By Tim Tesconi
When Petaluma’s Nick Neve was in second grade he was asked the usual question about what he wanted to be when he grew up. That was easy, he said. He wanted to be a flower grower like his father, grandfather and uncles. He could have said like his great grandfather too, but being only 7 he didn’t know the complete history of the family flower business.
Today, Neve, 29, a fourth generation flower grower, and his brother, Chris, 26, along with their father Lou Neve, run the family’s Neve Bros. flower business in Petaluma, producing roses and 20 other flower varieties on two ranches spread over 120 acres. It’s not only a thriving agricultural business but a family legacy and way-of-life that have made the Neve name a familiar and integral part of the floral trade in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Growing flowers for the Bay Area market is something I always wanted to do and want to continue to do. It’s part of who I am,” said Nick, who oversees the growing operations in the green houses on Bodega Avenue where Neve flowers have flourished for nearly a half century. It’s a sentiment shared by his brother Chris, who spends a lot of his time at a desk filling orders for roses and other flowers that will decorate swank San Francisco hotels or high-society weddings in Wine Country.
The Neves are always attuned to the calendar and the upcoming holiday, whatever it may be, because holidays bolster flower sales, some more than others. Mother’s Day is the biggest market for fresh flowers, followed by Valentine’s Day. Easter is big too.
For the last month, the Neve family has been gearing production for the Valentine’s Day’s rush, when sweethearts everywhere express their true love with flowers, primarily, red roses. The frenzied, near fanatical, demand for one kind and color of flower poses a big problem for growers like the Neves. There are only so many red roses that can be produced from the Neve greenhouses for that single day, especially considering that red roses are not the main attraction during the other 11 months of the year.
But red roses reign supreme on Valentine’s Day, making the holiday more headache than hearts and flowers for Chris and Nick Neve and their dedicated crew. They do a lot of scrambling to fill orders, knowing there will never be enough red roses to go around on Valentine’s Day. Some sweethearts will have to settle for lavender or pink roses or maybe some other kind of flower.
“We take care of our loyal customers but the demand for red roses on Valentine’s Day is way more than we can produce,” said Nick, who keeps a couple of red roses back for the loves of his life, wife, Kerri, and daughter, Jenna, one year old.
The Neves say Mother’s Day is a huge market for fresh flowers of all kinds and colors. While not everyone has a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, everyone of a certain age has a mother or a mother figure in their life. Once you add grandmothers, a favorite auntie and other maternal role models the market for flowers explodes in mid-May.
For a half century, the Neve name has been synonymous for quality roses, big long-stemmed beauties grown hydroponically in green houses on the family’s 30 acre farm on Bodega Avenue outside of Petaluma. The Neve brothers’ grandfather, Giovanni Neve, established the Petaluma rose growing operation in 1967 after relocating the family rose business from Colma where it started in the early 1900’s.
The Neve’s longevity is a rarity for a family business, especially one as competitively cut-throat as flower growing. Studies show that only 30 percent of family businesses survive their founders and make it to the second generation. The statistics grow grimmer as family businesses pass into succeeding generations. Only 12 percent of family businesses make to the third generation and three percent to the fourth generation and beyond, putting the Neve family in a rare category of survivors. They will tell you their survival isn’t through luck but the willingness to change and adapt to the market.
The Neve family has continually reinvented itself over the years so it can stay in business and pass to the next generation. When cheap flowers imported from South America and Mexico were driving most of California flower growers out of business, Lou Neve adapted by focusing first and foremost on quality and service, which is difficult for faraway foreign producers to provide. He realized he couldn’t just do what his father and grandfather did, the business had to change with the times. That meant expanding the line of flowers grown and marketed and producing high-end flowers that passed the beauty test for finicky brides and persnickety hotel managers. Instead of selling just roses at one wholesale market, the Neves now sell a variety of flowers to more than 250 customers, mostly high end floral shops that want their flowers fresh and locally farm grown.
While the Brothers Neve run the day-to-day operations at the Bodega Avenue property, patriarch Lou Neve oversees flower growing on the family’s 90 acre ranch on Roblar Road in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma. The ranch, a former organic vegetable farm, provides the land for the Neve family to grow a range of flowers including hydrangeas, sunflowers and dahlias.
“We closely watch trends in the flower business and make the changes necessary to stay ahead of the curve,” said Chris Neve.
Nick said like fashion, the flower business is always changing and it’s his job to keep up with those trends. Or go out of business. He reads bridal magazines and Martha Stewart Living to see what flowers – and colors - young brides will be ordering for their special day. The latest trend, started by home décor maven Martha Stewart, is for old-fashioned garden roses, like the full and fluffy foribunda roses growing in grandma’s yard.
The Neves are removing some of their fancy hybrid tea roses to make room for the old-fashioned roses that brides and florists are demanding. Nick said you can’t be sentimental about a rose that you personally love but has fallen out of favor in the market. That’s the fastest way to financial ruin.
“We can’t grow what we like, we have to produce what the market wants. You can’t be afraid to say that rose no longer works and move on,” said Nick. “For example, there is a beautiful dark red rose I love called Black Magic. It once did well but now doesn’t move in the market. It’s time for it to go. Adios. That’s business.”
Neve Brothers Floral