June 9, 2017

Making Good for the Chunky Monkey

Before becoming the Principal Undergardener, your humble correspondent had a day job in technology, specializing in an arcane subject called ‘corporate development’.  While the hours were frequently long, the job had some noticeably good perks.  One of them was an annual trip in late October to a financial conference sponsored by the American Electronics Association.

There, technology companies and institutional investors (many of them Masters Of The Universe) got together on what could be fairly described as a ‘level playing field’.  We all had breakfast and lunch together but, in the morning and afternoon, companies told their stories in a more formal setting.  There were perhaps 150 presenting companies trying to get the attention of roughly 400 institutional investors.

Brokerage firms, too, were seeking attention.  The usual suspects plied companies and institutional investors alike with lavish dinners every night.  One small firm, though, hit on a more novel approach.  Still building name recognition and lacking the ‘pull’ of the banking giants, the brokerage firm set out a Ben & Jerry’s cart on the hotel’s plaza, where they handed out ice cream cones.  Senior managers of the brokerage firm used the thirty seconds or so that it took to scoop a cone to give what has come to be called an ‘elevator pitch’; a concise summary of their qualifications.

The genius of the cart was that there was always a line.  Even Masters Of The Universe who made zillions of dollars a year could not resist the lure of a free scoop of New York Super Chunk Fudge.

I began going to the conference (initially held in Monterey, then moved to San Diego) in the mid-1980s.  Like everyone, I lined up for ice cream.  Then, in the mid-1990s, the cart was missing.  I asked the conference director what had happened. “They decided it wasn’t sufficiently dignified,” I was told.  Having grown in size and stature, they now held a dinner, just like the big boys.  “Well,” I asked, “could a company sponsor the cart?”  The conference director thought for several long moments. “I don’t see why not,” was the final reply.

The next year, I was back at the conference with a four-day lease on a Ben & Jerry’s cart and twenty tubs of super-premium ice cream.  All I needed was someone to help scoop.

Think globally, act locally.  'Plant
America' became 'Plant Massachusetts'
(Double-click for a larger view)
My boss was the Chairman and CEO of the company.  He thought my idea was a stroke of genius.  He also had no intention of scooping ice cream (he claimed a bad back).  The company’s CFO also went to the conference.  He was slightly more game for the project, but claimed to be tongue-tied. 

Which left my wife, Betty, as the assistant scooper.  And, because I was making presentations eight times a day on two of those days, Betty was frequently the main scooper.

Our respective spouses had frequently accompanied us on the trip.  Betty would take off with the others to see gardens or historic sights, have lunch, and join us just in time for dinner.  When I first broached my problem with Betty, she said something to the effect that I ought to have worked out the fine details before I leased the cart.  But she agreed.  And, for three years, she more or less willingly scooped ice cream; even the rock-hard Chunky Monkey.  Also for the record, she was superb.  Our sessions were held to standing-room-only audiences.

I spent a day cutting apart tablecloths
I tell this story because of what took place in our home over the past five days.  On Wednesday, June 7, Betty chaired her final meeting as President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts (GCFM).  Present to install the new GCFM President was Nancy Hargroves, the President of National Garden Clubs, Inc.; herself also newly installed.

National Presidents hit the ground running.  President Hargroves’ theme for the next two years is ‘Plant America’ with a focus on horticulture and gardening. 

The problem with all this was 30 table centerpieces. Traditionally, GCFM annual meetings show off the considerable talents of floral designers, and taking home one of the centerpieces is a big deal.  Floral design, by definition, deals with cut flowers.  You can’t exactly ‘Plant America’ with cut flowers (most of which were grown in South America).

A dianthus with its flag
So Betty hit on an idea.  Instead of cut flower centerpieces, she would use plants.  There would be nine plants for each table so that each attendee could take home (and plant) an annual, perennial, or vegetable.  To meet a tight budget, Betty went to a wholesale nursery with the employee of a friend and, two hours later, hundreds of plants were in our garage.

The plants needed a flag.  Betty decided the idea of ‘Plant America’ could be made more forceful by having a ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flag.  My first job was to design and have printed such a flag, which sounds easier than it is.  An area print shop turned around the flags, printed on glossy paper, in a few hours.  Next, the flags had to be mounted on flagpoles, which ended up being bamboo skewers.  On Sunday morning, four members of the Medfield Garden Club, Betty, and I set up an assembly line that turned out 300 flags in about three hours. 

But now the pots of plants needed covers.  Fortunately, Betty had saved 20 gingham tablecloths from a long-ago event.  I spent most of Monday cutting the tablecloths into squares.  On Tuesday, while Betty purchased more plants (due to higher than expected attendance), I loaded as many plants, cloth squares, and flagpoles as would fit into a Prius and began ferrying them 45 miles to the conference center where the annual meeting would be held.  On Tuesday evening (after dinner with President Hargroves), Betty, her good friend who deserves a halo, and I began placing the squares on the plants, securing them with a rubber band, and then fluffing the squares to look more decorative.  The flags were then affixed to the finished pots.  This took until nearly midnight.

The centertpieces (red arrows), with
Betty (in pink) presenting an award
On Wednesday morning, the final covers were affixed to the final pots and everything was placed on carts.  While 250 garden club members networked before lunch, the carts were wheeled in and the plants decoratively arrayed on tables.  When the attendees filed in for lunch, there were the 30 tables, each festooned with colorfully-bibbed plants bearing ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flags.  It all looked effortless.

Five days of helping Betty get ready for a meeting doesn’t fully atone for those years of scooping ice cream.  But helping her last meeting be a success was a pleasure I won’t soon forget.  

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