Gillespie’s: A family business, 100 years strong

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV 

How has Gillespie’s Flowers & Productions thrived for 100 years now in White Sulphur Springs? According to matriarch Phebe Gillespie, age 92, the answer is simple: “No one puts their hands in their pockets around here. We work.” 

In continuous operation since 1923 as a flower shop and event business, Gillespie’s is now run by the third generation of the family–John, Martha, and Charley. They began working for the family business as children. Their grandfather, Ken Gillespie, called them at 8am on Saturday mornings with an assignment. 

“I liken it to a family farm,” says John. “Everybody has to carry their weight.” 

The Crew

Gillespie’s employees 32 people currently. Ten are designers and 22 are production crew. Of those 32, 10 employees have been with the company 20 or more years. One employee retired last year after spending 50 years with the business. Why do people stick with them so long? 

“We care about them,” John answers. 

“We treat ‘em like family,” Charley says. 

“Every day is different,” Martha adds, “and they enjoy the challenge each day brings.” 

All the Gillespies agree that they couldn’t do it without their crew. They say their employees don’t call in sick, rarely miss work, and are capable of anything that’s needed. 

“We ask a lot of them,” John offers, “but they do it.” 

Evolution of the business

John likes to break the business down into 30-year cycles. In the 1920s, Ken started with a flower shop and expanded into Florida and then White Sulphur. (He bought their downtown White Sulphur shop in the 1940s when The Greenbrier was being used as a hospital.) In the 1950s, Ken’s son Temp made the most out of that move by entering the conference business at the hotel. Then in the 1980s, John, Martha, and Charley took the reins by becoming a full-scale production company. (In the 2010s, their children Steven, Rebekah, and Alex also began working for the company and will provide leadership into the future.) 

Over that time period, they’ve made some amazing memories. Like the time that the US Secret Service thought they poisoned the President of the United States. Gillespie’s set up a special lunch room complete with flowers for the president and his security detail in a ballroom. In preparation for the lunch, the bomb-sniffing dogs did their job and cleared the room. Then the president arrived. His eyes were watering, he couldn’t stop coughing, and the Secret Service feared he’d been poisoned. It turns out he was highly allergic to the flowers they placed on the table. The flowers were immediately removed. 

“That was a close one,” John laughs. 

Or the time Charley drove to Florida to decorate for a theme party at a luxury resort. They stayed overnight at a hotel nearby. When they woke up the next morning, their box truck was gone. It had been stolen overnight. All their tools, along with all the props/decorations they made specifically for the party were gone. 

They worked with local police and found the box truck within a few hours, leaving them time to set up for the party. However, the police wanted to keep the van as part of a crime scene investigation. So Charley rented another box truck, bought new tools (to replace the ones the thieves took), and transferred the props/decorations to the new truck. 

“The party still happened,” Charley says. “But as soon as it was over, we left Florida! We wanted to get back to good ol’ West Virginia where we belonged.” 

Or the time a bride accidentally left an antique brooch in her bouquet of flowers. Martha said it was a family heirloom that meant the world to the bride, so she assured her they would do everything they could to find it. They had thrown all the flowers away in their dumpster, so they sent Charley in to find it. 

“I found it!” he says. “Why do they always give me the tough jobs?” 

No matter the task, Gillespie’s find a way to make it work. And tackling tough tasks together is what these siblings do best. 

“We have each other’s backs,” John says. 

“Sometimes we disagree,” Charley adds. 

“But we always work it out,” Martha concludes. 

Their parents taught them to get along for the good of the family, and they do their best to abide by that principle in the family and in the family business. 

Their older sister, Mary, is not in the family business, but they all agree, “She’s still in charge.” 

So you want to be in hospitality?

Since they are an institution of the hospitality industry, jobs in the family business don’t become available often. When they do, they are filled quickly. But the Gillespies say they communicate expectations about the rigors of working in hospitality from the start to potential industry employees.

“Be prepared to work seven days a week,” says Martha. 

“And available 24 hours a day,” Charley chimes in. 

“You’re going to work weekends, nights, and holidays,” John adds. “This business is about paying attention to details. Whether it’s a vow renewal for just two people or an inaugural ball for thousands.”

And they speak from experience, planning thousands of weddings and five inaugural balls. 

What’s the secret? 

Operating a family business successfully for 100 years is a feat. What’s the secret to the success of Gillespie’s? 

“It’s a huge machine to operate,” responds Charley. “We can’t do it alone.”

“It has grown tremendously over the years,” adds John. “The community makes that possible.”

Martha explains that their father, Temp, lived by a pecking order. First came the business. Second came tennis. Third came family. “In that order,” she says. 

While this generation continues to prioritize the business, they recognize that the business is a family affair. And in the end, it’s all about the people. Their employees. Their community. Their Gillespie family. 

Open House

In order to celebrate the family, the business, and the community. Gillespie’s is hosting an open house at the store in downtown White Sulphur this Friday, May 26, from 4-7pm. It’s being held on the opening night of The Dandelion Festival. Light refreshments will be provided. Everyone is welcome. 

“We are excited to celebrate with the community,” John says. “This weekend means a lot to the town, and we are grateful to the community for their support over the last 100 years.”

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