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Ideas & Debate

Lessons from successful Nairobi flower shop on building long-lasting company

A florist displays flowers for sale at the City Market in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE
A florist displays flowers for sale at the City Market in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE 

The other day I stopped by Sarit Centre to buy some flowers for my wife at the beautifully stocked Garden Centre flower shop by the entrance on the ground floor.

As always I was greeted by a very friendly and extremely knowledgeable assistant, and while I waited for him to wrap the flowers I had selected I walked over to the owner, Alan Kang’ethe.

“How’s business?” I asked him, expecting the kind of at best indifferent answer one gets so commonly these days. But to my surprise, never mind for an outlet selling flowers in an upmarket mall, his response was that he is doing reasonably well. I was curious to know more, so I asked him to explain further.

Due to the increasing competition, and also thanks to the shortage of good quality flowers in the local market — the high quality ones are exported, leaving us largely with the leftovers — Kang’ethe has ventured into growing his own on his farm in Nyandarua.

This has helped him not only to supply his customers with the best products at more competitive prices, he is also able to ensure the availability of supply, no longer having to rely on those whose main interest is exporting.

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And in addition to dealing with cut flowers (“floristry”, when it includes displaying and arranging them aesthetically), he offers indoor plants and landscaping services.

The tight competitive environment has led him to go slow on items he once imported from Europe, relying more on what is available locally.

On his farm, he and his people propagate and grow a wide range of pot plants such as cacti, anthuriums and begonias, streptocarpous and medinella, and even exotic orchids and other species suited for the low-light environments common in offices.

He has divided his farming operation into three competing units, thus further stimulating quality.

The Garden Centre has been in the family since the 1950s, when it was started by Kang’ethe’s late grandfather, Gitunyu, who sold to “the colonialists”.

He grew his flowers and other horticultural produce in Banana Hill, Kiambu, bringing them to the City Market, and the family’s first shop was on Market Street.

In 1969, it was bought by Kang’ethe’s father, Thomas Kahara, who took over the reins of the blooming business. Yes, blooming.

Now Alan Kang’ethe, to whom his parents in turn passed the business, runs two more branches — in Sarit Centre and Yaya Centre, and he will soon open one at the Two Rivers Mall.

“How will you find the right person to run the new branch?” I asked him. No problems. For just as Kang’ethe grows his own flowers and plants he also grows his own people, and the competent young man who had earlier served me is the one identified to take over at Two Rivers.

Kang’ethe gained his knowledge of flowers through studying for his degree in horticulture at Egerton University, and this has since been supplemented by research on the Internet and through books, and from the numerous experiments that, through much trial and error, have delivered such visibly satisfying results.

He has come to appreciate the unique growing requirements of each plant species, taking account of the light intensity needed; the desired temperature variation between day and night; diseases to which they are prone and how to prevent and deal with them; their requirements for fertilisers and moisture and so many other factors.

“Nothing is more rewarding than when you learn to speak the plants’ language, as they communicate their problems to you very well,” Kang’ethe told me.

“But with a keen eye, and with the knowledge and passion to overcome the challenges they present you with, you enjoy the thrill of seeing the seeds and the young plants grow in the very best conditions. Then you know they will be decorating another person’s life.”

With this my friend linked his love of plants to his close relationships with his customers, and as I heard him talk and as I saw him in action I understood clearly how over the years he has built such a large and loyal customer base.

For, as he told me, while understanding the product he sells is vital, suitable marketing strategies and ways of engaging with customers are just as important.

As I waited for my flowers Kang’ethe ensured they were wrapped in the more elegant foil he and his colleagues use when the blooms are intended as a gift. A big gold ribbon was fixed around the stems, along with a packet of nutrients to drop into the water once they are at home.

And along with this a card on which we customers can write a note was also provided.

None of this happens by chance. It is all carefully thought through, designed to appeal to the particular clientele that is attracted to his shops and is prepared to pay the premium pricing to get the best product and the best service.

We all know we could get similar looking flowers by the roadside at less cost, but they wouldn’t last anywhere near as long, and and and…

I decided to write about Kang’ethe and his flower business because I realised he was applying all the knowledge and skills and attitudes that any successful organisation must do to survive, never mind across generations and into the present turbulent times.

He thinks strategically and long term. He is flexible and resilient, bold and experimental, while also humble and courteous. And he is constantly improving and re-inventing all aspects of what he does.

He is as engaged with and passionate about his product as he is about his staff and his customers. And he is looking so far ahead that he sees his biggest challenge is to successfully pass the business to the fourth generation.

I learned a lot from you, Mr Kang’ethe. Thank you, and it gives me pleasure to share some of it with readers of this column in my opening article of the New Year.

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