Caroline Marshall – Foster meets Richard Eagleton of McQueens Flowers and discovers why he thinks florists should wear capes!
Meeting Richard Eagleton is a joy! Not just because he is jolly good company – he has insights on so many things like teaching me I’ve been living the 15 minute City life for years and putting the Courtauld Gallery on my must see list - but because he talks such good business sense as well.
And whilst he may head up what is arguably the world’s most famous florist – McQueens Flowers which has bases in London, New York and Seoul and Hayford & Rhodes which was acquired back in 2020 - he is completely down to earth, has no airs and graces and is totally fascinated by what every florist is doing be they big or small, in London or out of London – something I saw first-hand when he joined our Good Florist Event in April.
And yet he openly admits that when he was first approached to take on the role of CEO he laughed. “Why on earth would I get into the flower industry – I’d worked with luxury brand names all my life. Floristry and flowers didn’t seem to fit my style or experience base. Obviously I love them but work with them?!”
It actually took seven long months before he said yes. Seven months in which he researched the sector within an inch of its life and realised how exciting it could be and why he now reckons that it’s his best job ever.
“Truth is no one really understands what goes into this industry or what makes it happen. And I do think in some ways it is its own worst enemy. Ignoring all the online players, we have a silent army of five thousand plus brilliant shop owners and studios all focussing on their own businesses. The problem is with no effective leadership, industry plan or coherent group working on their behalf collectively they are voiceless.
My fear is that without a plan or voice the industry’s dreams simply can’t happen and without more pride and self-belief in themselves, the legions of brilliant florists won’t be appreciated in the way they should be or attract the new talent it so desperately needs.”
And that really frustrates Richard. Because he is passionate about what the industry could achieve; indeed, as he so eloquently put it at the Good Florist Event in Bristol earlier this year, (McQueens Flowers are members of Good Florist Guide) as far as he is concerned local florists are true, cape wearing local heroes and deserve to be heard and appreciated a whole lot more ... and make more money!
“What I have learned in the last four years is that flowers are the most beautiful medicine. They are preventative and restorative health care on a stem. I know florists can create a story with flowers that make every event special and unique – we actually use ‘telling stories with flowers’ as our corporate strapline – and that what florists do each and every day is nothing short of magical.”
But ... and he admits it’s a big but ... Richard is deeply concerned that whilst florists will happily talk about design, when it comes to talking about the business side of things they seem to switch off. And that scares him.
“The truth is that the flower industry is not going anywhere fast. Yes you can read reports about the halcyon growth of people like Bloom & Wild but intrinsically the sector is unlikely to grow at anything more than 1 to 2% and with talk of recession possibly not even that.
Yes life events will always happen and this year weddings are at unprecedented levels as couples play Covid Cancellation Catchup, but there are no new categories and no real signs of growth.
Contract work has become a more commodity purchase where price leads and events are pretty much the same. You may be talking a big budget but getting the business is every bit as cut throat as the high street and you usually have to wait 30-60 days for payment!”
And Richard worries that too many florists are limiting their own growth by getting wrapped up in the day to day instead of stepping back and looking at what they are doing, how they need to do it and – possibly most importantly – allowing other people to take part.
“It’s hard to let go and focus on growth. But you’ve got to recognise your own values and strengths and not clip your wings by trying to do everything – you’ll either burn out or simply not achieve what you could.”
And this is not said from a position of strength or arrogance but practical experience. Because whilst McQueens balance sheet may have more noughts than most, in truth that is the only difference between them and any florist shop anywhere in the world.
Just like anyone reading this article they face staff shortages, have to battle the sustainability dilemma, worry about supply lines, the cost of goods, finding and retaining customers in a competitive market oh and how to deal with a pandemic!
Because on 23rd March 2020 Richard - a mere 16 months into the role - didn’t just watch the London operation come to a grinding halt but simultaneously New York and Seoul too. By his own admission it was staggeringly hard. “I cried - I’m not ashamed to admit it. But I took the British approach; made a cup of tea and got on with it.”
Which meant Richard rolling his sleeves up and doing anything he could to keep things going. “Our online presence was already strong which helped enormously as the orders just came flooding in. I did deliveries, wrote the cards – that was a real eye opener!! – kept in touch with the team, made sure the finances were in good order, basically did whatever I could to get us through it and out the other side.
Oh yes and use the unique time to take the whole business apart and put it back together!
“It was non-negotiable that we vowed that we would keep everyone who was brilliant but that didn’t mean we could or would keep everyone who was on payroll. Every single person was assessed and then decisions made. Hard but necessary for survival and actually led by the team as much as me. The vision was that we wanted to be ‘The Best Flower Business to Work For’ which meant having the best staff because brilliant people don’t like working with idiots!”
But whilst it may sound harsh Richard is convinced that having the right team is essential and looking after them even more so. “We took on a Chief People Officer which is totally different to HR and a Mental Health Practitioner because you need to make sure your team are happy ... not just financially but mentally as well – that was a big learning step from Covid.”
And the staffing philosophy doesn’t end there. Richard is determined to try and encourage new people into the industry, especially amongst those who may not have thought about it or have the same opportunities as some. “It’s a work in progress but bluntly the florist industry does not represent the world outside. We are not diversified, we are not as inclusive as we should be. That’s why I really want our Academy concept to work. We have 16 Bursaries a year that give people a chance to train in our flower school and experience the wonderful world of floristry who may otherwise be excluded or don’t believe it is possible to be part of it.”
And sustainability is another hot topic. Yes McQueens Flowers are already part of the Butterfly Mark, a dedicated kite mark for luxury brands but again it’s work in progress as Richard explains. “Quite frankly anyone who says no imports is being naïve. We couldn’t run our business without them – that would put our staff out of work. What we do – and working to the principle of People, Planet, Profit - is source everything we can locally and then make sure we only buy from overseas growers who follow the right and best practices which helps their workers have a better life and creates a balanced score card.”
I ask him what advice he’d give to a florist starting out. “It sounds like a cliche but think big, dream big and remember you will only be limited by your own limited ambition. That’s not trying to simplify it but I genuinely think the only thing that stops people is themselves. As I said right at the beginning what florists do is nothing short of magical ... we not only need to remind ourselves but we need to get that message out there much more.”
Meet Richard at Good Florist Event in October
Notes from the Editor
Given my first pen ran out half way though the interview you can understand when I say Richard is a man with a zillion and one ideas and then some – I could have written twice as much and still have left bits out!
His passion for his chosen industry is phenomenal and whilst it is not without challenges – he does after all have a Board to report to – you get the feeling that this is a man who will never stop thinking of ideas and ways to boost the flower – and particularly the florist sector if he can.
Certainly his keynote speech at our April Event left people sitting straighter, feeling better and leaving the room with a spring in their step; personally I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the delegates at our October event. If you want to be part of it book soon ... there are only 80 places left and they won't stay left for long!!
The McQueens Flowers style
From gorgeous hand tieds to major installations and weddings to drool over there is a certain je ne sais quoi about all of the McQueens Flowers installations .... this is just a taster ... follow them on Insta or Facebook for daily inspiration.