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Profile: A Tree Grows in Their Factory

A Tree Grows in Their Factory

Couple are a natural for artificial plant business as they produce customized foliage displays for hotels, restaurants and corporate offices worldwide.





By SAMANTHA LEE

Staff Reporter

Susie Lewis remembers the moment she knew her business was ready to grow. Using her living room as a makeshift workspace for her artificial foliage company, Lewis’ then 5-year old son complained that the 9-foot ficus trees being prepared for delivery were blocking his view of the TV. “Mommy, I can’t see my cartoons,” she recalls him saying.

Now housed comfortably in a 6,500-foot office and production facility, Agoura Hills-based Make Be-Leaves has created a niche in the hospitality industry by producing custom artificial trees and floral arrangements for hotels and restaurants using silk leaves and real wood stalks. Clients include the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, Casino de Deauville in France and the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne, Australia. The company also creates arrangements for government and corporate offices, a business Lewis said she wants to expand.

Along with her husband Jack, who retired as an L.A. firefighter in 1998 and now works full-time in the business, the couple started the company 19 years ago after failing at their first venture, an exercise consulting firm aimed at corporations.

At the time, walking through the lobbies of corporate offices, she noticed how unhealthy the live plants looked. Remembering how an artificial ficus tree purchased for her mother had fooled all the guests at a Christmas party, Susie Lewis believed there was a market.

Silk and wood

At that time, most artificial plants were plastic and fake looking. But using silk leaves attached to real wood stalks produced a realistic mimic.

“I always ask skeptical clients to choose between a real plant and a silk and they can never tell the difference,” says Roy Sklarin, owner of Los Angeles-based Sklarin Interiors, among the interior designers that has hired Make Be Leaves for projects.

Lewis, who has a B.A. in studio arts, was able to get business by developing relationships with interior designers. By starting small and working out of their home, she and her husband were able to keep overhead costs low and reinvest everything they made.

The Lewises now have a dozen employees. Plants are customized for each client, giving the company an edge over competitors that produce “cookie cutter” trees, Susie Lewis said. Make Be Leaves begins with realistic silk leaves purchased from Asia. Wood for the stalks is imported from as far away as Africa.

Starting from the top, wire branches of leaves are drilled into, glued or sometimes welded to the trunk. Then the tips are whittled and tapered to reflect authentic foliage.

“Anything that is live you can mimic,” Susie Lewis said. The most life-like are preserved palms, which include real palm fronds and trunk pieces from actual trees. Artificial Japanese maple also look natural, reflecting subtle differences in colors.

Larger plants, like a banana tree or birds of paradise, are tougher to copy. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the majestic look of a large plant,” Susie Lewis said.

The Luxor used 18-foot artificial olive trees from Make Be Leaves to adorn its buffet area.

“No light and a busy buffet area made it difficult to use live plants,” said Michelle Head, an interior designer with Pasadena’s Dougall Design who worked with Lewis on the project.

On most projects, the company is responsible for the creation, delivery and installation of the plants. “What sets the company apart is their customization,” said Meri Meis of Meri Meis Associates, an interior design firm in Moorpark.

Make Be Leaves gets from $12,000 to $30,000 to install plants for most hotel projects. A larger project, such as one done for the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia that included setting up 200 palm trees, brought in $90,000.

Sept. 11 effect

Revenues in 2001 were $700,000, down from $850,000 in 2000. Jack Lewis said the drop was due to the slowdown in the hotel industry after Sept. 11.

Plus, competition has heated up. Las Vegas-based Plantworks has the benefit of being located near the hotels and casinos. While Las Vegas remains a core part of business, the company is moving to get more government office and health-care business, such as hospitals.

The couple admits to being slow in developing a business plan another reason for the still-low revenues. Much of their first 18 years involved “knee-jerk, reactionary-type planning,” Jack Lewis said. “But we’ve stumbled and found our niche as we grew,” he said.


PROFILE: Make Be-Leaves

Year Founded: 1983

Core Business: Artificial foliage and floral arrangements for hotels, restaurants, and offices

Revenues in 2000: $850,000

Revenues in 2001: $700,000

Employees in 2000: 12

Employees in 2001: 12

Goal: To obtain more government and health-care business.

Driving force: To make each project as customized as possible.

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