A university professor responsible for improving the quality of some flowers and mentoring countless students. A floral designer celebrated for his high-style designs — and commitment to giving back. A longtime florist beloved for her contributions to her community and the floral industry. An association executive who dedicated his career to the advancement of industry businesses and issues.
These are four of the extraordinary industry members honored last week during SAF Amelia Island 2019, the Society of American Florists’ 135th annual convention.
Alex Laurie Award for Research and Education: Mark Bridgen, Ph.D
A university professor and dedicated floral industry researcher is the 2019 winner of SAF’s Alex Laurie Award for Research and Education. Presented annually, the award honors an individual who has made broad-scope, long lasting contributions to research or education in the floriculture industry.
Mark Bridgen, Ph.D., is best known for creating new varieties of alstroemeria, with seven plant patents to his name. But his work with poinsettias, lilies, chrysanthemums, and impatiens has likewise resulted in meaningful improvements for producers, retailers, and consumers.
During the award presentation Saturday night, Bridgen thanked his own mentors, colleagues and teachers, many of whom have received the Alex Laurie award in the past.
“In the world of academic floriculture, this is the main award, so I really appreciate it,” he said. “I’m humbled to be on the list [of winners].”
Descriptions of Bridgen’s prolific published writings are likely to be peppered with words and phrases like “go-to,” “most comprehensive,” and “first ever to demonstrate.” These publications include several manuals currently in use in undergraduate and high school curricula.
As an educator, Bridgen has taught courses ranging from greenhouse management to plant propagation and biodiversity, both at the University of Connecticut and, currently, at Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, where he serves as professor and director. Over two prior stints as a Fulbright Scholar, he led biodiversity classes to Easter Island and to Chile — where he taught classes in Spanish while also conducting research.
His own graduate students, buoyed by his example and instruction, have gone on to hold important positions in both academia and industry.
A dedicated member of the floral industry and a natural collaborator, Bridgen has been an active participant in the Long Island Flower Growers’ Association to the New York Farm Bureau, the American Society for Horticultural Science, and the International Association for Plant Biotechnology, among other groups.
For many in the industry, it’s his dedication to the sharing of information, and his natural inclination to welcome others, that truly sets him apart.
“Mark’s ability to make people feel at ease, to engender trust, to provide advice without being haughty or domineering, and his incredible ability to quietly introduce you to the exact people that you need to be interacting with in your career is just stunning,” said the late Paul A. Thomas, Ph.D., a professor and honors program mentor with the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia — and the recipient of last year’s Alex Laurie Award. “In 40 years, I have never heard of, nor witnessed someone in our industry having anything but a positive experience interacting with Mark. Mark’s contribution, that stands out above all the other great things he has accomplished, is that he welcomed and nurtured hundreds of students, colleagues and associates from other organizations, causing them to look upon our industry as being one of thoughtful, intelligent, friendly and helpful peoples.”
Stephanie Burnett, Ph.D., associate professor of horticulture in the School of Food and Agriculture at the University of Maine, agrees. “Mark is the kind of rare person who engages others in the floriculture community to ensure he is sharing his knowledge and experience,” she said.
As a founding member of the National Floriculture Forum, Bridgen has led a number of the group’s annual meetings, bringing researchers and educators together to experiences places such as the flower auction at Aalsmeer in the Netherlands, the international trade fair IPM Essen, the California Spring Trials, and local greenhouses. In so doing, he has helped ensure these plant scientists and teachers learn directly from industry businesses about real problems and innovative solutions.
Tommy Bright Award: Ian Prosser, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, NDSF
Ian Prosser, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, NDSF, an internationally known designer famous for his lavish events and enthralling presentations, is the 2019 recipient of SAF’s Tommy Bright Award, the industry’s highest honor for floral educators.
“There’s nothing that I like more than to be able to go out and teach things to others,” said Prosser while accepting his award. “All I can say to you is: Pass it forward. If you do a good turn for someone and they say, ‘What can I do to repay you?’ My answer always is, ‘Do what I did for you, for someone else.’”
The Tommy Bright Award is presented by Professional Floral Communicators-International — the industry’s official speakers’ bureau, certified by SAF — to members who have gone above and beyond in educating and inspiring their peers. It is named after Ethel “Tommy” Bright, whose motto “learn more, teach others” reflects the values of PFCI.
Prosser, the owner of Botanica International in Tampa, Florida, has an enviable resume that includes work for celebrities, tony fashion companies and the British royal family, along with high-profile functions, such as the 2012 Republican National Convention and the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Amidst his bustling career, he also serves on the FTD Education Team, collaborates with Accent Decor in styling its catalog, appears regularly on The Flower Podcast, speaks at industry events all around the country and beautifies SAF conventions as a member of the association’s design team. Locally, he hosts “Floral Night Out” design classes throughout the year to engage consumers.
