is looking for another job.
Odds were stacked against them. A large majority of start-up small businesses fail in the first five years, according to the city's Business Development Center. Still, Showman believes they might have made it if the drought hadn't come along.
"I think it (a good spring) would have given us enough money for us to make it into the spring of 2001. We could have built the business, increased inventory and done the maintenance on the lot that we needed to do.
"If the spring had been a good one, we would have been on our way to a successful nursery," Showman said.
Despite the closing and the debt, Showman is not sorry he and Gauss opened Tropical Exotics.
"We don't have to wonder what if," he said Monday. "We know what if."