High50 Entrepreneur Rose Armstrong: How I’ll save Chelsea Flower Show orchid institution from ruin

We all love an orchid, that most exotic and perplexing of plants. But few of us understand how to keep one flowering in the living room, let alone nurse it back to life once the flowers have dropped. Rose Armstrong is one of the few exceptions.

If you are in the horticultural world, McBean’s Orchids in East Sussex will ring a bell. For those who are not, it is a brand that’s been around since 1879, and was recently saved from extinction by local entrepreneurs Rose and Martin Armstrong.

McBean’s Orchids has appeared at every RHS Chelsea Flower Show since it began in 1913, and has won 83 gold medals.

Founder James McBean had moved to Sussex from Scotland and imported ferns from South America. He found he could sell the orchids that were attached for more than he could the ferns.

Orchids were big business in the 19th century and the most expensive one ever recorded went for £1,500 in 1890, the equivalent of about £96,500 today.

Saving the nursery

The Armstrongs bought McBean’s quite by chance. Rose went there to buy a present for a friend the day before it was due to close down and decided the company had to be rescued.

Luckily for her, husband Martin is a successful serial entrepreneur who has started several recruitment companies and likes buying and selling companies.

If you love flowers, her impulsive decision is understandable. There is something quite bewitching about the orchid flower. In her 1995 article for the New Yorker, Orchid Fever, Susan Orlean wrote: “Orchids seem to drive people crazy. The people who love orchids love them madly, but the passion for orchids is not necessarily a passion for beauty.

“Something about the form of an orchid makes it seem almost more like a creature than a flower.

“Something that should also be taken into account is that the word orchid comes from the Greek word for testicle, orchis, and refers to the shape of the plant’s roots.”

Chelsea Flower Show McBeans Orchids_620x349
McBean’s Orchids’ stand at the RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show 2014
McBean’s Exotic Growing House

There are only two other orchid nurseries left in the UK, and Rose tells us that her staff have been working at McBean’s for about 40 years.

The Exotic Growing House, where we are filming our video with Rose, is like a set from Avatar. Orchids nestle among rocks and waterfalls and Spanish moss hangs from the branches, giving the place an ethereal feel.

The heating costs alone must be huge, as there are three giant greenhouses holding half a million orchids at different stages of growth. They need five years of nurturing before they are ready for sale.

Of the varying varieties, Phalaenopsis, Cymbidium and Odontoglossom are the most popular.

McBean’s grows some of its orchids from seed, where the plants will vary. Like human siblings, each will be unique.

Others are grown by tissue culture or cloning, where each plant is identical to its parent, in test tubes in a lab behind the greenhouses. Each orchid has its own genealogy, which is recorded in a notebook.

Chelsea Flower Show McBeans Orchids4_shot_620x349
Oncidium Saint Clements Classic.
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012
How are you going to turn the brand around?

“We need to treble the turnover to make this business pay for itself,” Rose says.

“We will start by making sure people know it is here, that we have been growing orchids for more than 100 years and is a British brand worth saving.

“We’ll use every kind of social media, although I do need to brush up on my instagram hashtagging first, and any help will be gratefully received.”

“We intend to have pop-up art exhibitions and restaurants here among the orchids.

“We want to employ people locally where we can. There is such a history to this place. McBean’s supplied orchids to Queen Mary’s coronation and to Princess Diana’s wedding.

“We don’t want to sell through florists, but be retailers not wholesalers. We are now looking at next season as the orchids don’t flower between Easter and the end of summer.

“We will then have a good look at where to go with the business. It will all be a learning process.”

Meet another High50 entrepreneur: Melissa of JamJar Flowers

 How long will you give the business?

“Three years, to give it a really good go. But I have a feeling that this may become a job of total love as it’s such a amazing environment to work in.”

Previously, Rose ran the local petrol station, where regulations made for a stressful environment. She admits that she made her biggest mistake there on day one when diesel was put into the wrong tank and contaminated all the other fuel.

Chelsea Flower Show McBeans Orchids3_620x349
An orchid called ‘Eme’s Natatee’. Photo from RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show 2014

Thinking of giving up, a businessman friend of hers said, “Don’t worry, in 20 years’ time that business will or won’t work, but you will still be here.”

“Approaching 50, I feel less fearful and ready for challenges,” she says. “My husband is good at the detail and I am a real grafter. Hopefully that will make a good business combination.

“We hope this will be an interesting and fun business to run for the second half of our lives.”

What is your favourite orchid?

“Zygoglossoms: they are scented and the smell is totally knock-out.”

Rose’s three top tips for starting a business in your fifties

1. Work incredibly hard.

2. Be fearless.

3. Embrace the confidence you have gained from being around longer than the young ones.

McBean’s tips for looking after your orchid

In general, orchids prefer bright light but not direct sunlight, humidity, and good air circulation. Many orchids will wilt if kept too close to sources of central heating and they should be misted regularly to keep them moist.

When not flowering (between April and September) they can be left at the bottom of the garden.

McBean’s: buy orchids and get detailed instructions on looking after them