SUBTROPICAL BEAUTY: FLOWERS FROM SCILLY

PUBLISHED: 15:24 02 March 2016 | UPDATED: 12:40 30 August 2017

narcissi 2

narcissi 2

Scilly Flowers is an island idyll awash with glorious fields of flowers

An island idyll awash with glorious fields of flowers? Sue Bradbury heads for St Martin’s to discover more...

How about this for a dream? Live on a small, idyllic island – with views to die for – and run a successful business from there. So successful, in fact, that you need to employ a significant percentage of its population (120 people), especially at busy times.

Impossible? Not for Zoe and Ben Julian who run Scilly Flowers from St Martin’s. They moved to Churchtown Farm, a 33 acre smallholding in what is grandly called Higher Town (in reality a cluster of beautiful cottages), around fourteen years ago. Ben’s parents, Andrew and Hilary, had moved to the island in the mid-1980s, started growing scented narcissi and a few years later expanded into postal flower deliveries across the UK. When they retired to the mainland, Ben and Zoe took over.

So what are the challenges of running a company that sends out more than 90,000 boxes of scented narcissi (during the winter months) and scented pinks (during the summer months) each year from a stunning outcrop of rock that depends on boats for transport?

Geographically we may be remote but many of the issues we have are the same as those of any other business, wherever it’s located,’ explains Zoe. Choosing the right employees, for example, is critical. We all know that they are your ambassadors and their skills, combined with the level of customer service provided, are key to operational efficiency and sales. The difference for us is that we need people who will also fit into island life. And that doesn’t mean escapists who want to come here for the isolation or because they think it will solve their problems. On the contrary, it’s very important for our staff to mix and get on well together – not just at work but socially too. Several of them live in our on-site accommodation and therefore see each other all day, every day. That’s not good for anyone who likes to separate job and leisure time so we’re careful to select team members accordingly.

Adaptability is vital too. Living on an island means you have to think on your feet as things can change very fast. Every member of our team is happy to do whatever is needed. We’ve developed our own training programmes since organising college courses or similar on St Martin’s is impractical and that – together with a policy of giving our staff as much autonomy as possible – has been really helpful in maintaining a high standard of service.

'The other thing we do to ensure our staff settle well into life here is to actively encourage their participation in community events and enjoyment in their surroundings. We are manically busy about four times a year – especially at Christmas when we send out about 20000 boxes – but otherwise there is time to relax and make the most of the island.’

Although St Martin’s benefits from a generally mild climate, it is also prone to Atlantic storms. That can be a problem when trying to get deliveries out on time.

As a business we have to be very resilient and continually think ahead,’ says Zoe. We’re at the mercy of the weather here so it’s important to have contingency plans in the event of there being no power or transport. Unlike other companies on the mainland we can’t just rely on a quick top-up of spares when we need them. Even re-supplying something as simple as boxes takes quite a bit of logistical organisation when you’re having to factor in boats, lorries and tractors.’

Perseverance in the face of adversity and the ability to know your own limits are equally crucial assets.When you live on St Martin’s you soon get a feel for what you can, and can’t change,’ says Zoe. Challenging the status quo can be done but we’re a close community of friends and neighbours and we all do our best not to upset each other. It’s also important to recognise a legitimate can’t’ from a won’t’ that might just be transformed with a bit of gentle guidance. Exciting change does happen – we got Superfast Broadband installed last year and we are still exploring its vast potential – but tenacity, diplomacy and compromise are sometimes needed to achieve them.

A willingness to work together is paramount which is why the Scillies’ Island Partnership has proved a major step forwards for all of us living and working here. It’s helped us build mutually beneficial relationships with other businesses on the islands and it’s also helped forge strong, useful links with the mainland.’

On St Martin’s, collaboration and mutual support are just as essential. Which is why staff at Churchtown Farm have the responsibility of issuing electronic passes to those needing access to the local community hall.

We are open until 8 every evening and we’ve got the technology to do the passes so it was the most sensible arrangement,’ says Zoe. Multi-tasking is part and parcel of our lives here and not everything revolves around the bottom line. We have to be pragmatic.’

So how hard is it running a business like Scilly Flowers from such a small, exposed island base?

Geographically we’re different but, like everything else, there are always pluses and minuses,’ says Zoe. Waking up to what we see every morning, though, has a huge amount in its favour. Personally, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.’

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