Challenges for retail SMEs

In the second instalment of the Small Business Insight series, we talk to world-recognised Bonsai specialist Peter Chan, managing director of Herons. Peter boasts a record tally of 21 Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, nine books and a handful of British Television appearances. Peter's Bonsai Nursery attracts budding entrepreneurs and customers from across the Globe, who are keen to learn how his business is run.

Herons' is Britain's Premier Bonsai Nursery and retailer based in Lingfield, Surrey, where he runs a seven and a half acre Bonsai Nursery which he and his wife started back in 1986. Peter talks to us about his unique career path and business journey, focusing on the importance of a strong support network, perseverance and maintaining control of your business on the path to small business success.

Tell me about your business; how did it start?

“I came to the UK in 1963 and have worked in the Electricity supply industry, the UK Civil Service as an engineer and the privatisation speech writer for Energy ministers and the Prime Minister.

The work was highly demanding and stressful, with very little satisfaction or promotion prospects - so I quit my secure job to turn my hobby of bonsai into a business.

 We came across a derelict nursery in Newchapel, near Lingfield in 1985 and moved there in January 1986. ”

Where did the name come from?

“We kept the original name – Herons – as we coincidentally discovered that it directly translated as ‘prosperity’ and ‘longevity’ in Chinese and Japanese folklore. We feel this set us on the right path for long-term business success.”

Business Challenges?
"It was God's way of telling us to bulldoze the whole thing and start again from scratch." 

“While we are now established and successful, it hasn’t always been easy. 

"It was quite a gamble at the time because the future was uncertain - the economic climate was tough and interest rates very high. A particular challenge for us and other small business owners was simply starting up. Even after I gave up my job, we couldn’t afford to employ anyone for the first two years.”But with grit and determination we turned a derelict piece of land into what most people would now regard as a paradise. This is Herons Bonsai - The UK’s premier bonsai nursery.

He adds: “Weather has also presented challenges for the business. Our old greenhouses were destroyed in a storm; as these dated back to World War 2, they were not covered by insurance.”

However, Peter’s misfortunes did not set him back. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity:

“It was God’s way of telling us to bulldoze the whole thing and start again from scratch.”

Peter’s exemplary attitude and perseverance offers inspiration to fellow small business owners in the face of adversity.

“With grit and determination we turned a derelict piece of land into what most people would now regard as a paradise.That’s the attitude as a small business owner if you want to succeed”.

Advice for small businesses?

“The support of my wife, my family and friends has been so important and key in sustaining our business. I think with any small business you have to have the family’s support, otherwise it is very unlikely you will succeed. You need to be in tune with each other.”

In addition to this, Peter emphasises the importance for small business owners to maintain control of the business:

“I don’t want to lose control of the business because I always intended to enjoy the work I do. That is part of the magic secret of running a small business.”