Podcast Episode 106: Rachel Doyle CEO, Arboretum Garden Centre | The Glass Is Not Half Full; It's Full All The Time

Rachel Doyle CEO of Arboretum is the third ever Lifetime Achievement Award winner (and first woman to win) the Retail Excellence award in Ireland.


Tell me something good about retail

Rachel Doyle CEO, Arboretum Garden Centre: The Glass Is Not Half Full; It's Full All The Time



Three Takeaways:

  • Unless people die, anything else we can sort out in life
  • An opportunity has to be realized in the lifetime of the opportunity.  
  • Dare to be different and go outside of the boundaries


Bob: Today I am with...

Rachel: Rachel Doyle from Arboretum Garden Centres in Carlow and Kilquade and Wicklow in Ireland.

Bob: Tell me something about your business and how you got started?

Rachel: Sure. I went back to college at 22 to study horticulture and then came and opened a garden center 40 years ago.

Bob: And then why did you go school to learn horticulture?

Rachel: Because where I lived in a very remote part of County Carlow in Ireland, we didn't have career guidance. So I left school, didn't really know what I was going to do, worked in an office, done a course, went teaching and one of the teachers showed me an ad in the paper for a scholarship to study horticulture. And I thought, "That's me."

Bob: I love that. So you had a passion for it.

Rachel: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think if you have a passion and a dream, you can do anything you want and make it come true. I made my dreams come true. I love what I do. I'm absolutely passionate about plants. I actually do not consider I work. I think the team in Arboretum, we've over 100 people employed and they all think I work really hard...

Bob: But not for you?

Rachel: No. No.

Bob: See, I think that's really great, that's why this podcast is called "Tell Me Something Great About Retail" because I get to meet people like Rachel who...you're not telling me how horrible is to be you, you're telling me how much you like being you.

Rachel: Absolutely, yeah.

Bob: And you chose to be you.

Rachel: Yes. And I suppose, you know, I think you can...I'm an eternal optimist. I mean, the glass is not half full, it's full all the time. And unless people die, anything else we can sort out in life. That's my philosophy...

Bob: I love that.

Rachel: ...and I really do think that we can, you know, we need to get people in a really positive frame of mind. I think that to know you can go out and say, "It's raining, [inaudible 00:01:56] and raining is lovely. Let the rain on my face," I like it. So I just...

Bob: Why is that important though for you, for people to remain positive?

Rachel: Because I like to surround myself with positive people. I don't want to do negs, negative people.

Bob: But that's kind of what we're surrounded with. At least in the States, it seems like...

Rachel: Well, no. But, you know, you can try and... Do you know what I believe? You know, I have in the staff room, in the Arboretum, we have smiley faces, and saying, "You know, if you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours because you don't know what the person is coming in, what burdens they're bringing in." And by just being friendly and smiling and "Good morning" to them and chatting and I'm a chatter box...

Bob: Could you tell that with her? No, not at all.

Rachel: ...and it's a great feeling. Then, you know, I often find that people share with me some very personal things, but that's fine. I've actually done marriage counseling for years so, on a voluntary basis.

Bobs: I think retailers, I think we are always are kind of this counselor for the public in a lot of ways, aren't we?

Rachel: Absolutely and that's fine.

Bob: Because they're coming to you for hope, aren't they?

Rachel: Yes, yes.

Bob: Like, "I'm a gardener, tell me the deer won't eat this, please," right? That's my thing. Or, "Tell me that I can actually do this." And you're saying, "Well, yeah. We can do that."

Rachel: Yeah. And, you know, one tree can support a family of four, can convert enough carbon dioxide to oxygen to support a family of four. How good is that? Why don't we surround ourselves with trees and with plants?

Bob: Why don't we?

Rachel: And with plants, you know, they're converting aloe vera, for example, a beautiful plant that's great for loads of things like psoriasis and skin diseases and so on. You know, makeup is made with aloe vera. But that's a great plant to have in your bedroom, to convert the carbon dioxide that you're breathing out to oxygen while you sleep. So, you know, and again, plants in office. But this is not a horticulture lesson.

Bob: But it could be. It could be. Because see, it is really hard for her if you couldn't tell is, she has to really think about what she's talking about, like, "Oh, this is like...let me list this." It just comes naturally with you, which is what I think. Your whole demeanor from when I first met you is just this open kind of way with the world. And I don't think we run into that enough and I think that when I see it and you can feel it, I always wanna know how you got there. I mean, were you always an optimist? Were you always looking at the positive? Did you see other people who weren't and said, "Not me? I mean?

