Flower Power

Modernizing the business of human relations at FTD, Charlie Cole leads a legacy brand into a brighter future

Charlie Cole (BA 2004) was ready for a challenge.

He was set to move his family from Seattle to Chicago to become the CEO of FTD, the nationwide floral company. He wasn’t daunted by transitioning to a different industry—from a well-known luggage brand to a company that connects the worlds of online and brick-and-mortar businesses. And he was prepared for the challenges of leading a household brand that has been in business for over a century, but had just recently emerged from a difficult bankruptcy.

What Cole was not ready for was to do so just as the nation locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nothing could have prepared me for starting on March 23rd, 2020. I think that’s the only honest truth for any leader at the time,” he says. “One of those words that we have a tendency to overuse is ‘unprecedented.’ But I don’t think there were a lot of e-commerce-driven businesses when the Spanish flu pandemic hit (in 1918). This truly was an unprecedented challenge.”

These unique circumstances forced Cole to take a different approach, one that, in retrospect, he feels was remarkably beneficial. Cole delayed his move to Chicago. While leading the company remotely, he scheduled one-on-one video conferences with 300 FTD employees. He had no agenda other than getting to know the people and culture of the company.

“(The pandemic) forced me to be that much more intentional about my communication,” he says. “When you park next to someone going into the office, or you get coffee at the same time, there are these natural collisions that we always just took for granted. Without that, I realized very early on I was going to need to set aside time to meet people.”

While time consuming, Cole says these individual meetings were well worth it, and it is a practice he plans to continue throughout his career, even after the pandemic subsides.

Art of the turnaround

Building relationships and trust is essential for any new CEO. At FTD, along with the hurdle of doing so remotely, Cole faced the added challenge of transforming a company that had filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The bankruptcy allowed the company to remain operational, but it took a toll on employee morale.

“A bankruptcy turnaround job is so interesting because it’s not just the nuts and bolts of the business, but it’s also a cultural reinvention,” Cole says. “You have a team that had that word, bankruptcy, hung around their neck. And with that comes a whole lot of anxiety and fear. So, for me, it’s all about building this culture the way we want it to be.”

Cole and his team got to work. A key aspect of FTD’s transformation was optimizing its industry-leading fulfillment capabilities. The company was founded in 1910, and consumers think of it as a nationwide florist. Behind the scenes, though, FTD is a technology company, routing orders placed via its website to a network of local florists using an advanced algorithm to ensure the fastest and most efficient delivery.

The e-commerce aspect was familiar to Cole. Prior to FTD, he served as global chief ecommerce officer at Samsonite luggage. But there are added logistical challenges in selling flowers. “If you have that formative e-commerce experience, to some extent it doesn’t matter if you are selling coffee or luggage or flowers,” he says. “But the supply chain challenges that come with this business are unlike anything I’ve ever seen… we are selling something that if it’s too hot, it wilts, if it’s too cold, it freezes.”

Time to play offense

As a precursor to relaunching the brand in December 2020, the company focused on improving its technological infrastructure. With much improved operations in fulfillment logistics and the e-commerce front end, Cole says the company is now ready to start playing offense.

“Over the last two months, we’ve shifted from what I’ve called transformation to evolution. Now we have this new back end and great brands. We can fulfill. We have the best customer service in the space. Let’s pour some gasoline on this fire.”

To do so, FTD recently launched a rebrand and a television advertising campaign aimed at reintroducing itself and building brand awareness.

Small business hub

With confidence in his team to execute on day-to-day operations, Cole has been setting a course for the company’s future. He envisions expanding FTD’s product offerings, which could provide a boost to small businesses nationwide.

“What excites me the most about FTD is the ability to leverage small businesses across America to create unique experiences,” Cole says. “We have more same-day fulfillment capabilities than Amazon, because we have 10,000 florists around the country that can get you flowers, same day. Now imagine flowers fulfilled by local florists along with the best croissant in New York City. That is much more meaningful than something that’s pre-packaged and shipped via UPS.”

“I would love it if everything we did was fulfilled locally by small businesses. Because at our core, what we are is gifts. We are gifts across the paradigm of emotions from life and death, birth and funeral. It’s amazing to think about. It sounds dramatic to say life and death, but in our case, it is actually true.”

Doing the right thing

For Cole, part of setting FTD’s strategy includes navigating the expectation that companies address today’s most pressing social issues. Cole says FTD will absolutely be doing its part, looking for opportunities to engage that are a natural contextual fit. “I think every brand needs to stand for something,” he says. “In our television ad there are multiple couples expressing love and giving gifts to each other, including a same-sex couple. And I’ve received some of the most vitriolic emails you can possibly imagine… what I say to everybody is we believe love is love. And we believe that everybody should be allowed to have that. And if you don’t, and that means you don’t want to shop with us, that’s fine. I’m not going to apologize for us supporting LGBTQ+ rights.”

This appreciation for the importance of doing the right thing in the business world ties directly back to Cole’s time at the Foster School of Business. Reflecting back on his college days, Cole emphasizes the same theme he now prioritizes as a CEO—the importance of building connections between people.

“I think about the kind of the professors that I had… how they handle themselves in a lecture, and how they answer questions, and the engagement.” Cole says. “Because, at a certain point, an education is an education, in that there are aspects of retention and memorization. But it was how certain professors carry themselves that had the most effect on me personally. And the camaraderie. I’m still very close friends with a lot of the folks that I went to school with.”

Cole has remained an active member of the Foster community, serving on the Center for Sales and Marketing Strategy advisory board, and is UW Husky football season-ticket holder. Both activities serve as frequent reminders of the school that shaped the leader he is today. “One of the favorite things we like to do before a game is take our out-of-town guests and walk through campus. And it’s just amazing, the warm feeling I get even to this day. And it’s why I wanted to get so involved with the school when I was done. It has had such an effect on me as a leader moving forward.”

Images courtesy of FTD.

David Fenigsohn

David Fenigsohn is a Producer at the Foster School, and a former editor at MSNBC.com. He strives to be one of the better poker players in local road races or one the faster runners in a poker game.