Ipswich: Flower shop is just the start of business vision

Florist Michael Pooley outside his shop Twig in Queen Street, Ipswich

Florist Michael Pooley outside his shop Twig in Queen Street, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

Florist Michael Pooley launched his stunning flower shop Twig in Ipswich last year. He tells Sheline Clarke that this is just part of his five-year business plan

Being a fourth generation Covent Garden fruit and vegetable merchant has stood Michael Pooley in good stead.

He learnt at an early age that retail is about offering value for money, service, product knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, a smile. He has inherited his Dad’s shrewd business sense, along with one or two of his sayings, and has applied all he knows to building his flower empire which now operates under three brands, including the retail arm Twig, and with many more plans in the pipeline.

Having trained in graphic design at art college, the young Michael started his career in fashion, working in the King’s Road and Covent Garden helping to dress the rich and famous.

When he was 21 he joined the family business and went on a course to learn about flowers.

“I don’t think you grow up thinking I want to be a florist, floristry finds you,” he said. “It is not really seen as a career like gardening or even being a chef, it is still very much regarded as a hobby despite the fact that the industry is a huge concern.”

To gain the knowledge he needed, Michael trained at the world-famous Jane Packer Flower School and immediately understood her vision that flowers are as exciting as fashion and interior design, but entirely more accessible.

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He worked in the family business until the opportunity to open his first store came in 1996 when he opened Michael Pooley Flowers in Islington, London.

“Back then Clerkenwell was all warehouses full of jewellers making beautiful things and it was a real creative hub. So I opened in a very creative environment and surrounded with creative people. Most people didn’t have a budget, but I think that helps the creative process because you have to adapt and be spontaneous and it was good environment to be in.”

What also helped was timing; Michael’s shop was a stone’s throw from Saddlers Wells Theatre just as it received lottery funding and soon evolved into one of the most advanced dance centres in the world.

Michael’s already thriving business serving clients such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, suddenly found the likes of Madonna and Kylie on its books.

“I started on the market with carrots and beans and suddenly it was very high brow and the business was fabulous,” he said.

In an interesting turn of events, however, the congestion charge was to have a lasting impact on the business as the busy thoroughfare where Michael’s shop was located became a quiet street.

“Suddenly you lost a huge chunk of your business because it cost eight quid to drive in,” said Michael, “so we had to adapt the business and we had to say goodbye to our retail business and shut the shop.”

Rather than an ending, however, this turn of events proved a new beginning for Michael who continued to provide flowers for corporate clients, wedding and parties under the Michael Pooley Flowers brand whilst developing the training aspect of his business and tutoring others, often students from overseas, in his chosen profession.

At about the same time he started working with Waitrose, and helped “set up, train and enthuse” staff at the new flower hall at Bluewater.

After that the offers to open concessions for other major retailers flooded in but Michael’s sound business head told him that the numbers wouldn’t be right.

“They wanted the look but not the overheads of a florist shop; these stores are open 70 hours a week and the skills level is very high and so unfortunately, but fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

What had happened, however, was the revitalisation of the retail side of the business under the new name Twig.

“I wanted something snappy and quick and was amazed the name Twig hadn’t been patented or trade marked, so we took it.”

All he needed now was a home for his new concept.

“I knew Ipswich had a gap,” he said, “for a florist like us that does everything – weddings and funerals to everyday bouquets. I also knew Waitrose was coming to town and I have always had a lot of synergy with them.”

So Michael set about finding a suitable shop unit and spent a day drinking coffee in various parts of the Ipswich to try and ascertain which were the busy streets.

Queen Street fitted the bill nicely with its heavy foot-fall and its close proximity to the town’s major employers and its professional quarter.

Since opening in June last year Twig has made quite an impact on the street scene, the front of the shop festooned with Kentish hops and floral displays pouring out of suitcases, tall rattan baskets and even a barrow from his days on the London markets.

“To start with everyone thought they were just props, something I had been and bought but actually that was my pram and my cot, and that’s the suitcase I took to Dieppe – so they are real bits of my life – and so the association is about memories and I think that is a warmer message.”

Michael’s businesses, including a third brand G which is a private client concierge service, are clearly thriving but never one to stand still he is always looking to the future.

He has been commissioned to write two flower books and also has an eye on garden design. Then there’s the idea of opening a flower school.

It is all in the plan which for now remains for his eyes only.

Rest assured however, whatever direction it takes, the business will have service and quality stamped all over it.

n www.twigflowers.co.uk