Dale Harmon says he has Sears-Roebuck to thank for his start in what has become a long career in events. More commonly associated with large appliances and even larger mail-order catalogs than high-style entertaining, the famed retailer hired a college-age Harmon to man its Washington garden center in 1972. A grateful Harmon says he's had botany in his blood ever since.
Now special events coordinator for the Silver Spring, Md.-based event-foliage provider Plants Alive, Harmon brings both creativity and diplomacy to his work. Operating in the fickle political climate of Washington, “We try to be apolitical,” he says. Instead of choosing sides, Harmon concentrates on providing caterers, florists and event designers with the perfect plants for their events, a roster that has included White House receptions, Secret Service holiday parties, and an opulent wedding for the daughter of a former vice president.
With such high-profile happenings and facing a “half-dozen primo florists always trying to outdo each other,” Harmon notes, it's no wonder Plants Alive is constantly growing its inventory. “We have come so far from ficus trees and areca palms,” he says. Though the hardy stalks have been Plants Alive's “bread and butter” for the 30-plus years the company has been in business, these days, Harmon says, he serves clients with “what traditionally are considered exterior landscaping materials, like red maple trees, birch trees, weeping willows, evergreens and lots of things in topiary shapes that we can use inside and outside.”
While it's fun to dream up dazzling designs and provide exciting new plant products, Harmon says his company succeeds because he and business owner Jeffrey Kushner keep an eye on the bottom line. For his part, “I know how much it costs to send a truck with two drivers out of a driveway,” Harmon says. “There are a whole lot of people out there in the business who don't have a clue.”
Meanwhile, he credits Kushner with “paying extraordinary attention” to the company's financial health — vigilance that has seen Plants Alive through the aftermath of 9/11 and this year's slow spring special event season, which Harmon attributes to “really bizarre” weather.
Though he may not be able to predict future national crises or the effects of global warming, Harmon is certain of one thing: “We are lucky. We do a very positive thing for a living. We bring in color and live material to make spaces more attractive … and we usually make everybody smile.”
Plants Alive! 15710 Layhill Road, Silver Spring, MD 20906; 301/598-3843; www.plants-alive.com
PLAY AGAINST TYPE
“The most difficult thing for me is keeping all the details in order. I, being the people person I am, love to complete the sale, do the design, shmooze everyone, then move on to the next thing. But I can't. My job is to make sure all the ducks are in a row, that everything is hunky-dory.”
“I can be a lunatic in the humor department, and I love to be able to defuse a real pain of a person. And it's not that I'm not capable of having a hissy fit myself. But I try not to have them very often.”
LEARN BY LEADING
“I think my proudest accomplishment has to be that I was international president of ISES three years ago. It was quite a wonderful experience. It allowed me to be totally myself — my sense of humor, my sexuality, being a people person. All of that rolled into one. And it definitely showed me the things I don't necessarily do beautifully, such as being patient and learning how to deal with people you just want to put in a box somewhere. It has served me very well to have really good friends [in ISES] who say ‘You're overdoing this,’ or ‘Don't do that.’”