Chris Milan’s love affair with plants and gardening started from an early age and continued to dominate his working life until his recent untimely death on 4 March.
Born in 1959 Oxted, Surrey, his links to Wallington started in the early 1960s when his family moved to the area to settle. He successfully completed his education at Wallington Grammar School in 1977.
During his time at Wallington Grammar in the early 1970s his association with Lawrence Newton of Woodcote Green Nursery started. Along with some school friends he secured a part-time weekend job tending plants on the nursery and selling hanging baskets to the local pubs.
Finishing school with a healthy set of A-Level results he secured a place at Plymouth University and successfully completed a four-year degree in business studies. During his time at university he continued working with Lawrence Newton in Wallington during the holidays and enjoyed this time greatly, particularly the long hot summers of 1970s which he often spoke fondly of. From an early age Lawrence could clearly see the future potential in Chris, and it was only a matter of time before a lifelong friendship and mutual admiration would begin. While the Wallington site had always retailed plants and gardening products Chris and Lawrence could both see the future potential of the nursery, being only 12 miles from Hyde Park Corner and with 2 million chimney pots within a 5 mile radius it was obvious that the onsite retail activities could be greatly enhanced to unlock its full potential.
Chris felt he needed some garden industry experience before taking on such a project so first secured a job with Whelan’s seed merchants in Essex. Following this he was recruited by Beaconsfield Garden Centres first working at their Handcross site in West Sussex before being given the opportunity to set up and manage their new store at St Leonards on Sea near Hastings, which he did successfully, taking it from a building site to one of their top performing sites in under a year.
Finally in the spring of 1984 a partnership with Lawrence was established. With some backing from a friendly local bank manager, Chris set out on his horticultural dream of creating one of the busiest garden centres in Europe. A slow and steady expansion of the site continued through the 1980s and a strong customer following was soon established. Horticulture and great customer service coupled with a fair price was always at the core of the strategy but innovation was key to the future success of the business. One such project was established in 1996 with the first compost Drive Thru in the country. The idea originated when Chris visited a drive through liquor store in Australia and observed that customers seemed to buy more product when the car was next to the product. He could see this working for compost and heavy goods, his hunch was right and the rest is history! A milestone was reached in 1999 when the nursery won its first retail accolade picking up the HTA Retail Nursery of the Year award. Two years later this was followed with a prestigious RHS gold medal and Best Small Garden award in 2001 received at the Hampton Court Flower show for the garden centres second attempt at a show garden. By now the Woodcote Green brand was firmly being established.
Without losing its horticultural credentials and identity the Woodcote Green site continued to develop its appeal to customers through the 2000’s under Chris’s leadership. A strategy to promote the site heritage was launched during this time, to highlight the home grown, home produced range of products which Chris and the team were and still are very proud of. The team were always central to Chris’s focus. His inspirational leadership and ability to get the best out of those who wanted to take the opportunities offered was at the very heart of the success of the centre. In both 2009 and 2015 Chris was proud to accept the Retail Outlet of the Year award on behalf of all the team. Woodcote Green is now firmly established as a benchmark garden retailer with a dedicated work force over 200 staff and a turnover that puts it in the top five single site garden centre operations in the UK. The dream and vision became a reality.
Woodcote Green manager Phil Barnden said: "I was always inspired by his drive and enthusiasm to get the job done, even when the chips were down! His wit and sense of humour was infectious and even in the darkest times he would make us all laugh. His retail intelligence, attention to detail and instinct was second to none. His ability to inspire a team to follow him was impressive and one of his biggest attributes was to never to give up on anyone or anything and above all have no regrets. He would say to me, "Phil you just have to find the right peg for the right hole!" and he was usually right. In Chris’s eyes retailing was simple, just work hard, do the basics well, build the right team and offer excellent products, fairly priced with exceptional customer service, the rest will follow.
"Though we have lost a great boss and friend, his legacy will live on in all that were lucky enough to know and work with him over the years, we simply wouldn’t be the people we are today had we not met and worked for Chris. We are all very proud to be part of the Woodcote Green story. He will be greatly missed by colleagues, suppliers and customers and our love and thoughts go out to his family Jane, Alix, Ben and Amy for their loss."
The funeral will be held at Brockham Church 12pm Friday 24th March followed by a celebration at the family home in Leigh afterwards.