While most college-aged youth skirted around Europe, Paul Flowerman immersed himself in humanitarian aid projects that later provided a wealth of wisdom as he took over the family business from his father, Marvin Flowerman. Paul, now president of PLThomas, recounts his early years and his father's exemplary advice.
Q: Your career began as a chemistry teacher in Peru, a Peace-Corps physics teacher in Malaysia, and later working on water and forest-sustainability projects. What did you learn in these early years that now applies to how you manage PLThomas today?
PF: As the director of 'Proyecto Amistad' (Project of Friendship), a volunteer student-community development in Arequipa, Peru, I learned that a respectful appreciation of the local culture and learning the language were essential to securing the enthusiastic co-operation of my hosts. My specific project of utilizing a UNESCO system to inexpensively develop laboratory chemistry capabilities could not have succeeded without the friendships forged with Spanish-speaking science teachers. I was shocked to learn how intensive the anti-US feelings were among young people whose only real exposure to the US was the exploitative mining industry and US support of the military dictatorship.
The Peace Corps provided me with intensive training in Bahasa Malaysian language and customs, including the necessity of writing only with my right hand and never showing the soles of my shoes! My students appreciated and benefited from my ability to instruct them in their native tongue. The ensuing laughter (at my expense) over my gaffes lightened the mood as we navigated through an intense Cambridge physics curriculum.
Working with SOS Sahel, an NGO devoted to the welfare of Sahelian Africans, gave me an introduction to the potential synergy between community development and productive commerce. The challenge we faced was the ongoing migration of drought-stricken Sudanese villagers to the cities and the consequent decline of people to harvest gum arabic. Our gum earnings allowed the purchase of a tanker to fill village 'hafirs' (water catchment basins) with Nile river water, thus enabling villagers to remain on their land. Also, rather than harvesting gum trees for firewood, locals realized the ongoing economic benefit from harvesting gum.
At PLT, our staff of 20 is cumulatively fluent in more than 13 languages, quite a few of which we use in commerce. One third of the staff is foreign born, and their first-hand knowledge of foreign cultures influences our business-development activities. We invest heavily in international travel and seek out 'champions' in our foreign partners' organizations.
Q: Your father, Marvin, introduced you to a world of international travel and lifelong friendships. How did his life influence your decisions and business relationships?
PF: Marvin identified a compelling need for foreign ingredients suppliers to have a trusted and knowledgeable representative for North America. In the 1950s, many of the US agents never ventured abroad and were untrained in languages or culture. Trust and knowledge had to be earned through an investment in getting to know the suppliers and the broad context in which they operated. Propeller aircraft carried him all over Asia, Europe and Africa for visits lasting a month or more. He expanded his language facility beyond French and German, and became a cultural ambassador and arbiter between the challenges and constraints of the supply side with the needs of the marketplace. Dad taught me to 'keep my powder dry' in international negotiations whatever the provocation, and I still follow his health precautions.
My father's greatest gift to me was his well-earned reputation for integrity and competence. It continues to open many doors for me. Above all, his courage and optimism in the face of adversity, whether to his well-being or to his business, are a powerful and enduring inspiration.
Suzanne Shelton is principal at Shelton Group PR, the natural products industry's leading boutique public relations outfit.