Undercover Boss: 1-800-Flowers Chris McCann Interview

Last Updated Dec 17, 2010 2:24 PM EST

Chris McCann, President of 1-800-FlowersWhen social worker Jim McCann opened his first flower shop, his youngest brother Chris was still a teenager. Now, as 1-800-Flowers CEO and president, respectively, the two have accomplished what few can claim. They grew a florist business into a nearly billion dollar company. And they did it by listening to customers, taking care of employees, and learning the ropes from a few sharp mentors along the way.

Here's an insightful interview with Chris McCann (pictured), this week's Undercover Boss and President of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Tobak: How did 1-800-Flowers.com come to be?

McCann: My brother Jim opened up his first flower shop in 1976. We were the oldest and youngest of five siblings, so it wasn't until 1984 that I graduated college and joined him in the family business. We were 10 years apart in age, so I hardly knew the guy. But we figured let's try it for 6 months and see how it works out. This week, I think I just signed my 52nd six-month contract.
Our styles are complimentary. Jim's a big picture guy, a visionary, and his forte is marketing. I consider him a marketing genius. I focus on the operational side of the business. And I learned technology along the way, leading our move online in 1991.

Tobak: Who came up with the naming strategy for 1-800-Flowers and 1-800-Flowers.com?

McCann: It was really our customers who told us that. The company used to be called Flora Plenty, but once we realized our business was migrating more and more to the 800 service instead of our shops, we got hold of the 1-800-Flowers number and renamed the company.

Over time we tried CDROM catalogs, a website, and we were actually the first company to sell product on AOL in 1994. New technology was emerging and we wanted to make sure we were well positioned, so when customers chose the winning technology, the Web, we were there with a website. Then everyone started calling us 1-800-Flowers.com, so we added .com to the name.

While Jim and I would like to take credit for many things, the thing we take most credit for is listening to customers.

Tobak: You must have had some mentors along the way

McCann: We didn't go to business school, but we often say we got our business degrees from our mentors over the years.

We first met Jerre Stead when he was with AT&T, then he became CEO of their NCR subsidiary. We were small clients but he spent quality time with us. His focus was always on managing company culture. The concept I took away from Jerre was VMV -- Vision, Mission, and Values. The responsibility of the business leader is to over-communicate that and to drive it into the culture. We've implemented a lot of what we learned from Jerre over the years.

Another gentleman we were fortunate to spend a lot of time with is Jamie Dimon [current CEO of JPMorgan Chase]. Jim knew him from growing up in Queens, but we first started spending a lot of time with Jamie when he was at Smith Barney. Jamie used to say you spend way too much time trying to get everyone in your company to "get it." He said everyone doesn't need to get the full picture, but people do need to get their particular job and have an understanding of how it connects to the big picture.

Employees need to leave work knowing they accomplished and contributed something. If not, they're not engaged. One of the things that Jim and I have both learned is that you build relationships first, business second. We do that with our customers, our vendors, and our employees. People don't work for a company; they work for people.

I used to think that Jerre's and Jamie's viewpoints were opposed, but I guess you have to find a balance.

Also Ed Miller [former CEO] of Equitable taught us the meaning of loyalty to your employees. Loyalty is making sure that people are in a position to succeed. But keeping people in a job that has outgrown them or moving them around to other jobs just because you don't want to deal with the reality of the situation is not loyalty. You're actually doing them a great disservice.

Tobak: What's your focus, going forward?

McCann: In addition to learning more about our customers through analytics and maintaining financial strength and flexibility, we're continuing to invest in technology innovation to make sure we're well positioned for the future. We're investing heavily in mobile commerce and social media. Some people have suggested we cut back on those investments because of the economy, but I remind them, had we done that in the 90s, with the Internet and AOL, we wouldn't be where we are today.

Image: CBS

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