RHS gardens are like 'a big department store', says former boss of Peter Jones

David Morley says his wish list includes a fifth RHS garden as well as an urban garden to 'extend our reach into cities'.

Morley: joined the RHS in March
Morley: joined the RHS in March

New RHS director of gardens, shows and retail David Morley has likened running the newly amalgamated department to managing the Peter Jones store in Sloane Square, London, that he led from 2006 to 2013.

Morley joined the RHS in March 2014 after shows director Stephen Bennett, director of gardens James Rudoni, director of horticulture Jim Gardiner and head of retail Will Havercroft moved to different roles or left the organisation in a restructure the previous year.

He said he sees the RHS's gardens as "like a great big department store, putting on a show for the customer or visitor and great customer service, inspiring the visitor, making sure the catering ticks all the right boxes and then hopefully the retail offer - to take a piece of the RHS home that's inspired them".

He added: "Shows are the big new one for me but the principles are still the same - put on a great event and the visitors will tell their friends and family."

The new department, created to "break down silos" within the 200-year-old charity, according to director-general Sue Biggs, provides much of the RHS's income. The society's trading turns over some £20m a year and the shows £15m.

Morley, who was at the John Lewis Partnership from 1985 to 2014, joined the RHS commercial board as a volunteer to advise on retailing in 2011. He had previously advised the National Gallery in a similar role.

"After so many years in retail, the old adage retail is detail, merchandised to an inch of its life," he said. "I'm a stickler on standards, ordering and optimising things."

That manifests itself into "mowing, clipping and trimming" in his Chiswick garden, but he hopes "the technical stuff rubs off" through his RHS role.

Morley is based at the flagship RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey, where he sees lost sales because the plant centre is separate from the gift shop. "It would be easier for customers to see the whole lot together," he said.

Also on his wish list is the addition of a fifth RHS garden to the portfolio as well as an urban garden to "extend our reach into cities so that we can get more people understanding the RHS as a charity they love and trust so they want to work with us and help us to make a difference", he explained.

The urban garden would aim to bring in a new audience of community and allotment gardeners rather than the middle classes with which the RHS is associated. "It would bring something different to our game."

Commercial focus Impact on charity aims?

"Every business has budgets to drive the charity or keep the organisation moving forward," but does the commercial focus potentially compromise the RHS's charitable aims?

This question was posed by the society's head of gardens, shows and retail David Morley, who said the answer is no.

"If you've got a successful business it is going to enable the charity to have a wider reach and make a bigger impact. I don't see any conflict at all with that," he said.

"On previous visits to Chelsea Flower Show I tended to look at everything through the eyes of a customer or visitor. Can we make sure that what they see is everything they are looking for? Do they feel valued?"

He added: "It's about putting yourself in customers' shoes. It will be a different experience this year because I'll be much closer than before."

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