I STARTED PLANNING my business from the age of 16. I was interested in gardening and thought I could make a living out of it. It was as simple as that – how naive I was.
I had the idea that I could sell seed by mail order, and I could see that pre-packed plants was a growing trend in the likes of the UK and the Netherlands.
I officially registered the company just three months before my 21st birthday and we ran our first mail order advert in 1977. We got one response, which put me off a bit – but only temporarily.
Initially when we set up the business, we launched as a wholesale nursery, growing perennial plants and supplying to supermarkets.
Our first customer was Three Guys, which was the early version of Aldi. Then Quinnsworth became our biggest customer, and eventually they asked us to distribute its flower bulbs.
I remember at first they asked me to meet with their Dutch supplier – the largest bulb company in the world – and I met with him in Dun Laoghaire. I was 22 and he looked me up and down and said, “I’m not giving you my business.”
I went back to Quinnsworth to say he wouldn’t let us distribute for him, but I asked them to give me three weeks while I came up with a plan.
So I went to Holland and spent a week knocking on doors. We started doing business with one of the companies I met there and supplying Quinnsworth’s flower bulbs. It mushroomed from there.
We have developed into a traditional mail-order company and were the first Irish gardening company to do online sales – actually we were one of the first Irish companies of any kind to sell online.
We now represent five of the top 10 horticultural brands in the world in Ireland, and we still do business with that Dutch bulb company three decades later.
When we started our nursery business, I went to visit Bloom’s in the UK and Alan Bloom – one of the icons of horticulture – showed me around.
I was a guy in my early 20s from Ireland, but he was kind enough to at least give me a tour. He had 115 people working for him at the time and the total nursery industry in Ireland at the time had less than 100.
Gardening in Ireland was not very big, which meant we were at the cutting edge when we chose to pre-pack plants for supermarkets. We opened five garden centres for Quinnsworth when they still weren’t very common, and we supplied all their nursery plants.
Then, in 1988, we opened our first store on South Anne Street and did our first catalogue that year. It was a big jump for us – but I think I’ve always been a bit foolhardy. It was not necessarily a good time and the economy wasn’t in great shape.
But at that stage there were three garden shops on the northside of the city and none on the southside, so there was an opportunity. We’ve survived since then and opened another shop on Mary Street.
At one stage there were 15 garden shops in Dublin, and now we’re one of the last remaining traditional garden shop in the country. By that, I mean a shop that focuses on seeds, bulbs and plants.
We’re not a destination garden centre where people go for a day out. We’re a place where people go for the core things you use in gardening.
Building a brand
The Mr Middleton persona came about because I needed a brand that gave an impression that I knew what I was doing. When you’re in your 20s you want people to think you know what you’re about.
I wanted to show people that I was experienced and that the business had stability. These are the things people want in gardening. They want to go somewhere that they know and that they can trust the person they’re talking to.
We have backed that up and our 10 gold medals at Bloom prove it. But our greatest achievement to date was probably bringing blight-resistant potatoes to Ireland – which is now the main crop potato in Ireland.
Since we’re a small shop in Dublin city centre, we need to be different and unique. So we try to have exclusives on products we bring to market each year.
This year we brought tea plants, which nobody has thought about growing in Ireland despite the fact that they grow it in the UK and Scotland.
We can take years working on a new introduction to a market. I’ve been thinking of growing tea in Ireland for 10 years, but it takes a long time to source plants and make sure it will work.
Introducing new ideas to the Irish market is always a high point, but another was opening our second shop on Mary Street.
However, shortly after opening, we realised it was difficult to run our wholesale business, deal with supermarkets and develop our mail order at the same time.
It was quite an awkward position for us to be in, so we decided to sell our wholesale business since our passion was in retail and mail order. That was a big leap into the unknown, but it has paid off for us.
The low point was the recent crash of the economy. A good number of the customers our garden centres did business with went bust, and we lost a serious amount of money as a result.
Although the economy is changing, it has taken a long time to recover from that. We’re still feeling the effects of other garden centres going bust and just walking away and stinging us.
We were left high and dry by a few, but I also attended some creditors meetings where I felt a lot of sympathy for the people. We have been around a long time and are quite stable, but during those times when we were taking hit after hit – it was shaky.
Our suppliers were very loyal and supportive during the recession and are an important part of our business. We would never move from a supplier just to save one or two percent. For us, it’s about building relationships, which is much more important.
I am very fortunate that I look forward to coming to work on Monday morning; I work with a great team. We don’t always see eye to eye, but that’s good because I don’t want ‘yes men’.
But gardening is a hard way to make money – it’s a very seasonal business. We are very weather-dependent, so when you get bad years your turnover suffers as a result.
I think the main lesson we’ve learned is that during the good times, you need to store away for the bad times. When business is flying in May and June, we need to anticipate ahead to July, which is our quietest month.
In the early days we didn’t always see that. We were so focused on getting sales that we didn’t always think about the strategic plan or what we were going to be doing in a year or five years’ time.
I think if I was to start out again, I would have a five-year plan, but it took me a good five years to realise that.
I’ve learned it’s very important in business to have people focused on working on the business rather than on the day-to-day grind.
Right now, we have a 10-year plan in place. We just moved to a new warehouse in the last few months, which is part of the long-term plan. However our goals change and we don’t stick to it rigidly. Plans are there to be tweaked.
Thomas Quearney is the co-owner of Mr Middleton Garden Shop. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.
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