The Loftus family get back down to earth

PUBLISHED: 17:02 20 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:01 20 February 2013

The Loftus family get back down to earth

The Loftus family get back down to earth

Michael Loftus started out running a wholefoods business in Covent Garden, sold up and turned his farden at Wenhaston into a plant nurery. Now, as he tells Sarah Chambers, he is passing the trowel to his two sons

Michael Loftus started out running a wholefoods business in Covent Garden, sold up and turned his farden at Wenhaston into a plant nurery. Now, as he tells Sarah Chambers, he is passing the trowel to his two sons

MICHAEL Loftus is an extraordinary man. Now aged 63, he combines a way with plants with an entrepreneurial flair and a management ethos which is light-years ahead of its time.

His flourishing nursery business, Woottens, abuts the pretty but modest country cottage he shares with wife, Lizzie, a hospital matron, in the small village of Wenhaston, near Halesworth. It has been their home for the last 26 years.

His five children, Ben, a historian who is involved in researching Maori land rights in New Zealand, Sophie, a horticulturalist now studying landscape design at Manchester University, Nico, a skilled boatbuilder, Ed, a top pastry chef, and George, who is at Camberwell Art College, grew up in this plant heaven. Michael set up the business 22 years ago from scratch. He was 41 years old, and for a while, he was on his own. As the business took off, the family lawn vanished beneath bedding plants and polytunnels, and Nico recalls having to head off down the lane to the green to play football.


"I dont boss people about. Its always been my policy that we have an open rota and people rota themselves and it works," he says.

His ideas may sound idealistic, but, clearly, they work, and Woottens despite its remote, rural location has become something of a gardeners mecca, attracting customers, including celebrity designers and garden writers, from London and elsewhere, as well as local gardeners in search of top quality plants, such as pelargoniums Michaels first love and irises, another speciality.

"The team are very committed and supportive of each other and its the only way it could work because what we do is very complex and it would be completely impossible unless people were very committed," he says.

He feels "privileged" to have Nico and Ed on board, despite their lack of formal training in plants, he adds.

"I can teach anybody about plants if they have the hunger. What I cannot teach is self-motivation, drive, and an understanding of teamwork and a gentle style of management. All of these qualities Nico and Edward hold in trumps and I feel very privileged to be able to hand on the business to them," he says.

Michael was halfway through a PhD in Russian Literature at the University of London in his early 20s when he got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. He joined Neals Yard to earn money, and within a short space of time, found himself running the business while its original founder lost interest for various reasons and moved on.

"I suppose the thing that motivated me most was I love working with small teams of people and the energy. Small businesses to me at their best are so well co-ordinated and so supportive of each other. Its a sort of unique social form I think," he says.

Neals Yard started out with a lot of "wonderful" unprocessed dried food with a minimum of packaging and everything in big bags. Sundried tomatoes and peanut butter were among the companys specialities. But after a while, the nature of Covent Garden, which had been a neglected corner of London, "a wonderful ghost town", as Michael describes it, began to change. Parking restrictions were introduced and a new type of buyer moved in. Wholefood shops were opening up all over the country and competition was increasing. The business moved down in scale from sacks of food to small packets a more fiddly and involved operation. By the time Michael sold up in 1988, the business included five shops.

Building Woottens from scratch wasnt easy, but for Michael, whose mother was a great gardening inspiration, horticulture had always been a passion.

"If you are not passionate about quality in anything, you should not be doing it"

"Once you have run your own business, nobody is ever going to employ you again. There were only two choices I felt passionate about. One was a bakery and making money out of a bakery was even sadder than trying to make money out of plants. My mother was a very passionate gardener and as a child I had learnt a lot about plants. You never stop learning," he says.

"We had a little bit of land and it has been a piecemeal thing of adding to the holding with complicated small purchases over the years."

From just half an acre, the nursery grew to 12 and a half acres. Michael began with about 250 varieties of plants and now has something approaching 4,000. The business is increasingly mail-order dominated and about 5,00 of plants go out every day by mail order.

The nursery is currently experiencing unprecedented growth in sales. An increase in orders from garden designers and internet sales from its recently revamped website means trade was up ny a third on last year.

Michael and the family are very much rooted in the local area. He was brought up in nearby Bulcamp by parents, Pru and Nico Loftus, who was heavily involved in Southwold-based brewery, Adnams. Michael was one of five children snd one of his brothers, Simon, became chairman of Adnams before stepping down from the role a few years ago.

All of Michaels children have spread their wings in very diverse ways. Nico, who trained as a wooden boat builder, has worked all over the world, including in Greece, Norway, Spain and even on the Cutty Sark in London. Ed worked in New Zealand in various places and spent 18 months as head pastry chef at Jamie Olivers Fifteen Restaurant in Old Street, London.

"They are all doing what they want to do which is the most important thing," says Michael

Ed joined the family business in May. He, his girlfriend Lucy, and Nico are now moving around the business, learning the ropes.

"I was away in New Zealand and Mike had always been trying to collar me into joining the family business. We had spoken about it for years," says Ed.

"I like the uniqueness of it. Obviously its a family business. Its a big part of me growing up. I have seen this grow up from one polytunnel."

Nico was in Norway restoring a boat when he and Ed spoke about the possibility of returning to the family business. Despite not being directly involved at that point, they had worked on it and been around it through their youth. Both felt it could work.

"We are very different. We complement each other. Nico is a very practical person," says Ed. "Growing up here you take in much more than you appreciate really and talking to Mike about things, its not a complete shock. Mike is an encyclopaedia hes full of information."

Michaels wife, Lizzie, is also becoming increasingly interested, and, as she is due to retire from her NHS job in December, may take up a part-time role.

"Ed and Nico have come back to work with me because I have realised Im approaching retirement and theres a good business here, and a fun business," says Michael.

The nurserys biggest draws are its irises, and its pelargoniums, although its range of other plants is large, but discerning. Michael only grows plants which he likes, and this includes a wide range of differently scented and unusual plants which he and his team have developed.

As the business has expanded, so too has the space it occupies, and many of the plants are now grown on a large field just down the road, which is also home to a beautiful family vegetable garden.

"We know about our plants and we care about our plants and all my staff are passionate about plants," says Michael. "Most of the time staff wont see me because Im busy talking to customers on the phone or doing work on the website.

"Im in the process of handing over my job now, but Im still working. I didnt start out to be a businessman and what I discovered at Neals Yard is its almost an exemplar of teamwork. When a team works well together its just magic.

"I have not set out to make a pile of money. Everyone thinks they (the businesses) make a pile of money but they dont. People come here and say its one of the greatest privileges of my life to come here and thats important to me. Everything we do, whether its the way the nursery is laid out, the website or whatever, its all of a one. Its not just making a living its doing something we care about."

He adds: "Im passionate about quality in anything and if you are not passionate about quality in anything you should not be doing it. You are causing harm and grief. Its people doing things they are not passionate about that causes most of the mess."

Over the years, Michael, who owned Neals Yard Wholefoods before selling up in 1988, has always offered up a different and original perspective on how to run a business well.

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