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BEHIND THE SCENE-BILL HEFFERNAN

BEHIND THE SCENE-BILL HEFFERNAN

Was event/floral design what you set out to do in your career path?
I didn’t actually. I was a STARVING student at the Art Institute and I started giving away flowers on the street in hope s of attracting weekly contracts for flowers delivered to peoples homes to pay for school. Every single day I went out onto the street with my arms full of flowers.
The people were astounded by the variety of flowers I was showing them, things they had never seen before. That led to them asking me to make floral arrangements for their stores and homes.

I started locally, everything was done on foot and as demand began to build I would take public transportation to the warehouses on Randolph Street. I would do all this in my 3rd floor walkup apartment which I shared with 2 other roommates at the time. I was literally living hand to mouth during that period. I didn’t keep books or records, it was just me on the street. Soon enough word started to spread and buzz was building. A client referred me to someone in Evanston and the woman from Evanston called me up to bring her flowers weekly. Keep in mind at this time I didn’t have a car. Because she was the only client I would have that far up north it wasn’t feasible for me so the next day she called me and said she had 5 other clients that wanted me to make flower arrangements for them. To make the trip to Evanston, I rented these renta-wreck used cars for about $15-$20/day) and immediately those clients wanted me to make arrangements for their house parties as well. One thing led to another then I got a call from a hotel in Chicago who took notice and really liked my arrangements and asked if I would do the flowers for the hotel. At this point I was still in school and I was living with 2 roommates in a 3rd floor walkup. Shortly after the first hotel client, another hotel noticed what I was doing and they wanted me to do flowers for their hotel. All of sudden IT.GOT.BIG and I needed a truck. I approached one of my friends who loaned me the $500 I needed and bought a used Marshall Field’s stepvan.

Thank God for friends

I eventually ended up with 6 hotel clients, and once everyone began noticing what I was doing with these hotels they began calling me up for weddings, bar-mitzvahs.
Through this journey you have to understand I had no formal training doing this. This was all learn as you go.
The weddings I did were for high end clients; because I hadn’t done arrangements for weddings, I had to figure it out quickly. We rapidly became one of the main players in the industry.
At some point we did arrangements for an entire gala out of my 3rd floor walkup. I eventually moved out of that apartment which is quite a divergence from where we are today.
Today we have a 55,000 sq. ft studio with 4 conference rooms, 2 showrooms, 7 loading docks, 15 trucks
It’s been a fun journey!

Did having an art background help with the creativity side of what you do?
It did and didn’t because I had an advertising background prior to enrolling in art school. I was a first year art student at the time. The reason I went to art school was because I knew there was a whole lot inside of me that hadn’t been exercised. As I taught myself, what came out of me artistically was nothing like anyone else was doing at the time. I wasn’t formally trained nor had I been exposed to the social scene of Chicago. The floral creations I was producing were radically unique to the circuit. I think that was the reason for the meteoric rise and success of the company.

Today we do most of Chicago’s large social galas and private events. Some of the events we’ve done include: the opening of Millennium Park, opening of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute, The Lyric Opera, and the Field Museum gala, an account we’ve had 27 years running which is really unprecedented. Those are just to name a few.

You began as a 1 man operation, how you decide what people to bring on?
The minute I got my first hotel contract, I hired one of my client who had a background in accounting. She eventually became my partner in the business, the Morgan of the Heffernan Morgan Ronsley. From there we cooperated in the business decisions as we grew.

How did word of mouth play a role in how your business growth?
Our business was completely word of mouth. There was no advertising.

Do you think Passion fueled you to do this?
At first it was strictly survival, to be honest with you. Then it was my drive to not fail, I wanted to succeed.

Through your journey from beginning to where you are now, did you feel you needed a mentor?

I didn’t only because I have been blessed with wonderful clients that were older than me, more worldly with exquisite taste who guided me into providing the level of sophistication they expect. My clients became my mentors. I still have clients today who were clients 30yrs ago and I’m still meeting new people today that are teaching me new things.
Taste is a funny thing, many people think they have it but everyone doesn’t. When you come across those people that have beautiful taste, you build a “ give and take” relationship. I continue to expand my repertoire even to this day.
Taste is a funny thing, many people think they have it but everyone doesn’t

What advice can you give someone looking to follow in your career path?
Always for young entrepreneurs, before you jump into a business make sure you love the whole idea of what it is you are doing. That love turns into passion and that’s what really keeps you going. Expose yourself to as much popular culture that surrounds you so you know what that’s fueling a great city like Chicago. Go with your gut! Be careful never to overextend yourself and get your finances in order. You never want to pay a bill late and make sure you pay employees. Treat people how you want to be treated. There’s a big world out there and its way more than just yourself.

Double check double check double check

Walk us through 5 days prior up until day of event?
We are lucky to have a very large production team (carpenters, floral designers, graphic artists, seamstresses etc). 5 days prior to the event, everything is done and it’s a matter of putting the finishing touches on all the various elements, making sure all the various elements of the party are up to my expectations. Floral is the last piece of the entire puzzle because of the perish-ability.
We’re on the phone with the client finalizing guest and table count, verifying delivery times and also other vendors that will be a part of the event..
Inevitably there will be some elements that are out of your control like weather, other vendor issues.
Everything about setting up an event is about control. There can be hundreds of people at a venue who are contributing to the success of the event. The Field museum gala for example will have about 1,000 guests and you will have about 100 professionals working behind the scene. You can have 20 people from the lighting/AV team, 20 people from décor, 20 from rental company delivering and setting up rental equipments; The greater experience that one has, the easier you can predict and foresee various conflicts that will affect the overall night and solve them.
Even after 30 years when I’m working on a big event, I still get on edge but it still gets exciting. Are we on time? Are we going to be done 2hrs before the first guest walks into the door? I don’t start to relax until a certain point whern I can see the glorious end, and all we have to do is dim the lights.
In the event business, one must realize it’s like throwing a theater performance for 4 hours. Immediately following the last guests departure from the event our team is there tearing the party apart to get our items on the truck, washed dried, and repackaged; we might be working on 12 events over the course of the weekend as an example. You can only imagine the team of people that contribute to the success and turnover of all this material. It’s pretty exciting!

The advantage of being in this industry is you learn to handle those things.

How can one get into this industry?
It used to be that people entered the event design business via the flower business. Originally everyone was a florist when they got started including me. The new generation of young people today come at it from a totally different standpoint. Events today are so far beyond what they were 30yrs ago. They can be artists, interior designers, and different kind of artisans that migrate to the industry.
Event design is changing rapidly every single year. The aesthetic that is expected at these events is soaring as a result of so many elements such as today’s media where everyone can see a party instantaneously from London, Russia, Paris all over the world.
To a certain extent it can diminish original creativity.
The Lichtenstein gala for example, that wasn’t table top floral design, it was sculpture on a very grand scale. We do this as often as we can.

Whats do you think keeps clients coming back?
People come to us for good taste and great execution. Taste, design, execution. They know we are innovators and if they are looking for something unique chances are they will be giving us a call. What I hear from clients is that when they walk into one of our events, they can tell Heffernan Morgan did the job.

If you were not in this industry what would you be doing?
I would be a flower farmer.

How do you maintain relationships?
With clients and people in the industry particularly, it’s fairly easy to maintain relationships because you are crossing paths with them frequently at these events. I am also very blessed because most of my clients entertain a lot and I’ve become personal friends with many of them.

One of my dreams is to start in a similar business with nothing and start all over again

*image: Chicago Botanic Garden Antiques & Garden preview

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