CEO of Wholesale Sugar Flowers, Keera Brooks, has based her entrepreneurship on two fundamental truths – a passion for women’s empowerment and the fact that almost nothing goes according to plan.
Graduating from Penn State University, she spent 16 years in corporate America before leaving to find her true calling. After searching for an opportunity that would allow her to contribute in a meaningful way towards customers, partners, employees, and the community, she acquired Wholesale Sugar Flowers in 2018.
By combining the desire to strengthen women and understanding the challenges that come with running a business, Keera grew Wholesale Sugar Flowers by making it a priority to partner with and hire women, support the community, and take care of her employees. She also transitioned the company to include at-home bakers as well as business accounts when the pandemic hit, enabling the business to thrive during uncertain times.
Keera continues to share her position on empowerment and motivates women throughout the country, speaks publicly about women entrepreneurship, and contributes to publications on the subject, including the book Launching While Female. When she is not working, you can find her spending time with her husband, two daughters, and the family dog, Ranger.
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s time for GWBC Radio’s Open for Business. Now, here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:19] Lee Kantor here. Another episode of GWBC Open for Business, and this is going to be a good one. Today, we have with us Keera Brooks with Wholesale Sugar Flowers. Welcome, Keera.
Keera Brooks: [00:00:29] Thank you. Good morning.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:31] Well, I’m excited to learn about what you’re up to. Can you tell us a little bit about Wholesale Sugar Flowers? What are you up to?
Keera Brooks: [00:00:37] Sure. So, we are an e-commerce baking supply company. And we’ve been in business for over 20 years, and we supply the baking industry, everyone from at-home-bakers all the way up to major hotels and resorts around the world with cake decorations.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:53] And then, how’d you get into this line of work?
Keera Brooks: [00:00:57] I actually acquired the business about two years ago now. And I came across it, I was looking for something different. I had a former GWBC business that we decided to sunset. And this came across as a great opportunity that fit my life and what we were looking to do in terms of growth. So, we jumped on it.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:22] So, exactly what is it for the person who isn’t familiar with this kind of industry?
Keera Brooks: [00:01:29] So, we are a distributor of cake decorations, anything from sugar flowers, gum paste, fondant flowers that you would put on a wedding cake to sprinkles that you have on cupcakes and cookies, little icing decorations that you have for birthday parties, and everything around a celebration.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:54] So, your customer isn’t necessarily the end user. It’s like a baker or bakery.
Keera Brooks: [00:02:02] Before the pandemic, it was just a B2B model. As a result of the pandemic, we moved into a B2C model as well. So, now we do both.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:13] So now, like, a home baker can get these kind of things direct from you rather than, I guess, typically prior to this, they would go to a store, like a grocery store, and buy some of this stuff?
Keera Brooks: [00:02:27] Yes. Exactly.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:29] So, now, when you made that shift, did that change how you kind of went to market that, I guess, it affected, at least, the targeting on who your prospective client would be?
Keera Brooks: [00:02:42] Absolutely. It really changed much of our business model and also moved us in a different direction, because we had to. The pandemic was such a shock to us, as many other companies have experienced. And we had to take measured action fairly quickly to be able to save the business, and save our employees, and continue moving forward. So, we knew that there were going to be a lot of bakeries that would not make it out of the pandemic, unfortunately, just because it is such a tight business, there’s very thin margins in the baking industry. So, the reality was, is that we were going to lose a fair chunk of customers that we currently had. So, we moved into a home model, if you will, and tried to target the at-home-bakers.
Keera Brooks: [00:03:41] Many bakers were not in a position where they could afford space in a retail environment, so they moved back home and they started baking from home. So, we were able to offer them per piece rate instead of bulk quantities, which allowed them to manage cash better, to not have to buy so much inventory, and, hopefully, help keep them afloat. As well as the at-home-bakers that we’re stuck at home and they just wanted to get into baking because they had more time on their hands.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:18] So, now, your prospective client is kind of the professional baker who is still selling their wares and needs it to look perfect and professional. And, also, now these kind of at-home-bakers who are doing it just because they have time and then they enjoy it.
