how.jpgThe Herberts have had successful careers: Allan as a group executive and insurance company president at Teledyne, and Patti at the Grubb & Ellis commercial real estate firm. More recently, they renovated the historic Richmond Hotel in Miami Beach, which they continue to own and operate. Here, they discuss “one of our more unusual projects,” from 2000.

Betewen the two of us, we've worked on a fair number of business projects over the years, but one in particular stands out: our gold medal-winning entry in the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show in England. The project presented a number of business challenges, from creative design to the sourcing of hard-to-find materials and the need for aggressive time frames – not to mention the sheer number of local and international phone calls involved to coordinate it all.

The idea to get involved in the Chelsea show was planted years ago, when we were doing business in England. A colleague there told us that the English are the best gardeners in the world. They do love gardening, but we decided to challenge that notion. We said we would put together an exhibit for the Chelsea Flower Show – one of the world’s premier horticultural events – and predicted we would win a gold medal. I don’t think we convinced the colleague, though. Few Americans even participate in the show. However, the thought stuck with us, and in 2000 we decided to give it a try. To design and build our exhibit – a display of exotic tropical plants – we worked with Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables. We collected various species of flowers and plants from places throughout Florida – some even came from individuals’ backyards. We also ended up sending our garden designer to the Netherlands to pick out exotic plants that weren’t available in Florida.

The final product contained thousands of plants, including orchids, bromeliads and 32 grown palm trees. The plants were displayed as a tropical rain forest around a small lake and a concrete and fiberglass “mountain” with a waterfall tumbling down the front. More than 30 people in Florida and England were involved in pulling it all together, and the exhibit filled a custommade shipping pallet that measured about 25 feet by 40 feet.

Of course, we then had to get it all to England. The exhibit was disassembled, and the mountain was put on a ship, while we made plans to fly the plants over. It turns out it’s not that easy to find a carrier in Miami to take a huge crate filled with plants. So, we contacted the British consulate in Miami, which helped us find a British Airways cargo plane that would do the job. At that time, though, British Airways did not fly to Miami, so we had to load the exhibit onto a truck, drive it to the airport in Atlanta and load it on the plane – which was named, appropriately enough, the Chelsea Rose. The typical route for this flight was through Frankfurt, Germany, and then on to London. But because of the perishable nature of our cargo, the plane changed its itinerary and went to London first, safely carrying all those plants and the two people we sent along to watch over them.

There was one plant that had to be flown to England separately because of timing issues. This plant – called the corpse flower – blooms only once over the course of several years, and then only for a day or two. When it does, it smells bad, but the large flower is dramatic and beautiful. So we booked a separate flight to make sure this unusual plant arrived at the right time to bloom for the show.

In England, it took us a week to reassemble the exhibit. We were given a place in the center of the Chelsea show, where the ceiling was high enough to accommodate the 24-foot palm trees. During the show, people were lined up 10 and 20 deep to see our display. The corpse flower bloomed right on cue. We met Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the royal family.

When the event was over, we sold the flowers to show visitors, a Chelsea Flower Show tradition. But we had decided in advance to donate the palm trees to the nearby historic Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. At one point, Prince Charles stopped by and asked if he could get two of the palms. However, we had to say no because of the donation. He had to settle for just one of our palm trees.

It was very gratifying to win a medal at the show, of course. But we achieved another goal, as well. We had set out to highlight Miami (and promote our hotel) and Fairchild, and we succeeded. In fact, attendance at Fairchild increased significantly after the show.

When we ask ourselves how we did it, we find that the answer really lies in applying the same kind of business acumen we’ve drawn on in our careers. We began with an idea, created a plan and executed the plan. Along the way, we ran into obstacles that had to be overcome, adjusted the plan to adapt to changing realities and kept moving toward the goal. And yes, we won the gold medal!

—As told to Peter Haapaniemi

Spring 2017
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