Growing up among the watermelon crops and cotton fields of Rio Grande City in South Texas, Coby Neal didn’t have much occasion to learn the floral trade. But that never held him back. Luckily for Neal, the art of floral design was already rooted in him; it’s a trait he comes by naturally. His mother is an avid gardener and flower admirer, and his father, a forest ranger, passed on to Neal a sense of wonderment for the natural world.
“We’d spend six or seven weeks traveling in Colorado, Montana and Utah having campouts when I was a kid,” Neal recalls. “What an experience that was sleeping on the earth floor and looking up and seeing the universe. It’s moments like that give you a true appreciation for nature. And that’s really carried over.”
Though Neal says there was never really a significant floral influence in his young life, he was inextricably drawn to the flower business. By the age of 19, as he pursued several art degrees at what was then Southwest Texas State, Neal got a job sweeping floors at William’s Flowers, a small San Marcos florist. There, he was given the opportunity to learn the trade, gaining experience in floral design and floral sculpture. He took to the art form immediately, a realization that somewhat startled the young, modest Neal.
“The floral industry is an extremely hard business to make a career in. I had never had any art classes before I was in college, and as a kid, there was not a lot of room for me to be myself and be creative,” Neal conveys. “Flowers provided me with that security. As an art student, I was not the greatest, so I was destined to have flowers become my medium.”
Neal also taught, everything from second-grade art to more advanced high-school classes, but the more he involved himself in the art and teaching worlds, the more he understood his talents and passion lay in the world of flowers. In the early part of his career, Neal would visit flower shows and awed by some of the magnificent floral spectacles there, would then return home and recreate the designs.
“I think right away I realized I had a talent for floral design,” he says. “It was just love at first sight.”
After college, Neal continued to teach, but always maintained at least a part-time job in a floral shop, savoring those few hours he’d spend among the rose petals, chrysanthemums and lilies. Much of his career, he divulges, has revolved around the opportunity to create, be involved with nature and enhance other people’s lives with the beauty of flowers. Nothing seems to have been impossible for this floral prodigy, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to tackle outrageously difficult projects with remarkable ease. (On more than one occasion, Neal has been asked to recreate such masterpieces as the Taj Mahal with flowers.)
A UNIQUE TALENT BLOSSOMS
Flowers weren’t simply something Neal was drawn to. In the difficult times in his life, they’ve been his addiction and his escape. Growing up gay in South and Central Texas, it was difficult for him to be comfortable in his own skin, and he struggled with finding his place among an American value system that 30 and 40 years ago did not accept him. Neal, who, today lives with and cares for his 95-year-old mother, didn’t even come out to her until five years ago. Stung by his inability to find his “acceptable” place in society, Neal married a woman shortly after college. Though they eventually split, the birth of their son, Spencer, continues to be a source of great pride for Neal.
Following his career down the floral- design path, Neal and his wife moved to the Southeast Texas town of Floresville, where he opened The Flower Basket, a small-town floral shop that gave him the opportunity to further test his skills. Neal ultimately sold the shop (though it still exists) and took a job at a family-owned Austin florist before moving back to San Marcos to open Flowers and Friends.
But it was a job at the nationally recognized Professional Food Management service that would dramatically change his life and career. PFM, which had won the food contract at Southwest Texas, hired Neal, putting him in charge of floral design and décor at the university – a major endeavor that required the hiring of 10 designers upon Neal’s departure from the job.
While with PFM, Neal had the one-of-a-kind honor of designing the flowers and décor for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday party, which was hosted by the university. It was an opportunity not afforded to many floral designers, and the appointment instilled in Neal a greater sense of his talent and skill.
He also traveled extensively throughout the country for the PFM job, creating floral designs for businesses and parties with which the company had contracts. He jokes that he would never see daylight until the party was over, but it’s hardly an embellishment. Once, at a five-day event in Wisconsin, Neal used the same flowers to recreate new arrangements each day, wowing attendees with his beautiful, characteristic designs and exceptional ingenuity.
“That was a really great learning experience for me as far as organization goes,” Neal remembers. “I was really challenged to have to produce all of this floral art all by myself. But I truly loved it.”
