Tony Graaf remembers being somewhat surprised by his wife Judy’s decision to join him at this year’s American Institute of Floral Designers symposium in Seattle.
She announced the desire to attend by his side a few weeks before the 50th annual event – held July 1-5 – but it wasn’t until they were actually at the symposium that he realized just what was driving her interest.
“It all made sense once we knew that it was happening,” Graaf said, referring to the unexpected presentation of a lifetime achievement award.
“It was a total shock,” Graaf said. “It turns out a number of my peers in the industry nominated me and kept it secret since January. She was in on the nomination.”
It would be difficult to argue that Graaf, 67, doesn’t have a lifetime of experience in the industry. It spans more than four decades, to when he was 14, growing up in Holland, and told his mother he would love to go into the floral business. At the time, he didn’t know what that would look like. Only that it was what he wanted.
She found him a job within 24 hours.
The next big step came in his early 20s. Graaf remembers wanting to travel, and reading about an articling opportunity in Germany. He applied, however, “they didn’t have any room,” he said.
“…but they had one opening in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
He married his first wife, Ann, in 1975 and the couple opened Ann’s Floral Boutique in Langley that October. Over the years, they sold the shop, adopted two children from Haiti, and Graaf became immersed in the wholesale business.
“Ultimately, I became more and more responsible for our customers in the wholesale setting,” he said.
“And I loved that. That became my passion for the next 35 years.”
After Ann passed away 10 years ago, Graaf “never thought it would happen again” – referring to a new relationship. He described Judy as “a wonderful lady who, imagine that, loves flowers.”
Helping customers learn continues to be gratifying for Graaf, who books floral designers from around the world for customer-education programs. Major programs are offered twice yearly, he said.
“For this September, I’ve booked a former world champion from Sweden and three more from the U.S. and Canada,” he said.
He named product development as the biggest change he’s witnessed in the industry, and said he feels “blessed” to have been part of the evolution.
His passion and respect for the basics – the flowers themselves – hasn’t wavered.
“I only work with flowers, I don’t make them – God does,” he said, repeating a phrase he has told customers many times over the years.
“We don’t create them, we just get to work with them, which is incredible.”
World-renowned floral artist Hitomi Gillam presented Graaf with his lifetime-achievement award. It recognizes “his commitment to floral education and industry commitment to AIFD.”
Ernie Klassen, owner of Ashberry &Logan and president of the White Rock Business Improvement Association, said Graaf “definitely deserves the award.”
“He’s done a lot of volunteer and extra things in the industry. It really is recognizing that part of his career.”