Keera Brooks: [00:04:36] Yes. Exactly.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:38] Now, how does kind of the marketing changed now you’re kind of addressing two pretty different groups. One is making a living, you know, with your product and the other one is just having fun and, you know, impressing their friends and family.
Keera Brooks: [00:04:56] Yes. It’s a challenge that’s for certain. We actually had to move to Facebook and social media for our marketing. And we started to target a specific clientele who was interested in baking and pastry and everything, dessert, cake, cookie related. And we found that through social media and the advertising, we were able to introduce ourselves to many, many more clients than we ever expected.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:30] So then, that’s an unintended consequence of the pandemic that now you’ve opened up a whole new market that, maybe, you didn’t even consider or was on the back burner.
Keera Brooks: [00:05:42] Yes. Absolutely. We had always known that we wanted to explore it at some point. This hastened that exploration and we were, you know, very pleasantly surprised at how well received it was. And we haven’t looked back. This segment helped save our business. Absolutely.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:08] Now, this is a good kind of learning for other entrepreneurs out there. Like, this was an area that you didn’t really kind of prioritize pre-pandemic. And then, it became a necessity during the pandemic. What was that kind of conversation with your leadership team when it was time to make that decision? Because this is kind of a momentous decision, you know, where you’re saying, “Hey, we used to be this and now we’re also this.” You know, this speaks to almost the core, your business is called Wholesale Sugar Flowers. That decision, I’m sure, wasn’t made lightly.
Keera Brooks: [00:06:47] No. It wasn’t made lightly at all. But it was made swiftly. We were in survival mode, if you will, at that time, and we had to recognize that either we could move to where the new reality was or we could stay and hope for the best. And me being more of an action oriented person, I didn’t want to take the risk to hope for the best, considering that a lot of customers are not only – our wholesale customers were not only retail bakers, but there were also hotels and resorts. And you know that many of them are still in a very limited operating capacity right now. And, obviously, the wedding industry is a huge part of our business as well. So, it really was more of a necessity and not so much a debate.
Lee Kantor: [00:07:39] And then, when you were making that decision and you decided to take action – which is another great piece of advice for folks that are wavering – you know, when you’re going through a crisis like this, they don’t ring a bell to tell you it’s over. Like, you’re going with kind of limited information and taking best guesses with the limited information which makes, you know, business challenging just by itself in good times. So, in bad times, it’s even trickier. So, when you’re making this kind of shift and you decide, “Okay. We’re going kind of all in. We’re putting all our chips in this pile now. We’re going for it”, did you quickly come up with a plan? “Okay. We’re going to do Facebook.” Like, where are these people at? And you just kind of were going with gut feelings or did you kind of bring in an expert to help you? How did the action take place?
Keera Brooks: [00:08:27] We had discussions with our digital marketing team, who we were working with before, that helped us narrow the focus into this segment and helped quantify the opportunity. So, we did put some data behind it and understand, “Okay. If we make this shift, what’s our potential target market and is it worth it really?” Because we were going to have to redo a lot of our operations as they existed. So, once we got that initial first pass, we hit the ground running.
Keera Brooks: [00:09:03] And, you know, I have a saying that I have I kind of take with me through life, you know, I’m going to die trying. You know, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a guarantee, but I also wasn’t going to just sit and let things happen to the company that I love, to my team that I love. My employees were counting on it. And we just pushed ahead.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:31] Now, when you have a culture that’s that strong, how do you think that helped you through this crisis?
Keera Brooks: [00:09:40] Loyalty goes a long way. Building that trust and building credibility with your team, the whole notion around authentic leadership. The real raw conversations that we had at that time were not for nothing. They knew it. They felt it. And they didn’t want to lose this environment that they love to come to either. So, they were very much onboard of whatever we needed. Let’s try, because their alternatives were not great either. This is a warehouse operation. We don’t have a lot of fancy work, if you will. And we are a supply chain company. So, you know, these jobs are not cushy white collar corporate jobs. And these people have to pay for their families [inaudible].
