A queen of collaboration, Alison Howe, of Mad Lilies in Banstead, loves nothing more than supporting local businesses and was recently awarded for her efforts with a national High Street Hero award. In the latest of our Local Inspiration series we find out how she got into floristry, what it’s been like for the industry over the past year and why flowers are such a wonderful addition to a home.
How did you become a florist?
Flowers are a big part of my heritage – my late mum and grandmother owned a floristry business in Belfast together when I was growing up – but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I began to wonder if I too had the floristry gene.
I previously worked in sales and marketing for pharmaceutical but after my mother died in 2011, I decided to enrol in a floristry course with Jane Packer, and five minutes in, I knew I too had to forge a career in flowers.
Starting from scratch aged 44 was not going to be easy so I decided it was best to find an established business to buy, which I could then take in the direction I wanted. Easier said than done – the search took a long time.
But, then I got a call about a business that was up for sale in Banstead, called Mad Lilies. Living in London, I had no idea where Banstead was but my grandmother’s name was Lily so it felt like a sign and, following a four-month handover, I took the keys in February 2013.
My husband Darren and I moved into a renovated pub in the Surrey countryside and have never looked back. We love all Surrey has to offer, as do our dogs Duffy and Dougal, and you’ll often find us foraging for foliage, berries and flowers in the countryside.
Tell us about your recent High Street Hero award…
The Small Awards is organised annually by Small Business Britain, which champions, inspires and accelerates small businesses in the UK across all sectors. We found out we’d been shortlisted along with four other businesses for the High Street Hero category in April. On May 13 there was a virtual ceremony and I was surprised at my door with the award and a delivery of cocktails and nibbles.
We will continue working with our community to build awareness of the high street and showcase the fabulous independent businesses we have in Banstead and Surrey. We love a collaboration and not only do we see the business benefit from them but we enjoy learning and developing from other local businesses as we all evolve to meet consumer needs.
It’s an amazing accolade to have won, particularly in such a tough year…
Thank you. Yes, it’s been an incredibly tough year. The first lockdown was announced the week before Mother’s Day, which is the biggest day in the floristry calendar. Weddings were, of course also off the cards, which is a massive part of the business so we were hit hard.
But the team worked hard to get Mother’s Day deliveries out before we went into lockdown and, while the shop had to close, it soon became apparent we would be able to do deliveries and we became quite busy with orders from people gifting bouquets to loved ones they weren’t able to visit.
Like many other businesses, we diversified and created a flower subscription service, Bare Naked Stems, and we also hid jam jars of flowers across Surrey for people to find and take home as random acts of kindness. As well as flowers, we stock all sorts of lovely homeware and gifts in the shop so lockdown was also a catalyst for getting our Mad Lilies at Home collection online.
You’ve been called the Queen of Collaboration, what businesses do you enjoy partnering with and why?
There’s something quite exceptional about the High Street’s small and independent shops in how open they are to supporting one another.
Throughout lockdown, we partnered with other Banstead businesses such as Fego, Café Chai and Louisa Grace to cross promote wherever possible. We did a Valentine’s Day meal kit with food supplied by Two Many Cooks and cocktails from the Drunken Jockeys. We also had a Tea Towel designed by Surrey Illustrator Lisa Tolley to promote all that is great about Banstead and then we worked with local illustrator Lewis Woodham, from Wood&Ham to create an illustration of our shop for our gift cards that go out with our bouquets.
We also collaborated with Gayas Cakes and Cai & Kyn on our Here’s to Hugs gift set which included a bouquet, brownies, a gift card and candle.
How do flowers enhance a home and what tips would you give people to enhance their longevity?
There’s a lot of research out there to suggest that flowers and house plants offer health benefits; they relieve stress and lift your mood. Plus, they enhance any form of celebration, however large or small. My top tips are:
- If budget allows, buy flowers from a florist like Mad Lilies instead of a supermarket. Not only are you supporting small, local businesses but you’ll also find more unusual stems and they will last longer as the flowers will usually have been delivered to the florist that day and so haven’t already sat there for some time.
- Always change the water (don’t just refill) and re-trim the stems every couple of days.
- Keep the flowers as cool as possible, so don’t put near radiators or direct sunlight