He had retired early, but his love for plants still called.
By Peter Binzen
The other day, a 48-foot tractor-trailer rumbled to a stop at Philadelphia Houseplant Wholesalers Inc. at 1233 Bainbridge St. with a delivery of tropical plants from Florida. The shipment contained about 1,300 plants, ranging from ones in four-inch pots to others 10 feet tall. There were bamboo trees and rubber trees, sago palms and snake plants, ficus corkscrews and Birds of Paradise. On and on. Several times every month, Northeast Alternative Transportation in Homestead, Fla., sends a truck loaded with tropical plants on the 1,100-mile trip to Bainbridge Street.
Most of those plants had been personally selected by Brooklyn-born Glenn Behrman, 52, who spent more than 25 years in the plant business in North Jersey and New York. Behrman made enough money to retire at 40. But being "bored to death" in New York, he traveled to Southeast Asia, where he spent seven years on other ventures.
On returning home, he and his wife, Montarop "Koi" Unahaka, 28, a native of Bangkok, drove around the United States for four months looking for a place to start their business. In July 2001, they opened a 13,000-square-foot warehouse and garden center in a section of South Philadelphia never before known for its horticulture.
Behrman now flies to Florida every three weeks to visit 40 nurseries in the Homestead area. After he tags the plants he wants, they are trucked here for sale to hotels, restaurants, flower shops and other outlets. "Glenn really pumps plants out," said Cindy Kinder, owner-operator of Northeast Alternative Transportation. "He loves selling the plants, and he loves coming down here and buying them. He takes the best of what the nurseries have."
In only 15 months, Behrman, who hasn't lost his Flatbush accent, appears to have made his mark here. Twenty palm trees and smaller plants in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and on the sidewalk outside the hotel came from him, as did the hand-painted urns in which the 12-foot palms were placed. Behrman imported the urns from China. He supplied plants for this year's Philadelphia Automobile Show, and his products are often featured at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Although he and his wife opened for business as wholesalers and plant brokers, they now handle retail sales as well. Earlier this month, Behrman ordered about 1,200 Christmas trees from Nova Scotia and upstate Pennsylvania for delivery in early December.
His firm's first-year revenue was "a little under $500,000," Behrman said, adding that sales are steadily increasing. "And nobody knows we're here," he said. "Business by word of mouth is phenomenal."
Behrman employs two full-time workers. When he needs extra help to unload hundreds of tropical plants from the Florida tractor-trailer, he hires men from the Ready, Willing & Able homeless shelter down the street at 1217 Bainbridge. He pays them $6 an hour.
Although Behrman never faced homelessness, he acknowledges having had problems as a teenager in New York. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and found himself in and out of trouble. He prefers not to discuss that period in his life, saying only: "I was in trouble a lot. I had a very rough growing-up."
By the age of 20, however, he was living in New Haven, Conn., selling frozen food. He and a partner opened a plant store there. His partner's father underwrote a $5,000 loan to get them started. Behrman got married, and his wife ran the tiny shop. When his partner left, Behrman paid off the debt and owned the business. He quit his frozen-food job and devoted his full time to plants.
After a year or two, he sold the New Haven shop for about $15,000, moved back to New York, and opened a larger plant store in Paramus, N.J. He had scant competition, and did well. "Plant stores didn't exist at that time," he said. "Flower shops sold six-inch philodendrons, that was it." He called his store the Plant Shed, and he helped friends open five places like it in North Jersey and New York.
To stock these stores with tropical plants, Behrman began going to Florida. At first, he encountered stiff resistance from anti-Semitic plant growers there, he said. "I had a pocketful of money, and people wouldn't sell to me," he said. "All these red-neck farmers would tell me to my face: 'I don't want to sell to no Jew from New York.' " "That's exactly how things were then," Behrman said. "But I kept going back, and eventually I did business with every one of them."
In the mid-1970s, Behrman sold his Paramus store for $90,000, and opened a larger plant store on Manhattan's East Side. "It was a success from day one," Behrman said. At this point, however, his marriage failed. "When I started making money, it fell apart," he said.
In the years that followed, Behrman built the business, and his sales boomed. He sold the Plant Shed in 1990. "A lot of cash was involved," he noted. He wouldn't say how much. Jay Casiano, one of the owners of the company that bought the business, said Behrman had been "doing tons of money." He, too, declined to give the purchase price, but said that, even now, the annual revenue of his firm was "a couple million dollars shy" of what Behrman was making.
From 1990 to 1994, Behrman was retired. A divorced man in New York, he played tennis and partied. Boredom set in. "I was desperately trying to find something to do," he said.
He became the sole distributor of Snapple in New York City when the firm was just "two Russians in Brooklyn struggling to sell soda." As Snapple sales increased, Behrman's distributorship was worth millions - but he had already sold out.
"I missed that one," he said. "It wasn't my kind of business."
When the United States lifted its trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, Behrman flew to Saigon looking for business opportunities. None of his ventures in Vietnam panned out, but his contacts in Cambodia and Thailand led to the creation of a company that sold Asian food over the Internet. Behrman said the Web site was "never a rousing success," and he sold his stake for about $150,000. Meanwhile, his personal life improved after he met a young Thai woman everyone called Koi.
He brought her to the United States, and married her in New York in August 2000. They returned to Southeast Asia, thinking they might stay there but soon flew back to America.
Behrman planned on getting back into the plant business, but neither he nor his bride wanted to live in New York. So they set out on a 16-state odyssey to find somewhere else to settle. They traveled as far west as Texas without finding what they wanted, and headed back. Leaving Cherry Hill one day, they faced a decision. A left turn would take them toward New York and a right toward Philadelphia.
Koi had never been to Philadelphia. So they turned right and crossed into this city. "The rest is history," Behrman said. "We're plugged in here and loving it." Koi said: "I love Philly. The people are so relaxed, gentle and friendly."
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