“Ian is always willing to jump in to help educate florists,” said Emily Bucholz, FTD’s director of marketing, communication and events. When FTD broached Prosser with the idea for its “Intern with Ian” program in 2017, he wholeheartedly embraced the mentorship opportunity. He showed that same selfless enthusiasm when FTD asked him to emcee the America’s Cup the following year. “He used his knowledge and charisma to ‘edu-tain’ during the competition,” Bucholz said.
“It’s amazing to watch an audience when Ian takes the stage,” echoed Sharon McGukin, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, former president of the American Institute of Floral Designers. “His Scottish brogue and intriguing sense of humor captivates. His intense work ethic and depth of knowledge and experience is evident, but his easy, approachable demeanor makes him relatable to floral and event designers across the country.”
Last year’s Tommy Bright winner, Deborah De La Flor, AIFD, PFCI, described Prosser as a role model and “bright star” in the industry. “Ian inspired me to be bold and confident when selling events,” said the owner of De La Flor Gardens in Cooper City, Florida. “He was absolutely correct! His selling techniques really work!”
Originally from Scotland, where he was named Floral Designer of the Year and earned the National Diploma of the Society of Florist (Europe’s highest floral accolade), Prosser emigrated in 1989 to Florida, where he opened Botanica and ran it as a full-service flower shop until 2007, when he transitioned to an events-only business. He was the 2007 Sylvia Cup champion, the 2010 Event Designer of the Year and the 2012 Paul Ecke, Jr. Award recipient.
Despite his success, Prosser remains humble, remembering those who taught and encouraged him in his early days. At his company’s 30th anniversary party last January, he announced to the crowd of event planners, photographers, VIP clients, friends and family that he was making a donation to the American Floral Endowment in their name.
“I’m very fortunate that some talented people took me under their wing when I was starting out,” he said. “This money will help another young and inexperienced florist, just like I was, get the training to realize their dream.”
Paul Ecke, Jr. Award: Shirley Lyons, AAF, PFCI
Shirley Lyons, AAF, PFCI, former owner of Dandelions Flowers & Gifts in Eugene, Oregon, and SAF’s first female president, is the 2019 winner of SAF’s Paul Ecke, Jr. Award for her exemplary devotion to profession, industry and community.
“Serving SAF is a joy,” Lyons said when presented with the award. “You are my family. I am so honored to be in this industry and to call this industry my love and my home.”
In 1974, Lyons founded Dandelions, a thriving business she ran for nearly 45 years. In 2011, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce recognized her as “Business Woman of the Year” and in 2018, shortly after her retirement, Teleflora presented her the Tom Butler “Floral Retailer of the Year” award. A powerhouse in the floral industry, she embraced numerous leadership positions during her career, culminating with her terms as SAF’s president (from 2013 to 2015) and Chairman of the Board (2015 to 2017).
“Shirley is a shining example to everyone,” said Jo Buttram, AAF, owner of Shirley’s Flowers in Rogers, Arkansas, and a longtime SAF volunteer leader. “She’s gone beyond the call of duty as SAF president. In the years since her term, she continues to give her time and finances to better our industry.”
In addition to speaking at SAF Amelia Island 2019, Lyons participated in SAF’s “Stress Less” promotional tour last spring and she regularly shares story ideas with Floral Management editors.
SAF Chairman Martin Meskers, AAF, president of Oregon Flowers Inc., became good friends with Lyons through their lobbying efforts during SAF’s Congressional Action Days, an event that exemplifies her advocacy for floriculture. “She even carries high heels in her purse to slip on before congressional appointments because she wants to make the best possible impression,” he said.
Year after year, Meskers has watched Lyons write down pages of notes with ways to improve the experience, particularly for first-timers. “She cares very much about welcoming people,” he said. “Whenever she sees an unfamiliar face or a delegation from a small state, she introduces herself to put them at ease.”
That congeniality, her peers attest, follows Lyons everywhere she goes.
“Shirley has an effervescent personality that’s incredibly inspiring,” said Carol Caggiano, AIFD, PFCI, a freelance designer in Jeffersonton, Virginia, and a former Paul Ecke, Jr. Award recipient. “She loves people and is so generous with her time. When you see her at an event, she doesn’t just chat with her longtime friends, but circles the room, making new connections and uniting people.”
