Alona Florenz’s wanted to be an English teacher. She loved literature; it was her passion. And, as with most everything in her life, she worked hard and succeeded sharing this love with others.
Florenz, a first-generation American, was born in Carson City, Nevada. Her Russian parents immigrated to the U.S. before her birth. Her parents, she says, were a “huge influence” on her work ethic and subsequent success. Her deceased father, Alex Zaitzeff, was born in Kiev and came here after World War II. Her 71-year-old mother, Masha, left Moscow in the early 1970s, first to Ecuador and then on to the United States. She lives in Swanzey.
“They were and are a big part of my life, teaching me how to persevere, work hard and succeed,” says Florenz.
Florenz earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Williams College and started teaching middle school students after graduation. On all measurable levels she was a success, and she made the bold decision to travel to Estonia and teach English in the small Baltic nation.
It was not the experience she expected, the 39-year-old from Keene says.
“I was there for maybe two weeks, and it was such a hard environment,” she says. “I was there to teach English but was dealing with culture shock, among other things.”
She decided to return to the U.S., even knowing schools stateside had already started and jobs would be filled.
“So, I had to change course,” she says. “I felt it was a sign. I left teaching.”
The soul-searching that goes into closing such career doors does not mean others don’t open, particularly for those determined like Florenz. She enrolled in the prestigious MIT Sloan School of Management, where she received a master’s degree in business administration.
Florenz landed at C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc., in 2008, and worked her way from senior financial analyst in the financial planning and analysis division to vice president of corporate development.
C&S is the largest wholesale grocery supply company in the country with headquarters in Keene. The company supplies independent supermarkets, chain stores and institutions with more than 140,000 different products, according to the company’s website.
During this time, Mark, Florenz’s husband, was working for Liberty Mutual as an actuary, a job that compiles and analyzes statistics to calculate insurance risks and premiums. He, too, was going through a transformation. Leaving his job, he became a farmer.
Mark and Alona own and operate Archway Farm, a historical 80-acre spread on Arch Street in Keene. Mark raises pigs and sells pork products at the Monadnock Co-op and other local stores, as well as to area restaurants. Archway is an Animal Welfare Approved farm, meaning its products are certified to have come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.
“We wanted to live in a more rural community, and we just love Keene,” says Florenz; the couple has two sons, Dmitri, 7, and Leo, 5. “This is such a supportive community, and our kids love it.”
The switch from teaching didn’t mean she couldn’t bring education skills with her to C&S. Though it wasn’t her major, mathematics was also one of Florenz’s favorite subjects. Now, it’s “fundamental to what I do,” she says.
She described her job as “perfect.”
“I love it. It’s the best I’ve ever had,” she says.
Mike Newbold, executive vice president of strategy and corporate development for C&S, nominated Florenz for a Trendsetter Award.
“Alona is one of the finest people I have ever worked with,” said Newbold, calling her positive and highly responsive.
“She has a tremendously keen intellect to go along with her pragmatism and business sense,” he added. “Alona serendipitously joined C&S a number of years ago, and we could not imagine the company without her.”
Florenz says she is flattered by the Trendsetter honor.
“This work is very challenging,” she says, “but as a leader, you succeed with those around you. We do the work together, and I have a great team here.”
At C&S, Florenz evaluates and analyzes all significant customer transactions, including merger and acquisition opportunities, she says. She is on the steering committee for the Women’s Informal Networking Group, a source of encouragement and empowerment for women forging careers at C&S. She also works with the company’s “Leadership Development Program,” which aims to help foster the careers of new college students.
“Alona believes that investing time in these programs is a meaningful way to encourage colleagues to be more engaged in their work and their community,” said Newbold.
Her efforts to position C&S strategically in new ways and in new markets across the country “is important to the growth and evolution of the company,” he said.
Florenz never abandoned her passion for education. She serves on the board of directors for the Montessori Schoolhouse, which provides toddler and preschool education. She also serves as the school’s treasurer, helping to develop its annual budget.
“She was instrumental in helping the school navigate options for refinancing its mortgage, and she also serves on fundraising and outdoor classroom activities,” said Newbold.
Florenz recently volunteered with the nonprofit Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which mentors students and helps them develop skills in financial literacy, budget planning, management and professional acumen. She served on a panel when students pitched ideas for their own businesses, Newbold noted.
Florenz says she is committed to fostering and nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.
“Success depends fully on the people that work for you and with you,” says Florenz. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to do what I say I’m going to do, and that can’t be accomplished, especially not in this line of work, without being surrounded by quality people.”
Leadership is all about taking chances, Florenz says.
“You have to take a chance,” she says, perhaps reflective of her decision to leave Estonia and do something different. “If you work hard, you can find your path. Remember: The only shots you miss are the shots you don’t take.”