Lee Kantor: [00:10:44] Now, speaking of the changes, like you mentioned, you’re a supply chain company and now, I would imagine, you were going from selling big amounts of things to smaller amounts of things. Maybe the same things, but just in smaller packaging. How disruptive was that? Like, you were able to handle that kind of shift?
Keera Brooks: [00:11:05] We were able to leverage the employee base that we had when we first started. And their work, we all shared and took a bigger burden of work to just cover the extra time involved. Because you’re right, it just takes more labor to do the smaller quantities. And so, once we got to a point where things were starting to look a little bit more consistent and growing, we decided to add more people. So, through this, we actually ended up increasing our hiring and we ended up also increasing our our growth trajectory.
Lee Kantor: [00:11:47] It’s funny how life works. You know, you couldn’t have planned for this. And I’m sure when you were forecasting last year, it didn’t look like that at all. But then, this is what I love about entrepreneurship, I mean, people just keep grinding and they don’t take no for an answer. They just keep finding a way. And it’s just an amazing story. And congratulations on your success and able to kind of navigate this rough terrain.
Keera Brooks: [00:12:16] Thank you. It definitely had some sleepless nights and some nerves. But, like you said, it’s all about the grind, and you have to stay focused, and you have to make the tough calls.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:28] Now, when you made that shift and you said okay, because this is a hypothesis at this point, right? You’re like, “It seems like it should work. We have stuff that people who bake should want. But we’ve never done this before.” How quickly was it before you were getting traction and you were like, “You know what? This thing is going to work.” Like, when did you start feeling more confident about making that pivot?
Keera Brooks: [00:12:52] Our business went to zero on March 13th. That was kind of our D-day. And by June, the end of June, we had transformed our whole website, moved our model, started the Facebook marketing. So, within that eight to ten week period, we started to see things change. By July, we were rocking. We had exceeded our July from the previous year already. And we continued to grow since then. So, it was very quick. Once we got all of our side organized, it happened fairly quickly.
Lee Kantor: [00:13:39] Because the business, really, at the heart of it hasn’t changed. It’s just the client that’s changed. And so, therefore, the packaging and the other elements of that have changed. But the heart of the business is the same. It’s Wholesale Sugar Flowers, like, that part really stays the same, right?
Keera Brooks: [00:13:56] Exactly. The heart of it is the same. The thing that we may have expanded on a little bit more is our sprinkles, and our sugar crystals, and that side of the business. We came up with 50 new different sprinkle combinations just to give people ideas of what to do. So, we tried to do a little bit of expansion on that side to become more attractive to the at-home-baker who’s baking a birthday cake for their kid because they can’t have a party outside of their home or something like that. So, that really helped us expand into the sugar market on that side. And we saw tremendous growth. We almost doubled that side of the business in the last six months.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:45] Now, do you find from a marketing standpoint, you have to kind of help them be more creative in terms of giving them more and more ideas? When it was primarily wholesale, they were the creative kind of driver of this and they just needed the materials.
Keera Brooks: [00:15:01] We find that Pinterest helps a lot in terms of giving people ideas. So, when people come to us, they typically know what they want to do. We’re the ones to help bring that to reality, whether it’s a customer for sugar flower or whether it’s a specific, like I said, sprinkle combination for their particular project they’re working on.
Lee Kantor: [00:15:26] Now, let’s talk a little bit about GWBC. You mentioned your previous business was GWBC, you’re a member there as well. Why is the GWBC important to you in your work?
Keera Brooks: [00:15:39] I’ve always had a passion for women’s empowerment and enablement, and I do believe that GWBC gives a platform for people to showcase – for women to showcase their capabilities and for organizations to find these women. And I do believe that they do wonderful work to try and bring these two parties together. And I’ve been a supporter for many years. And even when I was in corporate, before I left corporate to become an entrepreneur, I was responsible for supplier diversity program in my company, in our department. So, it’s just been with me for many, many years.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:31] And coming from a corporate background, you see the impact that when kind of an enterprise level company partners with a smaller minority or women-owned firm, the difference you can make in that – you know, the ripples that occur from that kind of generosity is very real.
