How a greengrocer’s son turned funeral director has won multiple Golds at RHS Chelsea

Eric Partridge

Son of working class greengrocer, Cardiff-born Tim Penrose has reinvented himself several times during his 55 frenetic years.

From moonlighting at a local radio station to an ‘enjoyable’ career as an undertaker, owning a resplendent coffee house to being crowned King of the hostas, you can add auctioneer to Tim’s eclectic CV.

The Moorlander looks back at this highly personable and entertaining entrepreneur’s formative years and highlights his impressive RHS Chelsea journey and the multiple successes achieved along the way.

“I didn’t fit in well at school,” Tim admitted. “I didn’t see the point of a lot of it although I was good at maths, but I was disinterested in things like Shakespeare or anything practical like mechanics. I enjoy using my creativity, my voice, talking about things – I love talking about things.”

It was talking about things that led to Tim’s first ‘job’ at a local radio station.

“In the early eighties I wangled my way into a job onto CBC, a commercial radio station in Cardiff (Cardiff Broadcasting Company) which had just opened. I was driving machines, did a little continuity, the weather, news stories; Martin Shankleman and John Hawkins now of Radio 4 were on the team there too at the time.

‘I remember a lovely girl there who used to read the weather in Welsh language but didn’t understand a jot of what she was reading, she didn’t know if she was telling listeners it was going to rain, hail or snow or if was going to be a lovely day,” Tim laughingly recalled.

“Radio was everything to me at the time and I really wanted to do that as a career so I started to bunk off school and go into the station in the morning to present ‘Thought for the Day’.  I got called out as one or two of the teachers had heard me and realised it was live and I hadn’t been at school so I got into trouble.

‘But I was just messing about too much really and not concentrating on anything in particular so I ended up being asked to leave school and had no idea what I wanted to do except radio. I continued to do bits and bobs for the station until a change of management shook the whole thing up and took away some of what I had been doing. I became a little disillusioned and left.”

So Tim considered his options and came up with the idea of applying for jobs that nobody would want and ended up working at the local funeral directors. He stayed there for a few months before joining a larger firm who had six funeral homes as a manager.

“I absolutely loved the world of funeral directing, it was just so interesting and so varied. By my mid-twenties I had risen through the ranks to quite a senior executive position but when the company was taken over my responsibilities diminished and I just got bored. When I left eight and a half years later, the firm had grown to 659 homes. I was just very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time; it shaped what I am today.”

But it was a chance encounter with a Cappuccino and a prawn sandwich at the original Costa Coffee in Baker Street, London in 1990, which inspired the now-adopted Devonian to open a coffee shop in the centre of Birmingham where he was living at the time.

“I was sat in Costa and thought this is brilliant, what if I could recreate this in the middle of Birmingham?” And in typical Penrose style, he did.

“We hadn’t got a clue what we were doing, everything was so wrong for the first couple of years so I called in some expert help and employed three staff from the Savoy in London who introduced a proper structure and the business took off. We were the talk of the town. Five years later a company in Australia was researching material for a book on the world’s best coffee houses and wanted to include us. Not only were we included but we were on the front cover!” Tim proudly boasts.

Tim and his wife Ruth had been married for eleven years by then and Anna, their first child, had arrived in 1999 which was a big sea change, Tim admits.

“Hudson’s , was quite settled and it didn’t really need me to be there all of the time and to a certain extent I was getting a bit bored by then too. So having holidayed in Devon numerous times as Ruth’s parents ran a hosta business called Bowden’s Hostas in Sticklepath, in 2001 we decided to up sticks and move to Devon permanently.

‘Originally we just wanted to carry on running the coffee business and had no thoughts about taking on the hostas whatsoever, that wasn’t the plan, but Ruth’s parents Roger and Anne had been trying to sell it for ages. Even though the business was well structured and had a marvellous heritage, there had been no takers.

‘Roger was even on the Hosta Nomenclature Committee, they really knew their hostas, they knew Eric Smith who was really big in hostas, they met Prince Charles who is a fan of hostas and they had the National Hosta Collection which still lives in Sticklepath today,” Tim enthusiastically recalled.

“They had the infrastructure to make the business a roaring success but Roger wasn’t really that interested in pushing the business or selling the plants, he didn’t really feel that the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was worth the effort and was hard work but then I arrived and looked at it with different eyes.

‘I could see the sales opportunity at Chelsea; in the previous year Roger had turned over £750-£800. When we took it over we did around £5,000, and over a period of time we ramped it up by tweaking it and engaging in friendly banter with people rather than just handing out leaflets. In one year we took £38,000!

