Business musings

Articles and thoughts about Telegraph


Officially opened in April 2000, Crocus is an online garden centre offering over 4,000 different plant varieties – the biggest choice of plants in the UK. Loved by both top garden designers and amateurs alike and a regular at the Chelsea Flower Show, Crocus has an enviable reputation and has won many awards, not only for its gardens and plants but also for best practice in business.

Whilst Crocus normally only retails online or through its wholesale outlet, it opens its doors to the public on four special days throughout the year. The first of these days for 2011 was held Saturday just gone (16 April) so I headed off to Windlesham for a girls’ day out.

Crocus Open Day

I had planned to track down some bargain plants and to have a day discovering what goes on behind the scenes but I also found myself being wowed by best practice in business and amazed by just how much we can learn from the logistics involved in growing and selling plants!

Much of what I gleaned was by and large thanks to a tour given by Mark Fane (one of the founders of Crocus) and Mark Straver (a top plantsman and member of the wholesale team).

Learning from plants

Aka process driven excellence

The organic nature of growing and selling plants creates a business model that is inherently dependent upon planning and logistics to an extent that is somewhat unusual within other business contexts. A plant is not a product that can be quickly manufactured and plucked from a shelf in a warehouse. Rather, it is a growing entity that literally has a life of its own, subject to nature and innumerable other factors.

To produce prize winning plants for Chelsea, the growing process must ideally begin almost a year in advance. Throughout the year, plants are juggled between the outdoors and 10 polytunnels each with slightly different climactic conditions (or even sent abroad to Spain as in the case of the 2010 Telegraph Garden) to maintain, speed up or slow down their growth as necessary, ensuring that they are in peak condition for the all important show dates. For the online store and wholesale, stocks must be carefully managed, rare and unusual plant requests sourced from around the world, buying trends predicted in advance and much, much more. To thrive and succeed in this industry, excellence in planning and logistics are an absolute must.

The challenges of Chelsea

Aka innovation and project management

The Chelsea Flower Show itself intensifies this need for excellence and Crocus’ results speak for themselves: in the last 9 years, they have won 3 Best in Shows and 11 gold medals for gardens that they have built and grown plants for.

Project management is vital and Crocus are now in talks with the Telegraph to begin planning their 2012/2013 gardens. In the 20 days running up to the opening of the Chelsea Flower Show, an entire garden (including hard landscaping and fully grown trees) must be built and planted from scratch.

Year on year Crocus perfect and hone their project management skills and develop innovative ways to manage the logistics involved. In April of this year, work began at the Crocus nursery to build the dry stone walls for the Telegraph Garden, ensuring that the sections can simply be transported to Chelsea and pieced together, potentially saving huge amounts of time on building the walls from scratch. Luciano Giubbilei (this year’s Laurent-Perrier garden designer) also visited Crocus to position the trees for his garden in advance, ensuring that they can simply be planted in their desired location at Chelsea and valuable time is not wasted. And this is just the tip of the project management and planning iceberg!

In an article published by the Telegraph, April 2009, Mark Fane described himself as “the control freaks’ control freak” and the author observed that “Those who don’t have Fane’s quasi-military discipline are often seen planting frantically the night before”. It is precisely such planning and discipline that wins awards!

Subject to the elements

Aka disaster contingency planning

Another factor that is intensified and brought into sharp focus by the organic nature of plants is the need for disaster contingency planning. To ensure that Crocus can supply exactly the right quantity of plants in peak condition for the dates of the Chelsea Flower Show, they are currently growing around 8,000-10,000 plants for this year’s show (for a garden requiring 30 specimens of a particular plant, Crocus will grow 100). Any plants not used in the show can be sold to consumers once they are ready.

Crocus also carefully monitor their polytunnels for signs of pests or disease – perils that become more of a problem in a warmer environment. Fans are used to ensure air circulation and at the first signs of any potential problems, action is taken. Any large scale problems of this kind that had not been nipped in the bud early (excuse the pun!) could be disastrous.

For a business that is dependent upon its living, growing products, the discipline of anticipating potential problems and ensuring that contingency plans are either already in place or can be quickly actioned is another absolute must.

Winning awards

Aka end-to-end excellence

And finally, as evidenced by Crocus’ award-winning Chelsea pedigree, Crocus are in the business of creating and delivering excellence. However, their attention to detail doesn’t just start and end with either plants or gardens; rather, it extends throughout their business.

Not long after they started out, Crocus won the Best Commerce Site Award in 2001, beating the likes of In the same year, they won the small business category of the Sunday Telegraph’s @chievement Award, alongside other category winners such as and And more recently, they have also collected a design award for their custom-designed packaging.

Crocus deliver excellence in customer service throughout their shopping experience and are rightly proud of the fact that their return rate is currently under 1%. Whilst their success and reputation are enviable, once you begin to look behind the scenes these results are also understandable. Excellence in business really does make a difference and we could all learn a great deal from the lessons Crocus has to teach us.