Rachel: I suppose I have always. I just don't think anything else except...do you know, I had a very poor education in the beginning, and I went back to college and I got first class honors. Not because I was bright, but because I was doing something that I absolutely loved. Couldn't get enough information and every day I get up, I'm learning and I'm always reading stuff and I'm always going on. Like yesterday, I felt your presentation was superb. All the presenters were excellent and I just get energy from that and I'm energized by that and energized by meeting really fabulous, wonderful people in retail and chatting with them.

Bob: And not going with any of the negs...

Rachel: No. No.

Bob: ...because there's a lot of them out there, right?

Rachel: Don't do those. I don't want to sit down and have coffee with those.

Bob: Why not?

Rachel: Because if you allow it, but we have the free will to stop it. But we can allow them bring us down with us. But we mustn't do that. We must stay up on that positive stage.

Bob: So you have to be on guard for that.

Rachel: Yeah.

Bob: Okay. I like that. And so you have this idea, you open a garden center, you've just got your degree and now you have 100 people working for you. So how do you get there? Because you didn't wake up and say, "I wanna be a retailer with 100 employees," right?

Rachel: Yeah. No, I didn't. I worked very hard, but, you know, I was chatting with you at breakfast this morning and I said to you, "An opportunity has to be realized in the lifetime of the opportunity." And I still believe that. I still believe there're so many people are blind to that. But, you know, like I'll give you a great example...

Bob: I was just gonna ask you. Give me an example.

Rachel: Yeah. We... A motorway. We were on the main road between Dublin and two major cities in Ireland. And suddenly there was a motorway put in and we were absolutely devastated. We spent 2.2 million during the depths of the recession to revamp our garden center in Carlow. And we put in a 340-seater restaurant that had been about less than 200. And I'm talking about in the middle of nowhere. I think it's the center of the universe.

Bob: Of course you do.

Rachel: And it is absolutely superb and very successful. We revamped...

Bob: But you could have pulled back at that time.

Rachel: Yes.

Bob: You could have said, "Be careful, be afraid."

Rachel: Yeah. And everybody told me we were mad to even think of doing this. But I knew we weren't. I believed that this was the right decision. And it's a family business. My two sons and my husband who is retired, we're all involved in it. And it's wonderful. But it was a big decision. But it was the right decision. And I never doubted, but it was the right decision.

Bob: And the opportunity in a lifetime, so that means like when you have that thought, you can't like say, "I'll get around with it someday," is what you're...

Rachel: No, no. But just after that happening, this is the opportunity came again. Just as we were finished having got the banks to give us the money, another garden center came on for sale up in South Dublin. And the owner had phoned me several times and I used to say to them, "I have enough problems now."

Bob: Right. You don't wanna double them.

Rachel: Yeah. And suddenly my son rang me to say he was on the plane going to a wedding in Italy and he rang and he said, "Ma, Kilquade is up for sale, it's on the paper." I got the keys to the car, I drove to the shop, opened the paper when I got out of the car, rang my husband and my other son and said, "Can you come with me to Kilquade now?" Because there's no tomorrow. And we went and I fell madly in love with it. I fell in love with it, so did my son, Barry, and Frank even who is, sort of, pulls us back at trice, pull us back of it, he too did. So here was the opportunity, we've opened it, and that's three years ago and it's fantastic. And it's in a superb setting and it has 18 display gardens, 2 acres of display gardens.

Bob: That is beautiful.

Rachel: Super.

Bob: I'd love to come see it. 

Rachel: I'd love you to come see it.

Bob: What would be the best advice you ever got?

Rachel: My father used to say, "Cut your cloth according to your measure." Now I have stretched that a little bit from time to time.

Bob: I was gonna say, I think you're... That's my definition of my measure, right?

Rachel: Yes, absolutely.

Bob: That's right.

Rachel: That's it. That's it.

Bob: No one else's.

Rachel: Yes, yes. But at the back of my head, that advice from my dad sort of reminds me, you know, and I would, I make, I suppose, informed decisions.

Bob: I'm sure they're informed. I don't get anything about you're capricious, or you shoot first and then try to aim. I think you know a very clear idea of what success looks like. And what does an excellent garden center have to do in 2018, 2019 to be successful? You've been around for how many years? With your...

Rachel: 40.

Bob: 40. Which is...I know she started as a child, folks. But, you know, what does it take? Because there's an awful lot of, at least in the States, there's a lot of big boxes that have some kind of a garden center, there are plenty of small little garden centers that kind of eke out a little existence, but you have 100 people. You're a thriving outdoor landscape garden center. What does it take to do that?

Rachel: Dare to be different and go outside of the boundaries...

Bob: But we need an example. Obviously, she's shy and retiring from her beautiful, I think, fuchsia outfit she has on here today. But what does that mean?

