Interview - Tim Penrose, owner, Bowden Hostas

By Matthew Appleby, Horticulture Week, Friday 23 March 2012

Tim and Ruth Penrose run Bowden Hostas, which has plans to grow fivefold in size over the next three years. Tim was Britain's youngest funeral director and an award-winning cafe operator. He has big ideas on how to make your nursery profitable by bringing customer service up to date.

Tim Penrose, owner, Bowden Hostas - image: Bowden Hostas

Q: How did you get started in the horticulture industry?
A: I've made three bets in my life. I was kicked out of school for messing around and had a bet with my mate about who would get a job first. He was going to start as a milkman on the Monday so I thought of a job that no-one would apply for - a funeral director. I won that bet. I used to moan to my wife about service in cafes and she said that I should do something about it so in 1990 with £85 we started with the aim of providing the best possible service. Two-and-a-half years later we won the Egon Ronay best teahouse of the year in the UK. Then my father-in-law's nursery came up. People said that there was no way to make a go of it. I regarded that as a challenge. Turnover was £48,000 in 2004 and it will be at £500,000 this year.

Q: Why are you choosing to expand in these difficult economic times?
A: In my view, the recession is a lot of guff. Clearly banks have been in a state but lots of people are talking themselves into a recession and that becomes self-fulfilling. This year, our turnover from 1 January has been more than double last year. So much comes from the driver at the top who deals with the horrible detail that people often don't want to deal with. There's plenty of money around if you can get a good product and you're willing to push.

Q: How can you make the show circuit a success these days?
A: I see people at Chelsea who might be Gold Medal winners but they have as much chance of succeeding in business as Hartlepool winning the FA Cup. We have six guys in suits there taking orders. Other people are looking miserable handing out leaflets. They ask why we are so busy but even if I told them they wouldn't get it. You have to try and be excellent in everything you do. I see Chelsea as a game of two halves. The first is building the best possible display and going for gold - we have won seven in seven years. The second half is taking as many orders as possible. Most nurseries don't bother. In 2011 at Chelsea, we took 98 orders worth £43,500 and no-one else did anywhere near that. We are doing 40 per cent next-day delivery. A competitor offers eight-week delivery and you have to order by fax. They say they'll process an email within two weeks. I like to serve someone the way I'd like to be served.

Q: Why did you decide to buy a fern business?
A: Ferns go so well with hostas. I'd like to say World of Ferns was offered to me first but it was punted around before I bought it. No-one could see the opportunity. Ferns are now 30 per cent of the business.

Q: What can be done to improve the show circuit?
A: I'm not sure that the RHS is managing to change quickly enough. Unfortunately, the exhibitors and the RHS see each other as the opposition but both need each other to survive. The RHS needs to make the shows more of a spectacle but it's easy to say that because everybody thinks they can run someone else's business. It is possible there are too many shows. At Harrogate I'll take £2,000 and Hampton Court Palace £22,000, so which should I concentrate on? I'm not held with great enthusiasm by exhibitors - they think I'm strange or dangerous because I approach things from a different angle. They get worked up when things go wrong. My job is to deal with hassles.

From 1997-99 show figures were double what they are now. That changed because of the internet and because more people are selling hostas and the shows aren't so novel. You have to reinvent yourself. A great display and great plants are not enough. You need customer service and genuine interest in people. We sold £4,500 of plants to a guy with a £12m house at Hampton Court. He told me later he only bought them because I was so enthusiastic. People buy from people they like.

Q: Who do you admire in the business world?
A: Boden and Lakeland really like their customers. We're getting an old-fashioned red dial phone, the "fern line", and if you ring it you get through to a real expert. It's important to love the customer to death.

Q: How will you grow the business further?
A: In three years' time turnover will be £2.5m. We will do that by selling more ferns, hostas and bamboo and continuing acquiring small nurseries. We're in discussion with one at the moment that sells a plant we're interested in. Anyone can buy a business. It's knowing what you're going to do with it that matters. We do everything very differently. That's why we do so well.

1980s: Funeral director
1990-2006: Owner, Hudson's Coffee House, Birmingham
2004: Owner, Bowden Hostas
2007: Awarded a Royal Warrant for hostas from HRH the Prince Of Wales
2011: Bought Rickards Ferns/World of Ferns