To keep in touch with Crocus’ journey to Chelsea, check out their Chelsea Flower Show blog

Update 25 May 2011

More excellent results for Crocus as they are the proud winners of not only two Gold Medals at Chelsea (one each for their two gardens) but also Best in Show!

Photographs of Crocus' Daily Telegraph garden and Laurent-Perrier garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2011

At the beginning of this year, few people - and certainly few businesses – would have imagined that we would now find ourselves in the midst of extreme travel disruption due to the eruption of a relatively unknown volcano in Iceland.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano first began to erupt in March of this year but it was not until its second, more dramatic eruption in April that we saw the unprecedented move to shut large swathes of European airspace due to the dangerous volcanic ash that it was spewing high into the atmosphere.


Globalisation reliant on air travel

This loss of air travel has certainly highlighted how reliant we are on modern air transport and the degree to which it facilitates the level of globalisation we have come to expect. We have effectively been transported back in time to an age when flying was unknown and the main forms of transport were sea and road.

The halt of UK and European air travel has left thousands of people stuck in limbo, unable to come or go, stranded where the pause button deemed fit. Many businesses and business people have also been affected, unable to get back from holidays or business trips, struggling to import or export much needed goods, and unable to attend important meetings abroad.

Global implications

The extent of the disruption has not only been felt in the UK and Europe but also worldwide.

Yesterday, Nissan suspended production at two of its factories in Japan due to the fact that it could not get hold of crucial air pressure sensors.

Kenya’s economy faces devastating losses as it “haemorrhag[es] $1.3m a day in lost [flower] shipments to Europe” and “there is no diversionary market [as] flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”

Fujitsu has temporarily suspended exports of notebook computers to Europe and has been unable to say how long its European stocks will last or how much it stands to lose if the disruption continues.

The UK premiere of Iron Man 2 has been moved to Los Angeles, and many sporting, music, movie and other entertainment events face schedule changes and disruption.

Not to mention of course, the financial impact upon European airlines and tour operaters, with the International Air Transport Association stating that losses in the European airline industry had reached £165m a day.

Business continuity

The complete lack of European flights has certainly reinforced the need for business continuity planning.

Stephen Cross, CEO of Aon Global Risk Consulting, observed that “as economies contract or competition increases, lean manufacturing becomes the name of the game… Such an approach might be highly efficient when things are running smoothly, but in the event of a major disruption event such as this, it can lead to significant delays in key materials and inputs being delivered, or in a worst case scenario to a systemic failure in your supply chain” (Continuity Central).

As the volcanic disruption has highlighted though, it is not only suppy chains and operations that can be affected.  With many business owners, directors, managers and staff stranded, a business also needs to be able to continue in the absence of its people.

Not only that, but as the plight of the airlines emphasizes, a business also needs to have contingency plans in place for times when the very service it provides cannot be delivered.  As Jan Husdal rightly pointed out, “a flight is not something you can produce and stock somewhere. It is produced and instantly consumed at the same time… Without passengers and without flights, no airline can survive.”

Yet, in A Decade of Living Dangerously – The Business Continuity Managment Report (produced only a year ago, in March 2009) The Chartered Management Institute reported that (of the businesses they surveyed and received responses from) only 52% had specific business continuity plans covering their operations and that generally managers within organisations remained complacent about continuity.

Obviously there are some eventualities that are almost impossible to predict and therefore to plan for – the black swans of this world – but that is not to say that we should not be building robustness into our businesses and systems now.

Have you been able to run your business without access to flights?

What would happen if other transport systems were unavailable to you?  Does your business have alternative transport plans in place?

Were you or any of your staff stranded by the flight disruptions?

If you have not experienced any disruption, have you designed your business in such a way that it could continue in your absence, should you ever be stranded in the future?

Can you and your staff access emails, documents and telephone services remotely if you are unable to get to the office?

Although the impact of the volcanic ash disruptions is expected to be relatively low in Europe, (RBS has predicted an impact on GDP in Europe of 0.1%), history warns that we are not necessarily out of the woods yet.  According to the Telegraph, the last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted (in the early 1820s) it blew intermittently for 14 months and on each occassion of its previous eruptions it has been followed within months or a year or so by a major eruption at Katla (a nearby volcano that is known to be more violent).  Presently there are no ground rumblings at Katla and the conditions that have led to the unprecendented closures of air space are rare, but this event has very much highlighted the vital and urgent need for business continuity planning. Without it you risk the future well being of your business.

Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Marketing Strategy & Planning  

This marketing email from Tom Tom amused me, primarily because of the choice of image of a skier teetering on the edge of cliff.



Whilst this email is in fact advertising speed camera alerts, if you compare the image of the skier with the image from The Telegraph showing the BMW of a driver who was facing a dangerous driving charge having blindly followed his sat nav to the edge of a cliff in West Yorkshire until it was teetering on the edge, I’m sure you will be able to spot the unfortunate similarities.

The joys of image selection! Always something to bear in mind.