In a little over two decades McQueens has bloomed from a wilting backstreet flower shop to a thriving, high-end £3m business. Managing director Kally Ellis describes how a mixed bouquet of intuition and creativity has sown the seeds of success
Probe Kally Ellis on her formal floristry training and you get a smile. “None,” she replies. Ask about her business training and she laughs. “I never write a business plan. I wouldn’t know how. To this day I can’t read a balance sheet.” Yet thanks to her vision, dedication and hard work Ellis has transformed a struggling flower shop into a blooming £3.3m business supplying floral installations to clients as diverse as HSBC, Conran restaurants and Claridge’s.
The atmosphere is calm inside the company’s shop in the heart of London’s trendy Clerkenwell. Set against a backdrop of brushed concrete walls and chunky wooden tables are colourful bursts of pink asters, mauve hydrangeas, orange tulips and fiery chilli lanterns. As a dozen young staff create exquisite hand-tie bouquets, Ellis explains what makes the business unique.
“The McQueens style is very different to other people’s and I think that’s because I don’t have a technical background,” she says. “It’s about putting colours and combinations together. We don’t use the word ‘arrangement’ because we don’t do flower arrangements we do installations. We try not to mix too many flowers together and we use a lot of vases and the things around us. It’s all about keeping it clean and bold, striking and big. I call it art for the moment.”
Ellis’s stewardship of McQueens began 23 years ago after she turned her back on a career in banking. “I was in my late twenties. My best friend had died in the Lockerbie disaster, I had split up with my boyfriend and moved back home to my parents, and I hated my job,” she recalls.
“It sounds ridiculous but I had an incredibly vivid dream in which I saw myself making a lovely bouquet of flowers. I woke up the happiest I’d felt for a long time. Something went ‘ping.’ I walked into the kitchen that morning and said, ‘Mum, Dad, I’m going to become a florist.’ They looked at me and said, ‘Sure you are, what do you want for breakfast?’ But I believe these epiphanies happen when lots of wrong things come together to make one right thing.”
Within three months Ellis had taken voluntary redundancy. She ploughed her £14,000 pay-off into a struggling flower shop in Shoreditch, east London, named after its previous-owner-but-one, Carol McQueen, aunt of the late fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. While waiting for the deal to go through she sought as much work experience as possible. “I had to learn really quickly.”
She got the keys on 1 January 1991, just as recession hit. Shoreditch, back then, may have been “a seedy wasteland in the back end of beyond, but all I could see was this beaming little shop with a beautiful shop front. I think my complete naivety and ignorance was what saw me through.”
Her City friends thought she was mad: “Flowers are a luxury item, the first thing people cut in a recession,” they said. “But I knew if I didn’t pursue my dream I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
Although she’d bought a shop, she had no intention of running the company as a traditional high-street retail business. Instead, she directed the business towards corporate and high-end clients. The shop window, full of “spectacular displays” became a vehicle to advertise the company’s creations to, and lift the mood of, the thousands of glum City workers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
McQueens: a blossoming reputation
“I inherited a small list of corporate contracts from the previous owner – bog-standard vase-on-a-reception type things,” she recalls. “This was a time when florists were still knocking out those fiddly flat-pack boxes of flowers. Our policy was to create delicious, compact hand-tie bouquets. Word spread and the telephone started ringing. It snowballed.”
She has “never touted for business, ever. It’s all been word of mouth and recommendations. We’ve built up a brand over 23 years. It’s not what your flowers are like – it’s where they came from that’s important these days. It’s all reputation.”
That reputation was built in no small part thanks to McQueens’ long-standing relationship with New York’s Vanity Fair magazine. In 1994, Ellis was called on at the last minute to furnish a gala dinner at London’s Serpentine Gallery after a miscommunication saw the booked florist arrive from France without flowers.
“I got a call out of the blue asking if I could build four 20ft high topiaries in five days. I said ‘Of course’, put the phone down and panicked. We worked around the clock. I took the French florist under my wing, took him to the flower market, gave him all my accounts and told him who to buy from,” she recalls.
“That was the party where Princess Diana wore that amazing black dress, just after it was announced she and Charles were splitting up. It was a very talked about event.”