Caggiano praised Lyons’ creativity, playful attitude and eagerness to share ideas, citing her long-running “Bras for a Cause,” a brassiere-decorating contest benefitting the Oregon Cancer Foundation, which many florists around the country have replicated for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In 2017, the foundation honored Lyons with its inaugural Sparrow of Hope Award for her tireless contributions. “That was a fun, whimsical way to raise money for a serious problem — and it worked!” Caggiano said. “Shirley made sure others knew about this great concept because she wants others to succeed too.”
Upon meeting Lyons in the mid 1990s at an event through the Northwest Florist Association, David Boulton, AAF, “immediately sensed she was a go-getter.” In recent years, the president of Flowers by George in Arlington, Washington, became better acquainted with Lyons during their overlapping tenure on SAF’s Board of Directors. “Shirley is everyone’s best friend,” he said. “I am glad that I am one of them.”
President’s Award: Drew Gruenburg
Drew Gruenburg, SAF’a chief operating officer, is the 2019 recipient of SAF’s President’s Award in recognition of his nearly four decades of service, exemplary leadership and unwavering commitment to the floral industry.
Gruenburg joined SAF in 1981 as a writer and editor; he will retire from the organization this December. During his long career, Gruenburg was instrumental in developing the association’s first late-breaking newsletter (Dateline Washington), as well as its magazine, Floral Management. After running SAF’s various publications, he took on a bigger role of communicating SAF’s perspective to members and other industry organizations as vice president of Industry Relations. For more than 25 years, he has shared his insight into floriculture trends as a member of the Seeley Conference Board of Directors.
“I started [at SAF] in December of 1981 and, in my mind, it was a two-year gig,” Gruenburg explained from the podium on Saturday night. “But my plan changed! It changed because I’ve always had such meaningful and challenging and interesting work to do, every day of my life at SAF, and I’ve had the very distinct pleasure of doing with colleagues who are smart and creative and friendly. On top of that, I worked for an industry that I really love and grew to love. I had the chance to interact with business owners and friends and colleagues and mentors throughout my whole career. With those things in mind, the two years turned into 38.”
Since 1992, Gruenburg has steered one of SAF’s most complex strategic initiatives: government relations, a role that entails educating lawmakers and association members alike on issues critical to floriculture’s future. His dedication has made SAF’s annual lobbying event, Congressional Action Days, an impactful experience that draws together growers, wholesalers and retailers. Under his guidance, SAF has had many legislative victories including estate tax reform, repealing onerous 1099 reporting requirements, the reinstatement of the Floriculture Crops Report through the USDA, and continued funding for the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative. He’s also worked closely with federal and state officials on pest and disease control measures.
“The success of CAD falls directly on Drew’s shoulders,” said Peter Moran, SAF’s former CEO. “He has always put so much planning into the event to ensure members had a worthwhile experience and, ultimately, that the united effort made an impact on issues important to the industry.” Moran also praised Gruenburg’s aptitude for translating convoluted bills and other “Washington speak” so members could see how specific policies affect their businesses.
Like Moran, SAF President Chris Drummond, AAF, PFCI, of Penny’s by Plaza Flowers in metro Philadelphia, noted Gruenburg’s willingness to help members navigate Capitol Hill. As a 19-year-old, Drummond called SAF for advice on a regulatory issue his family’s business faced. “Drew was willing to take all the time necessary to answer all of my questions,” Drummond remembered. “Of course, he also asked me to be involved because members of congress need to hear from their constituents. This started my decades-long involvement with SAF’s Congressional Action Days.”
Gruenburg’s ability to communicate clearly and authoritatively on complex topics stems from his intense curiosity and scrupulous research, said Dr. Marvin Miller, AAF, market research manager at Ball Horticultural Company in West Chicago, Illinois. “He is responsive, pensive and thorough,” Miller said. “I have always felt that an answer from Drew has been vetted to be what is best for the industry.”
In his tenure with SAF, Gruenburg has been through multiple iterations of the association’s strategic plan. “He is like a walking encyclopedia of SAF — our governance, our policies, our procedures — as well as important milestones in the organization and industry,” said SAF CEO Kate Penn. “When big changes and policy happen, Drew is instrumental in implementing it internally.”
Juggling the interests of a diverse membership with many points of view has presented plenty of challenges — which Gruenburg has always approached with a can-do attitude and a strong moral compass, said former SAF president Bob Williams, AAF, PFCI.
“The most impressive thing is Drew’s character,” Williams said. “I have never met a man with higher personal integrity. He is knowledgeable, dedicated, conscientious and has been both a personal friend and mentor.”
Relive the magic of the awards night and hear the winners’ acceptance speeches. Look for additional coverage in the November- December issue of Floral Management magazine.
Katie Hendrick Vincent and Bruce Wright are contributing writers and editors for the Society of American Florists. Mary Westbrook is the editor in chief of Floral Management.