Success unlimited: Party-planning sisters harness creativity

Success unlimited: Party-planning sisters harness creativity

By Diane Mastrull

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Birthday parties featuring James Taylor, Elton John, and the Beach Boys. Exhibits of the works of Paul Cezanne and Salvador Dali. Even a Kennedy wedding.

Arrangements Unlimited Inc. has had a planning role in all of them. The King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, company also has been featured on the Discovery Channel and celebrated by some of the region’s most discerning CEOs and fusspots.

No one is more stunned than the owners themselves.

“It’s amazing,” marveled Lois Caplan, 68, president of the business she runs with her sister, Lynne Brownstein, 74, vice president. “I can’t figure out how we got from there to here.”

By there, she meant the original plan in the 1970s, when, as young mothers, they had an idea to brighten people’s lives with weekly bouquets of flowers delivered to their doorsteps.

“Our goal was to buy flowers and sell them for twice as much and have our husbands pay for the gas,” Brownstein said.

Filling up the tank is no longer an issue for a company that has gone from a job a month to more than 100 a year, some of them the region’s most prominent affairs and costing a few million dollars. (Arrangements Unlimited does simple dinner parties, too.)

It’s a story of improbable achievement considering the founders’ far-from-grandiose original concept, an internal financial crisis that threatened the company’s existence 15 years ago, and a cringe-worthy early operating strategy.

“Our business plan was: what anybody asked for,” Brownstein said.

Floral arranging and event planning are not what the sisters envisioned growing up in Havertown as the two oldest of three daughters born to Norman and Anne Finkelstein. Their father was a scrap dealer specializing in automotive-rebuilding supplies. Their mother was a homemaker with a talent for painting.

After graduating from Haverford High School, Brownstein went to Pennsylvania State University for a year before marrying the next-door neighbor she met in fourth grade, Jerald Brownstein. She worked as a medical technician until she became a mother of three.

Caplan earned a medical-technology degree from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, now University of the Sciences. She worked in the endocrine lab at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where Howie Caplan, the man she would marry, was attending medical school. They have two children.

Brownstein’s husband traveled a lot in the steel business. A trip to Switzerland in the mid-1970s planted the seed for the flower-delivery business. “Wherever you went, they sold fresh flowers,” Brownstein recalled telling Caplan when she returned home.

Soon, they were distributing fliers in mailboxes around Fort Washington, offering doorstep delivery every Friday for $4, including tax. Within a year, they had 200 clients. When a gas crisis complicated the ease and cost of those deliveries, another opportunity emerged: weddings.

But the big break came around 1980 at a Young Presidents’ Organization dinner in Center City, when a local executive asked if such events had to be so boring. Brownstein’s husband said his wife and sister-in-law did “fabulous” affairs.

Soon after, the women — with no business cards and what Caplan called an “embarrassing” business name, Pretty Bunches — were hired by that McNeil Consumer Healthcare exec to organize an awards dinner in Phoenix for 500 people.

Next, an introduction to a major food-industry figure and Philadelphia philanthropist — Herb Lotman, founder of Keystone Foods, a major supplier to McDonald’s — led to jobs for Arrangements Unlimited all over the world. Lotman, who died in 2014, and his wife, Karen, first used the small company for the 1986 wedding of daughter Shelly Fisher.

A founder of Hope Paige Designs LLC, a West Conshohocken-based company specializing in stylish medical ID bracelets, Fisher is now as steadfast a customer as her parents were. Most recently, she hired Arrangements Unlimited to put on her company’s holiday party, where the theme was cake decorating and the floral arrangements looked real enough to eat.

“They think out of the box and do really exciting things,” said Fisher, who entrusted her daughter’s wedding to Arrangements Unlimited and its staff of eight full-timers and 10 to 15 part-timers. The company’s wedding portfolio also includes the 1991 nuptials of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s son, Maxwell.

Of the two sisters, Caplan is more detail-oriented; Brownstein is more of a risk-taker. They don’t always get along.

“It’s very complicated, but so are all relationships,” Caplan said.

In 2001 came the devastating discovery that vendors were not being paid by the company’s controller, who is now an ex-son-in-law of Caplan. The sisters went without salaries for three years until they paid all who were owed.

Despite “everybody talking about you,” Caplan said, Arrangements Unlimited endured. She credited its success to loyal customers and “so many employees who have stayed with us through good times and bad.” Claire Steinberg, the 94-year-old receptionist, has been with the company nearly 40 years. Dorothy Wilson, whom Brownstein called “queen of all that is beautiful,” has worked there 30 years.

And the stage is set for the business to remain in the family should the sisters retire.

Caplan’s son, Dan, 42, joined the company 12 years ago, formalizing what began as involuntary participation. When he was 2, he rode in the backseat of his mother’s car while she delivered flowers.

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