‘The first year we went to Chelsea was 2004. We didn’t have a clue what we were going to do so we just followed the pattern set previously by Roger and Anne and we won a Silver Gilt medal that year and then won Gold the following year. I worked out that you’re going to get 160,000 visitors over five days and they’re all looking to spend some money and it’s the most prestigious flower show in the whole world and I wanted to do it well and do it properly. I like the idea of going to that showpiece to do my thing and to build it up. I like to do things differently.

‘We got Gold in 2005, Gold in 2006, Gold in 2007 and it all got a bit boring by then but the pressure was always on to get Gold. We got Gold in ‘8, ‘9, ’10 and ‘11  by which time we’d also bought a fern business which had Martin Rickard’s name – Rickard’s Hardy Ferns. Martin Rickard is a legend in ferns, he’s written five books on the subject, he’s even written a book about fern books!

‘I thought if we display the ferns at Chelsea as well then perhaps we could win two Golds, which is a bit ambitious but not many people have got two Golds. So we got double Gold in ’12, double Gold in ‘13 and in ‘14 we got double Gold again so I’m thinking ‘ok, if we buy this bamboo business we’d been looking at then why don’t we go for triple Gold in ‘15’ which we did, and instead I managed to fall spectacularly on my backside as we didn’t get a single Gold! ”

This potentially pride-denting snub made Tim even more determined to do something that was radically different to previous years so they floated various ideas to the RHS with the intention of taking a massive stand for 2016 and making a massive statement too.

“The really big stand, around 5,000 square feet, was always done by Hilliers,” Tim continued, “with hundreds of trees surrounding the war monument in the centre of the marquee. I thought we could do something more interesting with the ferns and hostas. We could create a journey and we could have something exciting in the middle.

‘We considered a few ideas, spoke to Chelsea and in the end I talked to the people who own the Orient Express train and thought why don’t we have the British version of the Orient Express, the British Belmond Pullman – 63 feet long 38 tons in the middle and we’ll build an English garden on one side with a beautiful fifty-grand greenhouse or conservatory. Take a journey through the glasshouse up onto the train with a proper platform, period luggage and other vintage props, they walk through the train and then come out into a Malaysian fern garden because they’ve taken the journey on the train.

‘My designer said I was living in the realms of fantasy but we did it, we bloody did it. It was the largest single display and a total spend of around £230,000, much of which we got sponsored. We met Her Majesty the Queen, but it almost finished me. It was huge, hugely pressured to get it right, we were punching massively above our weight. Normally we did a 300 square foot stand but this was 5,800 and it was so spectacular it was something that people remember even today.”

This massive undertaking took three weeks to construct, as the Belmond had to be sat on actual train tracks and laid on proper grade ballast, not just for authenticity but safety too. But Tim recalls a Champagne moment when searching for those added extras which can make such a difference to the overall effect.

“I was walking through Sloane Square and came upon a shop called Bentleys which sold very expensive luggage. I strolled in wearing my hi-viz jacket and workman boots and after explaining what I was doing at Chelsea I brazenly asked if we could borrow some of their luggage for our display. The salesman pointed out that the trunk I had been eyeing up was Louis Vuitton and cost £36,000!

‘Nevertheless he could see the benefit to his firm and came along and we dressed the platform in crocodile skin Louis Vuitton luggage and other authentic accessories which totalled a mere £80,000! It gave the set the finishing touch and it looked absolutely fabulous.”

But Tim reckons the investment was definitely worthwhile as it put a ‘stake in the ground’ by paving the way and opening doors for equally ambitious projects ever since.

“We didn’t know what to do the following year as we didn’t want to go as big as it was too much hassle so it was decided that it would be a really good idea if we could have something to do with Royalty. So we rang the equerry to Her Majesty the Queen and managed to borrow her Australian State Coach which is liberally coated in gold leaf and worth £5 million!

‘We would never have been able to do that if we hadn’t done the Belmond Pullman train the year before. The year after, in 2018, this eccentric Australian guy who was totally bonkers had built this amazing Royal Fabergé egg so that became the focal point of our stand that year.

‘Last year we featured a Bentley car worth £250,000 and this year, assuming the Show is allowed to go ahead, we’ll be featuring a Bugatti car worth a couple of million quid.

‘It’s the sense of drama which excites me and the immense pleasure I get when I see people go WOW!!”

One thing’s for certain is that whatever project Tim Penrose decides to immerse himself in, you can always expect the unexpected!

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