Rachel: We do, for example, on Saturdays, there's a master class on something. We used to call it...what did we call it? But people felt they were workshops, and people felt, "Oh, God. Maybe I might be asked to do something." So we renamed them master classes and now we get them booked out. So one of our horticulturists will give a class on maybe garden design or how to decorate your front door, whatever. When busloads come, we have a stage in the garden center, so they'll just make up an impromptu talk on how to plant your hanging baskets or whatever is the right thing at the moment. So that's one thing. For example, when Christmas comes, we turn the whole place into Christmas. We spend about 30,000 Sterling on props that we rent from England to make magical scenes. And they have to, of course, be different every year. And we'd have...

Bob: And then you're selling the trees and the ornaments to go with it.

Rachel: Yeah, yeah.

Bob: But you're not closing down. So you could have been a seasonal business, right? You could have just closed down like, "We're out."

Rachel: What was the worst month of the year, December, is now our second best month. And that's how we turned that around. But we do loads of loads of things like we have authentic reindeer on site, we do breakfast and supper with Santa in the restaurant and that's all that happens in the conservatory. And granny and granddad comes as well as mommy and daddy and the kids...

Bob: So it's just a family tradition?

Rachel: Just a super family event. And we do loads of other things like even we have Laura Lynn as a Children's Fund in Ireland and we do loads of things around Laura Lynn. And the kids have to pay 3€ for to post a letter to Santa. And then Santa open the office, sings, a letter in the post and the child gets a letter from the postman. So all that goes to the Laura Lynn Children's Fund.

Bob: And so you've got this whole community feeling that you're not just selling plants. You're doing something more than that.

Rachel: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And that's important to us. And in both garden centers, we have these dear gardens, which is free of charge. In Leighlinbridge, we have an inspirational garden which was designed over... I got the team together years ago and what was a dump, we created a garden out of. And one of the team said that their first introduction to gardening was "Jack and the Beanstalk." So that's the story we tell kids. And we have the big pond at the bottom is a shape of a bean and then the pats [SP] radiating out from there comes up to a u-maze where the kids can run riot. And it's a win-win for us, for the parents, for us, the kids are not put in [inaudible 00:13:19]

Bob: Exactly, right.

Rachel: For the parents, because they know the kids are safe and they're running around mad, and for the kids to have freedom. But then the story we tell adults when we bring them through the gardens is the story of how color affects your mood. Green is for growth, red is for vitality, orange for optimism, yellow for contentment.

Bob: What's fuchsia?

Rachel: Oh, that's for...outgoing.

Bob: Confidence, I was gonna... I love that idea that our first idea of planting is "Jack and the Beanstalk." Because think of that. It's this wonderful idea that it grows up to the heavens. Of course, it has a downside, right? Because the giant cuts it down and the whole, bad things happened, as well. But, just this idea that story time brings you the sense of, "Wow, the magic of something gardening." You know, I did that, I'm sure a lot of school kids did, too. But when I was in sixth grade, I took two little Dixie cups, I planted them with soil and a little...I think they were sunflower seeds. And I put one, and this was a science experiment.

So I put one in the sunny side of the room in our classroom, and we were telling it all good things. And then we did this other one that would, where we just yelled at it, and said anything. And, of course, that one didn't go up and this one came up and I and I remember thinking like, "Wow, I wonder if thoughts really could make a difference." And that's where I first started thinking, "Maybe they could, you know? Maybe there is." Maybe we over-watered the one, I don't know that, too. But that idea that maybe what we think about really does come true because that's kind of what you're saying, that you haven't met an obstacle. You just kind of look at it in that lifetime and say, "Well, yeah, this feels right." You're confident, you know your facts, you know your product, and you know who you are. Are you looking for a lot of other people to reinforce that? Or you're pretty centered to know that that's...

Rachel: My two sons, Fergal and Barry would be very much part of all the decisions that are made in the garden centers now.

Bob: Now, yes, yes.

Rachel: But before this, my husband was always very good because he said, "Go do it." You know, if you feel right about it, do it.

Bob: That's important.

Rachel: And that was important. Yeah. And that was important that he was always behind me.

Bob: Good. So I want you to picture, so you have a good friend of yours and she comes to you and she says, "Oh, let's meet for coffee." And you go and she says, "I've got this idea. I just wanna get your feedback. I wanna open a garden center." What would you tell her?

Rachel: I would tell her all the pros and cons of it. And, you know, the commitment that is necessary. Both...

Bob: What's the commitment?

Rachel: Well, the commitment of hard work and dedication and believing in yourself and not being pulled down by the people who will always see problems and obstacles. Obstacles are just things you can overcome.