Keera Brooks: [00:16:51] Absolutely. And women aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for an opportunity to get their foot in the door. And that’s all I think that we’re asking. And when we saw that on the corporate side, you know, those companies really stepped up and they really came with interesting ideas. And were true partners in the sense that there was more skin in the game for them in some cases.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:17] Right. I don’t mean to say that this is some charity. I mean to say that the access that they’re giving these smaller folks makes a big difference.
Keera Brooks: [00:17:27] Of course. Of course.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:29] And I don’t think a lot of enterprises realize, like, this is kind of sometimes loose change for them, but it’s meaningful dollars for the small entrepreneur.
Keera Brooks: [00:17:43] And if you think about the fact that our economy is run mainly on small business, it is very meaningful. And it might take a little bit of extra work on a corporate side because it is a little bit smaller of a book of business. But, I think, what you get in return far outweighs it, and goes a lot further – the dollars go a lot further.
Lee Kantor: [00:18:08] Now, that kind of, hopefully, the pandemic is waning a little bit and then there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here, hopefully, in the next six, nine, 12 months or so, do you feel that your business really is a different business now that there’s kind of a lot of more opportunity, maybe, down the road that you would consider prior to the pandemic?
Keera Brooks: [00:18:34] Absolutely. And, you know, even during the pandemic, we helped companies turn into DIY cookie kit companies. We helped provide fulfillment for them. We also came up with a new business idea, so there’s going to be an exciting new business that comes out of this pandemic because of it. So, it’s really opened up our eyes to all the possibilities that maybe we didn’t even explore fully before this.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:07] Right. When you’re going through a crisis, I mean, some folks aren’t going to make it, obviously. But the ones that do, when they can kind of stumble upon or discover another aspect of what they’re doing and then serve clients through that, it’s just really rewarding work. I mean, business is hard in the best of situations. And when you’re going through a crisis and you kind of figure something out, that must feel really good for you and your team.
Keera Brooks: [00:19:39] Most definitely. And we love to serve our customers. So, that’s all the joy in the world when we can help them, and help them save their business, and help them make an experience special for their loved ones and family. That’s what we’re looking for.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:56] Right. Every time you sell somebody something, you know you’re making someone’s day.
Keera Brooks: [00:20:01] It’s absolutely wonderful and it’s a great, great way to be in business.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:08] So, the people out there, let’s educate them about what you have and how they can get a hold of it. So, now, a baker of any shape or size can go to Wholesale Sugar Flowers and discover all kinds of things to jazz hands up their baked goods, right?
Keera Brooks: [00:20:27] Absolutely. You can just go and visit wholesalesugarflowers.com. You don’t need any special codes or anything. You just go in and place your order, and we ship it out same day if you order by 3:00 p.m.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:43] And this is a website, you go there and your head is going to explode. There are so many choices and there are so many things that can really spur a lot of creativity. Even things you might not have been thinking about is available there, right?
Keera Brooks: [00:20:56] Yeah. We have over 2,500 products to choose from. We have the largest variety of sugar flowers in the U.S. And our sprinkle and sugar collection has grown significantly. So, we’re up there on that side of the business as well.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:16] And then, you ship in the U.S. or also international?
Keera Brooks: [00:21:20] We’re international. We’re a global company. We ship to 17 different countries, I believe, at this point.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:25] Well, Keera, congratulations on all the success. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Keera Brooks: [00:21:31] Thank you so much for the time.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:33] And that website once again is wholesalesugarflowers – with an S -.com. All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time on GWBC Open for Business.
The Greater Women’s Business Council (GWBC®) is at the forefront of redefining women business enterprises (WBEs). An increasing focus on supplier diversity means major corporations are viewing our WBEs as innovative, flexible and competitive solutions. The number of women-owned businesses is rising to reflect an increasingly diverse consumer base of women making a majority of buying decision for herself, her family and her business.
GWBC® has partnered with dozens of major companies who are committed to providing a sustainable foundation through our guiding principles to bring education, training and the standardization of national certification to women businesses in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.