Name: Victoria Clemson
Where did you grow up? Blackpool
Where do you work? London
Role: Harrods Concession Manager & Product Development Specialist at Neill Strain Floral Couture
I’ve been a florist for 18 years, I started as a Saturday girl when I was 13. I’d cycle to the shop after school and enjoyed it so much I decided I’d love to do it full time. If this was going to be my career path, I wanted to learn as much as possible.
I began as apprentice at Jeanettes florist in Blackpool and I stayed there for four years, taking my level 2 and 3 NVQ. Not everyone believes you need the qualifications, but I think it’s important to get that underpinning knowledge and then you can find what your own values are. Within my apprenticeship years at Jeanettes, I was lucky enough to be exposed to working abroad on designer projects at Girona Flower Festival. This exposure to working with a bigger team with advanced designer skills, on large scale installations, blew my mind. I was also encouraged to enter floristry competitions, and soon found a love for thinking outside the box, I loved the techniques and creativity of it. I’m an avid believer in competition floristry – people think it’s not commercial but I’m actually applying it in my role today.
Job options in the industry weren’t obvious at first, other than becoming a retail florist. I didn’t know what else was out there. I knew I wanted to maximise my career in the industry as much as I could, so I decided to complete my BA Hons degree in Floral Art and Design at Myerscough College part-time.
While on the hunt for a new job, I asked my local wholesaler, Peter Smiths in Preston, if they knew of any retail roles in the area. They informed me they had a job opening as a sales associate, working with a team of guys in the sales room, which was daunting at the time as I was only 20, female, in a male-led wholesale industry. Nevertheless, I took the role as I wanted to challenge myself in a different way, and it paid off as I settled in well. I found I brought a different outlook to the team, I loved helping the florists with their daily requirements, and before I knew it, I was there for nearly six years!
Eventually I wanted to find my next challenge. My long-term goal was to move to London: I had no ties to stop me, and I would hate living with regrets and ‘what ifs’. For the interim, I decided to go freelance full time. I loved it; I built up a network of florists and I picked up opportunities along the way. In a short space of time, I learnt so much from amazing florists! There are so many talents out there. Not having fixed hours gave me the flexibility to travel and interview in London. I had just finished my degree and felt it was also the right time to enter the heats for Chelsea Flower Show, as I didn’t have fixed working hours.
Looking for a job was tough. Sometimes it seemed that because interviewers knew I was from the north, they weren’t sure that I would take to London culture. At one point I was offered a job but I turned it down because my gut told me it wasn’t right, as the pay wasn’t sustainable for the long hours it asked for. Florists work bloody hard, so I don’t think we should settle for that. For me, company culture is important – valuing the team and the skills they have.
When I walked into Neill Strain’s store, I got that lovely, glowing feeling. My now line manager was so understanding, approachable and professional, I had such a strong gut feeling that this was the company I wanted to work for. Within one month it was all change. I got the job at Neill’s, competed at Chelsea and won gold. Within seven weeks at Neill’s, my manager offered me a role at the new Neill Strain concession at Harrods. It involved people management which I knew would stretch my skills and something I had been keen to explore so I became assistant manager and have progressed to manager. When I started managing the team I spent a lot of time reading, learning, even researching psychology and thinking about how I’ve been treated in the past and how I would want to be treated.
Now, I’m really excited as I’m about to start another new role as a product development specialist, which is about creating brand identity. I’m applying new skills to this too – I’ve taken a course in digital products and I’m developing new processes and infrastructure for the business.
Part of the diversity of floristry is that you’ve got to adapt. You need to empower yourself with knowledgeable people – you can’t know everything. I’m now learning in all kinds of new areas: business strategy, financial models, marketing, photography, web design and more. If someone asks, “what do you do for work?” we all say “I’m a florist” but there’s so much more to it than that!
I’m very grateful to have had opportunities, I’ve reached out to try to create new ones, I’ve worked my socks off and I am extremely passionate about our industry. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I’m in it for the long haul.
What is the best thing about your job?
It’s challenging but in an exciting way. I love bouncing off other people and a collaborative working environment – that’s important as you can’t learn everything on your own.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Managing my own expectations. Having big ambitions is a strength but also a weakness. I have to try to manage my own excitement and tunnel that to be positive.
What advice would you give to newcomers?
People are really important; know how to talk to people and surround yourself with positive influences. You need to be commercially minded and try to keep learning with an open mind. If you have the appetite, follow it, surround yourself with the right people and go with your gut.