michael caffery Inside Story

There has been a wealth of recent research demonstrating the benefits of plants in the work environment. Reduced stress levels, increased oxygen, temperature regulation and ambient noise reduction are just a few of the generally accepted benefits. Plants have also been shown to improve worker productivity, sense of wellbeing and psychological comfort, and in consumer environments, the inclusion of trees has been shown to increase spending potential.
Ireland lags behind other developed countries in exploiting these benefits, both for worker happiness and increased productivity. Oftentimes plants are seen as an unnecessary expense and were the first thing to go in Irish offices at the beginning of the recession. In many cases, they have yet to return. Despite this, the market for interior plants is growing, due in no small part to the presence of foreign companies, who have a far better insight into how the inclusion of plants can improve the bottom line. Other factors such as the popularity of green walls, roofs and technological advancements are also having a positive impact on the market.

Currently the Irish market for interior plants is served by a limited number of SMEs, management companies and one large multinational. The vast majority of these businesses operate on a rental basis, supplying, maintaining and replacing plants on an ongoing basis. Like much of the horticulture sector, margins are tight, competition is stiff and the need to innovate is high.

As empirical research continues to illuminate the benefits of plants, and findings filter through to building regulations and environmental certification, we will see a gradual increase in demand for interior plants. One Irish company poised to exploit this potential is Universal Floral. Having been established in Navan in the late 1960s by owner Noel Caffrey and survived the troubling recession years, the business remains in family ownership with 22 employees and bases in both Ballsbridge and Finglas. With Noel now in retirement – inasmuch as anyone retires from horticulture – day to day running of the business falls to Noel’s son, Michael. I caught up with Michael recently to gain an insider’s view of their interior landscape business.

B. Horticulture courses often offer a small insight into the complex area of interior planting but rarely provide the in-depth knowledge to work effectively. How did you go about learning your trade?
M. I grew up in the trade so my exposure to horticulture started from home when I was at a young age. I spent my summers going into offices servicing plants and learning from my colleagues the differences between the plants we worked with on a daily basis. It was more of an apprenticeship than a college education.

B. You decided to pursue marketing in college rather than horticulture. Why was that?
M. I have always been interested in marketing and saw this as a good career path. I think marketing is of huge importance to any business and the job opportunities were positive at the time I began my studies.

B. Having achieved your marketing qualifications, you spent a number of years working in various corporate environments. What provided the impetus to return to the family business?
M. I traveled for a year and returned just as the recession began. I was drafted in for the hard times to help in returning stock from clients. It was always a road I planned on taking, but I felt I needed a good understanding of how other business operated so I could bring back what I had learned and utilize it in our family business.

B. How are you applying lessons gained from your marketing experience to the business?
M. I know who my target audience is and how to actively advertise our product and service to the right people. We make use of Google analytics and every penny spent on advertising is reviewed to make sure we are using our money wisely. Marketing has also taught me how to create engaging proposals using imagery to sell our service.

B. Can you describe your typical working day?
M. Working in a small business each day is different from the day before. On days when I am required to service plants I try to begin as early as possible. Other days involve sourcing new business, managing our online presence and setting up plants in new client’s premises. I find that planned days change rapidly and sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day.

B. Many people working in horticulture say they are not motivated by money. What motivates you?
M. I am motivated by providing the best service possible. I have always tried to implement customer service as a key to our business. And it always motivates me more when the client’s employees remark favourably on an installation.

B. How do typical contracts work with clients?
M. A client enquires about our service. We visit their premises and give advice on the right plants to suit the environment. We take into account the current decor when deciding on planters. After installation, our maintenance division spends a lot of time calling in on clients, watering, fertilising and dusting the plants down.

It’s a monthly subscription service that ensures the plants are kept in pristine condition, provided by experienced horticulture professionals.

B. How do you differentiate your business from the other service providers in the sector?
M. We are a small family run business with long standing loyal clients, some of whom have been with us for over 40 years. Everyone who works here at Universal Floral has been with us for at least eight years. We have a very high level of staff retention. Our service is very personal. We try to be as creative as possible and tailor our work to the individual needs of each client.

B Much of your work is with American multinationals. How do such companies differ from Irish ones?
M. Multinationals try to echo the head office layout. A lot of American companies incorporate plants into their environment as they understand the benefits. Those companies are usually bigger than Irish ones, so their requirements are on a larger scale.

B. In recent years you have expanded into the UK market. How did you go about this and how has the expansion evolved?

M. We asked our Irish based clients if we could provide a proposal for their sister offices in the UK, and received very positive feedback. We now look after several clients in the UK – mainly now through word of mouth referrals – we offer the same personal consistent pristine planting service. A lot of time is spent on maintenance calls, making sure the plants are healthy at all times.

B. What do you count as the company’s most successful achievement to date?
M. We have been in business for nearly 50 years and staff turnover has been very low. Being able to retain clients for nearly as long is a huge achievement. Expanding into the UK has been a great achievement and we hope to move on from London to other parts of the UK.

B. Conversely, what is the primary challenge faced by your business and how do you address it?
M. if the economy is unsteady, plants are pushed down the agenda. Increasing waste costs – our main waste is soil – which we try to give to people in the area to use in their gardens. We also give second hand plants to local people. Global warming is also an issue as it is affecting plant growth in countries where we source indoor plants from.

B. What are the most popular interior plant species used in Ireland?
M. While tastes have changed over the years species choice is still typically determined by success rate. I would say the most popular include Howea, Dracaena, Epipremnum, Aglaonema, Anthurium, Ficus, Monstera and Schefflera.

B. What are the drivers for interior plant choice in Ireland?
M. Success rate of course but there are other factors too. We’ve seen a lot more interest in the types of planters used, especially from commercial interior designers and architects. Companies are also very interested in seasonal diversity and are willing to bring in colour and impact at different times of the year. Social media and visual sharing sites such as Pinterest are also having a positive impact as clients can access a vast array of inspirational material.

B. The majority of the plant material you supply is imported from The Netherlands. Do you source products from Ireland and if so, what products?
M. A lot of our products are sourced from Ireland, including all the compost we use, plant food and winter and summer bedding plants.

B. Do you agree that Dutch have the interior plant market sewn up? If not, what opportunities do you see for Irish growers?
M. The Dutch import planting from all over the world. The Netherlands are the central planting destination of Europe. They do a good job and we are happy with our relationship with our suppliers there and with the service they provide. The Dutch know the European markets very well, and their knowledge and guidance has helped us to expand in the UK and also in Germany.

An opportunity for Irish growers could exist in developing and/or sourcing complementary products for plants such as pots. Clients are always open to fresh ideas. Recently we installed hanging upside down planters into a UK office, called ‘Sky Planters’.

B. Green walls have become a must have accessory for contemporary buildings. How has your company responded to this demand?
M. Green walls have certainly become very popular and we have completed a few installations. The walls we supply though are manually maintained by our maintenance staff, part of our commitment to ensuring that our plants are healthy at all times. It’s the personal touch. By manually monitoring the wall we feel we can control any water issues. Green walls are fun because you can be very creative with planting and colour.

B. What will be your business main achievement over the next decade?
M. Expanding more into Europe, exploring new trends, connecting with tech start-ups and maintaining loyalty with current clients. We always say to our clients, “We will grow with you”.

B. What advice do you have for graduates considering a career in interior landscaping?
M. Apply for internships with interior landscaping companies before the busy season starts. Follow planting and planter trends, visit tradeshows, grow plants at home, build a passion for plants and spaces. You can never stop learning.