When Austin’s open-air shopping center, The Arboretum, opened in the 1980s, Neal was driven to start his own business there. Though Floral Reflections was burdened with the pains of a struggling local economy, the shop was instrumental in bringing a new floral look to Austin. Neal’s capacious, blooming arrangements of tropical flowers could often be found gracing the lobbies of the Wyndham Hotel, the Marriott at the Capitol, the Four Seasons Hotel Austin and Barton Creek Country Club. But despite that success, Neal closed the shop after only a few years and, unsure of his next move, took a job in research and development at the Marketplace, H-E-B’s precursor to Central Market.
As a consummate leader and creative force in Central Texas’ floral industry, the dedicated and gifted Neal soon made his mark on the area’s largest and most successful grocery chain.
“I think I was the first one in supermarket history to show $98,000 worth of flowers in 48 hours,” Neal says. “H-E-B was a great stepping stone for me and I learned a lot there. But I definitely faced some pretty major obstacles. I would hear all these whispers like, ‘Who’s the new gay man coming to the flower department?’ That was tough. I think I really struggled and had to work hard to prove my name.”
By the mid-1990s, Neal had moved back to Austin, where, once again, he opened a flower shop. But this time, thanks to an unscrupulous business partner, the shop faced dire circumstances. After his business partner left him with no proceeds and little else to keep the business afloat, Neal “found himself under a rock,” as he puts it, and struggled to fulfill the 350 wedding contracts he’d committed to for the year.
But, with the help of newfound assistant Beth O’Reilly, a schooled sculptor and talented floral designer in her own right, Neal’s business slowly picked back up. Still, despite all of Neal’s experience and expertise, he and O’Reilly faced a significant amount of hardship as they tried to establish the newly named Flower Studio in Austin. The pair found a tiny commercial space off Ben White Boulevard, turned the back room into a cooler and even hired a transient off the street as their flower delivery driver.
“We definitely struggled,” Neal says, noting that his current sense of humor about the situation some- what belies his painful memories of the time. “We had absolutely no money, and I’m not sure why Beth stuck with me. I think she just believed in me, which was pretty amazing.”
O’Reilly, who calls Neal “a survivor,” has been his business partner ever since. She admits that Neal is a kind of father figure to her and that the two can now “kind of read each other’s minds.” They currently operate the modern incarnation of the wildly successful Flower Studio, a shop employing an additional 13 designers in a three-building campus of sorts on West Sixth Street.
“We’ve seen growth every single year,” she says. “We’ve reached a point where our clientele is very distinctive. They know what they want and we’re able to create all of that and more for them.” Though weddings make up the bulk of The Flower Studio’s business – about 60 percent – Neal and his fellow floral designers travel throughout Texas and other states to work their magic at corporate and family events, holiday parties, and trade shows and conventions. “We really want to be known for our uniqueness, and be able to expand our business to a national level,” says O’Reilly.
THE BEAUTYOF GROWTH
The future looks nothing but bright for The Flower Studio, and Neal says he’s got many ideas for improving both his business and the floral design industry. Within the next year, The Flower Studio will embark on a rebranding campaign, launch a new website featuring interactive videos and completely revamp its image.
“The Internet is providing a tremendous tool in where the flower industry is going,” Neal suggests. “We hope to offer a great shopping cart service on our website that will allow people from all over the country to order directly from us.”
Neal is a kind-hearted and truly caring individual whose honest and gentle demeanor quickly puts clients at ease. His mindfulness and consideration of others is immediately noticeable and displayed in a manner not often found in modern society. And for an artist who has been sharpening his craft for more than 40 years, he’s devoid of any arrogance whatsoever.
Indeed, Neal, who has accumulated numerous noteworthy local and national awards for his floral design and maintains the highest level of industry distinctions, places a lot of importance on his and O’Reilly’s ability to educate others in the floral industry.
“We want to be perceived as credible, professional people with a great deal of artistic talent,” Neal declares. “But we also are excited about bringing education and knowledge to other florists. That’s so important for the future of the industry.”
As such, the designers will head to Kansas City next July for an international symposium in which they will present an unrivaled multimedia flower display, an interactive stage show that includes elements of film, spoken word, dance and some of the most ravishing flowers the world has ever seen.
“It’s a message about the human experience and how flowers translate that experience as we go through our lives,” O’Reilly says. “The art of flowers is just as viable as art in museums, and I think we’re elevating floral design to high art. This symposium will be the highlight of our career.”