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Keep Calm - Grow Hostas!

There are some people you meet in this life who you just know have the ability to turn anything they touch into gold.

Tim Penrose is one of those people.  

The youngest, and then most successful, undertaker in the business, conducting – amongst others - funerals for the elite 22 SAS Regiment; a one-time owner of the UK’s “Teahouse of the Year”, in Birmingham (awarded by Egon Ronay, no less); and now, a nurseryman boasting 24 RHS gold medals (seven of them from the World Cup of all gardens events, The Chelsea Flower Show) and one exceedingly rare Royal Warrant to His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales.

It’s a Midas touch honed out of hard work, rather than educational qualifications.  A supposition verified by the fact that he was expelled from school at a very tender age for impersonating his teachers (and, at a guess, annoyingly well!).

Fast-forward several years, and there’s another anecdote linking his past to his present.  For the story goes that on Press Day at Chelsea last year, Michael Caine and his wife Shakira Baksh were standing close to Tim Penrose’s gold medal winning display of hostas when the actor was heard to exclaim: “I can’t believe how quiet it is today”.

To which a voice (the prefect match of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, no less) was heard to reply: “Ah, it may be quiet today.  But tomorrow, coming over that hill, there will be Zulus…thousands of ‘em.”

The smile that drew from Michael Caine says it all.

This is someone who is once again at the very top of his chosen profession…and is not afraid to tell the world (and his wife!) about it.

So how did we get here?  Via his first job, as an undertaker, which he managed to win as a bet!  (Following his expulsion from school, he bet a friend that of the two of them, he’d find gainful employment the quickest.  And having identified the funeral business as one which was most likely to have some openings, he secured his first job largely as a result of going round to the home of the local undertaker’s house and cleaning his car for him).

By the age of 18, he had become the youngest Funeral Director in Britain.  But eight years later, following a six week crash course at McDonalds, he decided to open a coffee shop in Birmingham.  Only this was no ordinary coffee shop.  It was all Twenties music, wicker chairs, and staff wearing uniforms which looked like they had been preserved through time.  And it was soon to be recognised as the finest example of its kind in the country.

Having percolated to the top in his second profession, he then decided the time was right to switch careers yet again, and to buy Bowden Hostas, in Devon – which had been successfully run by the parents of Tim’s wife, Ruth, for many years. That was in 2004, and the rest, as they say, is history (still in the making). Because, with seven Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals and one Royal Warrant already to his name, Penrose is not simply looking to get his hostas, ferns and grasses into everyone’s gardens, but is also aiming to revolutionise the horticultural landscape of Great Britain!

“The industry needs to be shaken up a bit,” he begins.  “It’s full of some lovely people, but we all have to move on.  I’m passionate about our product because it really is so good.  But what we intend to do now is combine that with the best way to love the customer to death (pardon the pun) in terms of retail sales and home delivery  – via our annual catalogues, as well as online.  You’ll have never seen the like of it before in this industry: think Lakeland or Boden.  We have a phenomenal brand, a business plan, superb specialists working with us and a vision.”

Part of the plan is to buy-up struggling nurseries and apply the Bowden technique.  It was a skill learned at the footstool of his former boss Howard Hodgson, who started with a family funeral business in 1976 and who, 14 years later sold 567 branches for £30 million!

“It works because some of these older, greyer, but incredibly wise people don’t want to stand around at flower shows anymore, yet they still have a yearning to be involved,” continues Pentrose.  “Their knowledge is phenomenal; it has to be preserved.  And we have a formulae for doing just that!” He adds: “We’ll turn over around £500,000 this year.  But our aim is for £2.5 million in three year’s time.  And we will do it!”

The first acquisition for Bowden, for example, has been the renowned Rickards Ferns, languishing at the top of a hill near Snowdonia.  Penrose saw it was for sale, took-off there in a hire van and, 24 hours later, bought the nursery there-and-then. And by teaming-up with the likes of Martin Rickard, Piet Oudolf, and Prince Charles’ former head-gardener David Howard, what Tim is now hoping to do is offer gardening enthusiasts something completely different – an exclusive Bowden membership card with many privileges.

And guess what: it’s gold!

It makes the inaccessible, accessible: a day’s wild-ferning with Martin Rickard; a one-to-one tour of a garden with David Howard.

For further details, visit www.bowdenhostas.com.

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