In a time when husbands were expected to rule their wives, men controlled business, and women were given few rights as citizens, one woman wove a terrific tale of marriage and business in Esquimalt. Mary Ann Brown, Knight, Ashley, Connell, Farrington; a British immigrant, arrived in Esquimalt in 1870 and outlived 5 husbands, all the while establishing a successful nursery business, Fairview Esquimalt Greenhouse Ltd., on Esquimalt Road.
Under Mary Ann’s keen business sense and careful attention, her nurseries and, later, flower shops gained a reputation for beauty and taste. To read more about the history of Mary Ann Brown, please visit …
The company was purchased by Brown Brothers Ltd of Vancouver in 1912, and there begins the story of Brown’s The Florist, grafted onto the much older business of Mary Ann Brown. The company sent William H. Brown and his wife, Elizabeth Margery Brown nee Twitty, to Victoria to manage the business.
One can only imagine the struggle of owning a business that deals in luxury goods during the tight days of WWI, the Depression, and WWII. Worried that his beloved greenhouses would become lost in the extensive holdings of Brown’s Brothers Company limited, William took a bold step of separation and bought the Victoria business from his family in 1917. Mr. and Mrs. Brown flowed with the times, becoming keen supporters of our country’s men and women in arms – a sentiment that continues to this day.
William and Elizabeth had no children; Will, like his father, was quite happy puttering in the greenhouses while Elizabeth’s background in bookkeeping and secretarial work gave her a lot of influence over the operation of the flower shop and greenhouses as a business. They owned and operated the florist business until 29 April 1950. Between 1950 and 1977 the company sold twice, the first time to Burt Reid, and subsequently to his nephew Frank Wright. They were both members of the Brown family.
The business was located on the present site of the Esquimalt Sports Complex and Esquimalt Shopping Centre. The township of Esquimalt purchased the land in the early 60’s and the greenhouses were moved to Saanich. The retail operation was moved to the 600 block of View Street in downtown Victoria.
In the late 1960’s Frank Wright moved the retail store the corner of Yates and Broad, where it was a Victoria landmark for decades. On April 1, 1977, he sold it to Christine Dysart, Herb Widdifield, and 2 other partners.
Christine (Chris) and Herb soon bought out their partners, and also ran a greenhouse and wholesale operation, all the while Herb worked at the university, as Director of Systems and Computing Services. In 1980 they purchased Holloway’s Sidney Florist and brought it into the Brown’s family, and in 1995 they opened a branch in the Hillside Shopping Centre.
Chris managed the business from 1977 – 2007 and met the competition of the corner stores and grocery stores now selling inexpensive flowers, with the best business strategy she knew: good ethics. The rules for staff were simple: maintain a pleasant working environment, avoid gossip, give open and honest feedback, and resolve conflict when it arises as best you can. By continuing to provide their customers with the very best in quality and customer service, Brown’s The Florist kept its place in the competitive floral industry in British Columbia.
Although Herb did not play an active role in the company, his influence had a huge impact on the success of the business. The internet as we know it today was created in 1990, and Herb, through his role at UVIC, was instrumental in the creation of BC Net, which brought the internet to BC. Herb encouraged Chris to build a website and start selling flowers on-line, at a time when few others were thinking about it. In 1996, Brown’s the Florist launched its first website, and started selling flowers not only for delivery in Victoria, but also selling to folks from all over the world, and having them delivered to other places in the world. This was what they anticipated, and by leveraging the existing partnership with Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD), Brown’s was able to network and help other flower shops throughout North America find their way in the new online world. FTD was a North American trade association for florists that provided member education, advocacy, and quality assurance. Within this association, Brown’s grew to be ranked top 10 in Canada and top 100 (of 22,000) in North America. In an industry with only 10% female ownership, this truly was an incredible accomplishment for Chris and her team. We held that position and ranking for many years until FTD changed its mandate and we cut our ties from them in 2014.
As Chris begun to consider retirement she wanted to be sure the company would remain stable through a transition of ownership. She hired Natasha Wasyliw (Crawford) to be the Marketing Manager in 2003. Chris and Natasha worked well together and shared the same values of taking good care of their customers and staff, providing quality and service, and having a happy workplace. And thus Natasha became Chris’ understudy.
Over the next four years, Chris taught Natasha the ins and outs of the business, and Natasha purchased Brown’s The Florist on April 1, 2007, exactly 30 years to the day after Chris did. Chris remained a business Coach to Natasha for several more years and the two remain fast friends, a rarity when a business changes ownership.
Today, under the energetic leadership of Natasha Crawford, Brown’s The Florist offers professional florist services from three locations in Greater Victoria: Downtown on Fort Street, in Sidney, and in the growing market of the Westshore. Their values remain the same as they were nearly 125 years ago under Mary Ann Brown: “more than simply meeting the customer’s needs.” More seems to be the goal of the women of Brown’s; more community involvement, more focus on customers, more dedication to providing local products.