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FLORAL DESIGNING TAKES WOYSHNER'S FROM LACKAWANNA TO WHITE HOUSE

Talk about a tree-trimming to remember.

Lackawanna business owner Patricia Woyshner was doing the decorating honors in the Oval Office several years ago, working with other volunteers to bring a splash of Christmas to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As she carefully placed ornaments on a perfectly shaped tree, she couldn't help but stare as George Bush shuffled through a pile of papers on his desk.

"I had to take a deep sigh," she says. "I mean, you see pictures of the place all your life, then one day you're in the Oval Office! And President Bush was great. He made us feel like we belonged there."

The owner of Woyshner's Flower Shop at 910 Ridge Road has made her yuletide pilgrimage to the White House every year since 1985 when Ronald Reagan was president. She has fond memories of decorating the Oval Office, the First Family's private living quarters -- rooms that are off limits to the throngs of tourists -- and many of the public rooms.

Every year is a different theme, which keeps things interesting -- as if bumping into presidents and first ladies wouldn't break the monotony. This year, Ms. Woyshner spent five days in the nation's capital shortly after Thanksgiving.

"It was a 1990s theme this time around," she says. "For example, the Christmas tree in the Blue Room was decorated with designer Santa outfits."

Imagine more than 200 chic outfits crafted by the nation's most respected fashion designers; foot-long garments were assembled on individual hangars, then placed on the tree.

This year's White House excursion was capped off with a reception for the 60 volunteers who came from across the nation to help decorate. The party was hosted by Hillary Clinton.

Don't assume that Ms. Woyshner is a political animal merely because she is invited to the White House each year. She professes to have little interest in politics. She only became involved in the annual decorating blitz because she met a florist at an industry show many years ago. The woman later landed a job in the White House flower shop and remembered her acquaintance from Lackawanna.

You might say Ms. Woyshner's career began "blossoming" during high school when she worked in a now-defunct flower shop. She became a Jill-of-all-trades and her diversity paid off several years later when she and her husband, Jack, bought some old greenhouses on the site of the current business. That was 38 years ago.

"We were just a mom-and-pop shop in those days," Ms. Woyshner says. "We went from two people in 1960 to 22 permanent employees. And we have 35 workers during peak season."

Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Easter are frantic times in the flower business. So is Christmas. Woyshner's plans on creating up to 2,000 arrangements in the week leading up to Santa's arrival. That's an impressive volume, especially when one considers the intense competition in the industry.

"Years ago, we didn't have to worry about toll-free lines, supermarkets and all the catalogs. Everyone is selling flowers these days," Ms. Woyshner says.

That's why marketing, speedy service and product diversity have never been more important. It's also why some local florists have banded together to achieve common goals. Recognizing that there's more formidable competition than each other, a number of shops formed a local buying cooperative seven years ago. They purchase flowers directly from a supplier in Miami, an arrangement that allows them to get the product faster and more economically.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, Ms. Woyshner probably never would have considered such a non-traditional business tactic.

"All of my education was related to the floral industry," she says. "I realized that I should try to learn from other industries because they face problems that are very similar to ours."

With this goal in mind, this life-long Western New Yorker turned to the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, an arm of the University at Buffalo School of Management. She thinks the most valuable lessons she's learned have come in the marketing arena.

Successful flower shops learn quickly that "growing" repeat business is the key to success. Woyshner's mails out color brochures to 20,000 of its customers.

Keeping tabs on the latest trends is also an important ingredient. For example, many buyers are getting away from the traditional reds and greens when ordering Christmas arrangements. Whites, golds and mauves are becoming more popular than ever before. People also are ordering more floral displays in glass vases than in prior years.

But some things never seem to change in the flower business; roses remain the most popular item, followed by lilies and irises.

And let's not forget poinsettias during the yuletide. In fact, Jack Woyshner can be found tying a fancy ribbon around a poinsettia plant in one of the back rooms of the flower shop.

But don't try to find him without a tour guide or a compass; this shop is bigger than it appears from the curb. The attractive gift shop (complete with skylights, ceiling fans and track lighting) is just the tip of the iceberg. The flower emporium occupies nearly 10,000 square feet, with each room tailored to a specific function. There's a spot dedicated to silk and dried flower arrangements. There's a holiday production room, a main production room and a nook where all the customized fruit and gift baskets are assembled.

One of the couple's daughters is stationed in basket heaven for a good chunk of the day. Andrea Starks meticulously places oranges, apples and other edibles in a wicker basket, creating an impressive tower of fruit. But she downplays her building prowess.

"It just takes a little practice," she says with a smile.

Woyshner's is a family affair. Three of the owners' children are full-timers at the shop and a fourth child works part-time. Within the next nine years, Jack and Pat Woyshner plan on passing the business to the next generation. They're already working with a lawyer and accountant in hopes of laying the foundation for a smooth succession.

Ms. Woyshner has heard horror stories about the pitfalls of owning a family business, but she has a hard time relating to the tales.

"It has been just great. The kids work together well and they're best friends," she says.

But the entire family realizes that growing a flower business in the new millennium will put their marketing skills to the test, especially in an era of heated competition.

In horticultural terms, it can be a real jungle out there.

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