Not only did it put McQueens on the map, it cemented a relationship with Vanity Fair that continues to this day. “At the end of that event my client said, ‘Kally, you’ve absolutely saved the day and I am never going to use anyone else for my events.’ She’s been loyal to her word ever since. It’s incredible kudos for us, and it catapulted us into the stratosphere.”
As a result McQueens flower displays now grace Vanity Fair’s famous post-Oscar party in Los Angeles, its Tribeca Film Festival party co-hosted with Robert DeNiro, and the White House correspondents’ annual dinner, with Ellis personally taking charge of all. McQueens’ bouquets and installations are also to be found in some of London’s top hotels including Claridge’s, the Connaught and Rosewood London, and restaurants such as Bluebird, Quaglino’s, and Launceston Place.
Having started with two employees, Ellis now leads a team of 38, who are given creative licence to produce inspired installations. But it’s clear she’s very much in charge; McQueens’ growth is as much to do with her close business relationships as it is her vision.
“Everybody knows business is built around relationships. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful, because I do like making them [the clients] my friends – and they are my friends first and foremost. That sort of thing doesn’t happen immediately, it takes years to build and we’ve grown organically as a result. People think they can do it and be successful immediately. It doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a long, hard slog.”
With a team of managers but no deputy, Ellis relies heavily on her accountant and lawyer, not to mention gut instinct and a demeanour for taking risks. “My clients are demanding… but I can do a lot of business over lunch and save myself a lot of money.”
Still, having survived the early 1990s recession, Ellis was under no illusions what the recent economic downturn could bring.
“I braced for it to hit us hard but it didn’t happen. Maybe because we’re top-end, and clients with money will always have money. Or maybe in a recession it’s these little luxuries [flowers] that people hold onto.” She admits some corporate clients in the City cut back – “although they’re now returning” – but any shortfall was made up on the growing hospitality and “humongous” events sides of the business that now includes weddings.
Has McQueens’ status allowed it to inflate prices? “Not at all. Our mark-up ratio is no different than when we started. Our minimum bouquet is £45 and it gets you the same size bouquet £20 bought you 20 years ago.”
The cost of flowers fluctuates throughout the year; on Valentine’s Day, prices rise three-fold. “People think the more flowers you buy the less expensive it is but it’s the opposite because there are then fewer of them. You assume an average throughout the year and take a hit every now and again.”
Fortunately, rising rents isn’t something Ellis has to worry about; McQueens owns its premises. “That’s the Mediterranean in me and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says, recalling the “rickety, olde-worlde Georgian houses” and former public houses she bought “for peanuts” in what are now some of London’s most sought-after locations – Victoria Park, Clerkenwell and Farringdon. “We rent them out,” she adds.
The basement of the current shop, in Old Street, also includes a floristry school, started under the direction of a former employee-turned-business partner who Ellis bought out again eight years ago. “Our schoolroom can fit 16 but once we’ve got five [students] it’s worth doing,” she says. A four-week course sells for almost £5,000. Last year, courses sold out.
Ellis admits the biggest lesson she has learnt in business is learning when to walk away – “from contracts, from clients, even from opening a shop in New York because it didn’t feel right” – but would she ever sell the business? “Eventually. There’s a limit to how many years you can successfully carry on. It’s exhausting. I’ve been doing it for a long time now. It’s time to hand over the reins soon.”
Might her children take over? Ellis has been married to children’s novelist Damian Kelleher – the boyfriend she temporarily split from shortly before launching the business – for 21 years and they have two children, Freddie, 20, and Sophia, 18.
“They help out during the holidays – Freddie with deliveries, and Sophia reorganised our database – but so far they haven’t shown an interest in joining the business; nor do I want to push them to do so. They have to follow their own dreams.”
For now, Ellis is focusing on the numbers. “When it hits £5m, then I can keel over,” she says, “I’ll be happy with that. Also, I want to see my kids through university…”
Only Ellis can decide if she’ll continue to run the company after passing this milestone. But with ever-increasing demand for its flowers and turnover up 24 per cent on last year, it’s clear McQueens is blooming.