There’s nothing particularly unusual about Wes Fleming's third generation family nursery business, apart from the fact that it is Australia’s largest tree wholesaler, with 60 per cent of the market.
Oh, and it just won the Chelsea Flower Show, which is the World Cup, Olympics and America’s Cup of horticulture, rolled into one.
Wes is the first ever non-Pom to win it. If it were a sport, he would be as famous in Australia as Cathy Freeman or John Bertrand. There’d be a ticker tape parade, keys to the city, and charitable foundations in his name.
As it is, he just got to meet the Queen seven times. When they last chatted, she said: “Wes, I believe this is your last Chelsea. You’ll be missed.”
Yes, 2013 was Wes Fleming’s 9th and last Chelsea. This year there were 15 show gardens entered and Fleming's entry, below, designed by Phil Johnson, took Wes, Phil and the team of 16 from Australia 18 days to build, working 14-hour days, bringing plants in from Italy and Spain and rocks from Scotland.
On May 25th they won, an almost unbelievable Aussie triumph. You bloody ripper!
Fleming's Nursery was started in Monbulk, near Melbourne, in the early 1920s by Wes’s grandfather Eric, who had been working at a nursery nearby which went bust. He saw the opportunity for a wholesale bare root tree nursery and went for it.
That wasn’t the only thing old Eric went for: he and Wes’s grandmother had 11 children – six boys and five girls. And as often happened in those days, the girls weren’t invited into the business; all the boys were.
Gradually the proliferation of sons in Eric D Fleming & Sons was winnowed down. Morrie bought the citrus tree business off his father and left. Len just left. Ken died. And finally Don, Wes’s father, bought out his remaining two brothers in 1983.
Wes Fleming was then 21 and had been working in the family business for a few years with his older brother Graham.
The three of them – Don, Wes and Graham – worked and grew the business into the nation’s most successful tree nursery, supplying most of the commercial fruit orchards and all of the retail nurseries in the land.
But Wes and his brother weren’t getting on, and it was clear to Don that the business his father had started wasn’t going to survive in one piece.
This happens all the time in family businesses. Wes and Graham simply had different philosophies: for Wes it was “business first, family second”, which meant kids didn’t have a right to enter the business, they had to earn it. For Graham it was the other way around – the business was there to serve the family.
And perhaps above all, Graham thought the Chelsea Flower Show was a bloody waste of time and money; for Wes it was an abiding passion and ambition.
So in 2008, after four fruitless Chelseas, they agreed to split the business. Graham got the commercial orchard business, which he called Graham’s Factree (get it?), while Wes got Fleming’s Nursery, supplying retailers and local councils. Graham wanted to be paid cash for giving up the Fleming’s name, but Don ruled against him, although there was an equalization between the brothers through properties.
Fleming’s Nursery is still a true family business. It is still formally owned by Don, 78, and his wife Dawn, 76, although they have little to do with the running of it these days. Wes is Managing Director and his wife Paige is marketing manager.
Wes’ three children from his first marriage, Jessica, 25, Jake, 22, and Todd, 21, all work in the business as “shitkickers”, learning it from the ground up, as it were. There’s also two-year-old Aurelia and Paige is currently pregnant with her second.
The business is run by a management team of seven, led by Wes, including several 25-year employees, and has recently expanded into advanced trees as well as a soft landscaping business (that means no paving and construction, just plants).
Wes refused to tell me how much the business turns over (“It’s private: I always forget to put in our annual returns too”), but he did say they sell between 350,000 and 400,000 trees a year.
Where to from here? Well no more Chelsea Flower Shows for a start. Wes says he’s tempted to move into retailing instead of exclusively wholesaling, but he might leave that to his kids to do. “It doesn’t excite me greatly,” he says, but the problem is that, as happened with fresh food, it’s clear that nursery retailing is consolidating rapidly, with power concentrating in the hands of Coles associate, Bunnings, and Woolworths’ Masters chain.
What happened with fresh food in recent years is that Coles and Woolworths established direct relationships with suppliers, instead of buying through wholesalers and wholesale markets. Wholesalers have been squeezed.
Whether that is repeated in trees is hard to say, but Wes says the delineation between wholesaler and retailer is already being muddied. “Bunnings and Masters will increasingly dominate, that’s clear,” he says.
“We’re old school. Maybe one day we’ll move into retailing, but for the moment we’ll just do what we know.”
And as the world champion nurseryman, Wes Fleming knows a bit.
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Alan Kohler will be hosting two Ashes lunches with Gideon Haigh and former Wisden editor Stephen Fay (also the author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings) on June 25 in Sydney and June 26 in Melbourne. To book a table click here.