Bob: Okay.

Rachel: Unless somebody dies, anything else we can sort out.

Bob: I like that. I like that idea. What do you think the most worthwhile investment you ever did was?

Rachel: Buying...but number one, we lived in a bungalow when we got married and there was a beautiful old house close by, which came up for sale and we bought it. And there was a 10-acre field beside it, which there was a gate into it. At one stage, it belonged to the house and I believed in my heart that field was going to be ours someday. And my husband went to the owner and said, "If ever you need money, would you give us first option on the field?" And we bought the field and that's where the operation is now.

Bob: Oh, my gosh! You just had that feel that that would be...

Rachel: Yeah. That that was the right thing for us.

Bob: I love that.

Rachel: Yeah. We had a small garden center in town and it was only on a half-acre site. And we could not expand. So Aldi and Little were coming to town and the two of them were bidding for our site, which was great. Aldi gave us the most money. So...

Bob: Perfect. It all worked out.

Rachel: All worked out for me.

Bob: Lovely. And so I don't think it happens very often. But at times that you kinda lose your way or you're really frustrated, what do you do to get out of that?

Rachel: I go for a swim at 7.00 in the morning, and that starts my day. I come out of that pool and I'm spiritually, physically, and mentally ready to take on the world.

Bob: Okay, so activity really does it for you. Every day you do this or no?

Rachel: Yes. At least four times a week.

Bob: Four times a week?

Rachel: Yeah. 

Bob: That's awesome.

Rachel: And if I had a difficult Sunday when it's crazy busy, I will go for a walk in the woods. I love walking in the woods. I love trees and I love when the leaves are on the trees, just putting it in the palm of my hand. And I just feel energy.

Bob: She's just wonderful, and she's just great. I just love that. And, you know, the name of my podcast is, "Tell Me Something Great About Retail." So tell me something great about, you know, why do you like working in retail? What is it about...?

Rachel: I love meeting people. I love interacting with people. I think that we have amazing people in retail in Ireland. Like Retail Excellence Ireland, which is the event that invited you over to speak at, they are an amazing organization and they just bring us all together and we're all like one big happy family. And some of the most amazing people that I know in my life are here today. And it's great and there's huge cooperation and I was on the International Garden Center Board for years, and I was president of the International Garden Center Association 2014/2015. And that brought me around the world and I've been to most countries in the world several times, and I love traveling and I love meeting those people and they are super friends.

Bob: Okay. Okay. And one last thing, so what would you consider is your definition of great customer service? Whether it's what you wanna feel as a customer or how do you train your employees? I mean, there's efficient, right? There's, you know, "I want this, go get that." But what does great customer service mean to you?

Rachel: When somebody comes in and they're greeted and made feel special and that the whole experience while they're in Arboretum has to be that from the beginning, middle, and end, when you enter Arboretum, you enter through plants. I'm a horticulturalist, I'm a mad plants person. You enter through plants and you exit through houseplants. And that's by design, not by accident. Because despite the fact that you can buy a dress, or a frying pan, or pet stuff, or furniture, whatever, the main thing is plants. And plants make people happy. And that's why I suppose that I see people coming in and they might...and we have very good displays with very good merchandising. And you see people coming in and we say we have a cow and a calf and they change color. And like, we had strawberries on them at one stage when it was "Strawberry Week."

And like you see people going in and they look and they see the cow and it's covered in strawberries and they smile. And you're getting the smile out of people that might not be in a great place at that time. And the gardens down at the back, my husband used to say to me, "It's crazy." Because we have a gardener to keep them and we don't charge for them. And I've said, so many people that I see who are undergoing chemotherapy and they come and they sit down on a bench and read a book. And one lady said to me that that is her solace. You know, she comes there for peace and quiet and she feels... When you're entering that garden, there's a big sign that we put up saying, "You're now entering a stress-free zone." And when you have planted that seed in somebody's mind, they actually have said to me, "I love that. I feel that I'm in a stress-free zone." Because we've told them they are.

Bob: Yeah. And then you created this beautiful environment for it to happen.

Rachel: Yeah.

Bob: Well, that's wonderful. I really appreciate your time today, here today, Rachel. And again, if you're in Ireland, where should they go and visit you?

Rachel: Arboretum in Carlow and Arboretum in County Wicklow, South Dublin, 20 minutes from the biggest shopping center in Dublin.

Bob: Lovely, thank you so much.

Rachel: Thank you. Thank you, Bob.

Bob: Bye.

Here is the video tribute that accompanied her award which details her background. It is worth a view as well. 



Find out more about Rachel


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