Our grower’s best interests were always top of mind in every decision

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Flower naming ceremonies are a revered European tradition that have celebrated noble people for centuries by naming flowers after them. Since Floriexpo brought the ceremony stateside, the event has honored 14 industry leaders who have made significant impacts upon the floral community and have demonstrated a passion for their roles that sometimes go unnoticed.

The Hermosa Rosa Maria is a flower that similarly won’t be unnoticed. Named for Maria Fernandez and meaning “Beautiful Rose,” the 2024 winner’s passion for the industry and the people in it have made her true floral industry pioneer. Maria is an industry leader invested in the success of the entire community, but she means so much more than that to her team and the wider community.

Lee Fanning, Category Manager at Sobey’s, took to the stage at Floriexpo to detail Maria’s past in the industry, which in the early 2000’s saw her moved into the Sobeys Ontario office, where she was responsible for over 200 stores under the Sobeys, Foodland, and Price Chopper banners. He detailed Maria’s career, which started when Maria was working as a florist in grocery stores in the late 1970’s and eventually emerged as the floral manager of the Highland Road Dutch Boy Food Market in Kitchener, Ontario in the 80’s. In 1998, Sobeys acquired the Oshawa Group, which included several grocery banners in Quebec and Ontario. Shortly after, she accepted a position as the region’s floral merchandiser, visiting stores to help the operators maximize their floral business.

After Sobeys acquired the Safeway banner in 2013, she became the National Category Manager for floral, heading up Sobeys, Safeway, Freshco, IGA and Foodland & CO-OP banners, coast to coast. Over 1200 stores relied on her experience and expertise to merge four separate regional floral programs into one national program.

“Maria delivered ten-fold, by embracing the current programs that were successful and tweaking them over time,” Fanning told the crowd. “She introduced new programs, products, and varieties to all corners of Canada, which boosted sales and market share, year after year. In every decision she made, the customer was first in mind. It was her passion to source the best quality product available while ensuring Sobeys and its many banners offered the latest in floral trends and varieties.”

Such significant change compelled resistance from individuals and departments that didn’t want to move away from the way things had been done, but Maria’s vision for the program inspired leadership to rally behind the floral category and give it the spotlight it deserves. Refusing to allow the floral category to live in the shadows of any other department or sector, she showed the business, stores, and franchisees that their floral and garden business was in good hands.

Those hands were an essential part of what it meant to work through the single greatest disruption we’ve ever seen with COVID-19. In the early stages of the pandemic, it was Maria’s gut instinct that encouraged the stores and leadership to not give up on the floral program. She knew that during uncertain times, that the floral category rises to the top.

“Maria was very concerned about the pandemic’s potential impact to our supplier partners,” Fanning said. “The thought of canceling programs and leaving our partners high and dry, was not a position she was comfortable with. Our grower’s best interests were always top of mind in every decision Maria made. She embraced every partnership and was always excited when she caught wind that one of our partners were expanding their footprint in the industry.”

That footprint in the industry extends to the people who will soon define it, as she always made time to mentor her office teammates at Sobeys, passing along her retail and product knowledge both up and down the chain of command. She left friends and colleagues feeling at ease matter what they were discussing, leaving every conversation with a positive vibe.

She retired in the fall of 2023 after over 45 years of service in the floral industry. Her presence at Floriexpo 2024 highlights what her passion and continued support for the floral industry looks like, which is something that will continue to benefit the people she, directly and indirectly, interreacts with.

“Maria is in her element when walking the floor of a floral show or attending greenhouse trial events, Fanning concluded. “Her passion for innovation in floral is contagious, so it is only fitting that she is honored with this recognition today.”

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