It may have been by accident that Merlin Hagemann ended up owning his flower shop, but it’s no coincidence that he’s spent 40 years treating his customers like family.
Merlin Hagemann had no idea back in 1971 that a simple class project would lead to this. As a senior at Byron High School, he joined a program that allowed students to job-shadow local professionals.
“The first time I walked through this door, the former owner [Dick Foelske] asked me if I’d ever want to own a greenhouse,” says Hagemann. “I thought, ‘Well let’s see, I’m 17 years old, and a senior in high school.’ I had no knowledge then, and I still wouldn’t today, had it not been for that experience.”
For Hagemann, owner of Merlin’s Flowers and The Other Side, 300 Mix St., Oregon, Ill., the job-shadowing experience was one of those happy accidents that led to his life’s work. And after nearly four decades of running the greenhouse, gift shop and floral business, the 57-year-old still finds something magical about it, particularly in the relationships he has formed with customers.
“I’ve been here 39 years, and I’ve worked with a lot of these families for that long,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch families grow through several phases of their lives. I’ve helped fulfill their design needs for weddings, the birth of their children and even special events like graduations. You just get to know people.”
The store offers plants, cut flowers and a wide variety of gift items. Its gift gallery is filled with antique furniture, gourmet foods, one-of-a-kind accessories and other treasures, such as silk flower arrangements for interior decor.
Hagemann got his start here by renting out the gift shop from Foelske, just a few years after graduating from high school. He later subcontracted the florist’s funeral jobs, and then bought the entire business in 1976. It was a natural fit. In fact, he blended in so well with the family business that he was often mistaken as one of Foelske’s sons.
“He had three blond-haired boys, all a few years younger than I was,” recalls Hagemann. “My hair used to be blond, and customers all thought I was Dick’s son. After a while, I didn’t even argue it. They’d say, ‘Is your dad here?’ and I’d respond, ‘OK, let me see.’”
Nearly 40 years later, Merlin’s is still a family business. Hagemann owns and operates the business with wife Cindy. Their three grown children pitch in when available, and have been doing so “since they could see over the counter.” Son Tyler is stepping into his father’s shoes, and will take over the greenhouse when he finishes college.
The 11,000-square-foot greenhouse is filled with plants year-round. Bright, hardy mums and still-green poinsettias fill the rows in fall, and an entire corner showcases colorful, warm-weather plants. During the winter, the greenhouse takes a back seat, as the gift shop fills with eager Christmas shoppers.
First-time visitors may notice what looks like two separate stores – Merlin’s, and a smaller boutique across the street. The smaller shop is also Merlin’s, but is better known as The Other Side. Constructed in 2004, the gift shop got its name for a very practical reason: it’s on the other side of the street from the main building.
The boutique is filled with unique gifts such as jewelry, Willow Tree figurines, purses and gourmet foods. Custom coffee samples are available to shoppers, an indication of the hospitality which sets the shop apart.
“You’ve got the chain stores, you’ve got every grocery store, every drug store in town selling giftware, so a lot of our business is just customer service,” says Hagemann. “Customers can go anywhere and buy flowers. If you don’t give them good service and satisfaction, they could go somewhere else.”
The sense of family here extends from blood relatives to the store’s 13 employees and out to the community. Hagemann feels a special connection with generations of loyal shoppers. Staff members go out of their way to provide exactly what is wanted in an arrangement, for example, rather than providing only the cut-and-paste variety. For a recent funeral, they worked the baseball cap of a Chicago Cubs fan into a flower display. Another time, they added lottery tickets into an arrangement for an avid lotto player.
Customers really enjoy those small touches, says Hagemann, who’s often found chatting with customers, swapping stories.
“The fact that he takes the time to talk to them, acknowledge them, gives them a hard time – they love that,” says Cindy. “They’re getting his attention, and he’s a likeable guy. He’s been here in the community, and he gives a lot back to the community.”
The family’s attachment to the Oregon area became obvious in the mid ’90s, when Merlin briefly stepped away from the business. Looking to pursue other interests, he sold the store and tried to avoid overshadowing the new owners. Yet time and again, loyal customers told him how much they missed his business. He returned, after a few years, to rescue the business. Spreading the word about his return meant focusing on the basics.
“We keyed in on customer service, added free gift wrapping for our customers and really tried hard to make people happy,” says Cindy. “They knew Merlin from before, and they were happy he was back. It was surprising how quickly business picked back up.”
That kind of attention to detail and customer service gives the business an important edge on other retailers selling gifts and flowers, says Cindy. So does innovation.
Hagemann is never satisfied with the status quo and believes there’s always room to improve, whether that means finding faster production methods or attending conferences to find new products, technologies and ideas.
“That’s where I see a lot of shops fail, especially in design; they don’t go to design shows,” says Hagemann. “They’re comfortable with what they do, and they do it day in and day out. We’re fortunate with the help we have, because our employees want to learn, and we’ve gone to several shows in the past two months, just to learn more.”
Hagemann has found that new ideas can save him time and improve his bottom line. Take, for example, the corsage. Each one takes almost an hour to construct, as a designer adds wire to the main flower and then continuously wraps each new flower and leaf with tape. At a recent conference, Hagemann learned a quicker, easier process that involves gluing everything together, then taping it. When Homecoming season came this fall, his staff cut in half the amount of time it took to make the corsages and boutonnieres.
The connection between education and business success is obvious to Hagemann. “With our improved corsages, that took 20 percent off our labor,” he says. “That means the bottom line is going to look better, and as far as we know, we did two homecomings with 250 pieces and not a single complaint.”
Staff members notice the improvements, and enjoy making their own contributions to success. Carol Dees coordinates store displays, advises wedding clients and wears many other hats. She’s been part of the staff for nearly 15 years, and finds that the family atmosphere draws everyone together.
“Merlin makes things fun here,” she says. “He’s fair and hard-working. He always wants to please the customer and he’s willing to try new things.”
Hagemann takes time to share with the community, too. Three times a year, both stores host an open house. Visitors – mostly loyal customers – can see the newest gifts and sample the season’s foods, prepared by a staff member who’s also a certified caterer.
Customers find deals during the rest of the year, too, such as the Facebook special of the day, in which a given word or phrase found online earns discounts when mentioned in the store.
Nearly 40 years after his job-shadowing experience led him to this store, Hagemann still finds joy in his work and doesn’t plan to stop doing it anytime soon.
“With as long as I’ve been here, everybody asks, ‘When are you going to retire?’” he says. “I tell people I’ll probably die in the back room, working at a table with a knife in my hands. I don’t see retirement. I could never sit still.”
He’s built a loyal following, and after so many years of sharing life’s special moments, he and his customers and employees are practically family, anyway. He believes “success” is defined by the friendships and family-friendliness he shares with customers.
“When you’ve got people that are that loyal, you want to be loyal back to them,” says Hagemann. “It’s kind of a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours relationship with the customer, and I think that’s what small business is built upon. If you don’t have that, there’s no need for customers to come to you; they can go anywhere.” ❚