Dean Knight – who runs Quality Plants in the Flower Market – talked to Market Times about his background, values and ethos, as well as what it’s like working with dad.
Aged 16, Dean Knight became the youngest ever debutant in the Vauxhall Conference, when he played up front for Gravesend & Northfleet against Halifax Town. Two months later, a bad tackle all but ended Dean’s dreams of becoming a pro-footballer and after recovering from the initial effects of the injury, he had a decision to make.
He had never considered a career at New Covent Garden Flower Market. His dad, Dave Knight, had bought Quality Plants with colleague Craig Broadley in 1988, so the young Dean was well accustomed to the Market, but as a fledgling number 10, his focus was well and truly on football. Twenty-two years on, it’s fair to say he has no regrets about the route he took – from the Vauxhall Conference to Vauxhall to join his dad at Quality Plants.
“I’d worked here for a while when I first left school and I liked it and knew everyone, so it wasn’t really that hard a decision, just not what I had planned,” says Dean. “I talked to dad and we came up with a plan – we’ve been moving forward ever since.”
From early on, Dean has looked to innovate and add strings to the company’s bow at regular intervals, although he admits it took a while to recognise that his long-term future lay at the Market. “I suppose like a lot of youngsters, it took me a few years to settle in and take it totally seriously, but by the time I was 25, I’d realised that this was what I wanted to do and that I’d only get out what I put in,” he says. “We’ve grown steadily as a business really. There are six of us now – me, my dad, Craig, George, John and Mark. Rather than continuing to do the same things year after year, it’s always been my aim to continually create new opportunities to grow through new initiatives.”
Dave, Dean, Craig and George
He started a van round around 15 years ago, which was unusual in the Market at the time and it’s still going strong, mainly run by Mark. Dean also began to travel fairly extensively to meet existing suppliers and find new partners, flying quarterly to the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy, as Dave had done previously. More recently, after Brexit, he has also stepped up his efforts to find new British growers to add to the Quality Plants supplier network.
There is no desire to work less with the international supply base, but before being interviewed by the BBC last year about the impact of Brexit on the firm, Dean and Dave made the effort to talk to the Fresh Produce Consortium and also work out the financial implications on their business.
“Obviously there is the additional paperwork and administration, but the financial costs were pretty substantial,” Dean says. “Most people know it’s had an effect, but not many can explain it to you, so we found out for ourselves. I had already started to search for new domestic growers, but when we looked at the figures, it became apparent that we really had to do it.
“My aim was to add two new British suppliers to the fold each year, which we’ve managed so far,” says Dean. “It might not sound a lot and it’s not something we’ve really been advertising much yet, but it requires a fair bit of work visiting nurseries around the country and building relationships that work for both parties. We’ve got some great suppliers, like plant nurseries Viking in Norfolk, Bridge Nursery in Essex and West Kington in Wiltshire and for Christmas trees, Cadeby in Warwickshire. “If anyone reading this would like to supply us, then please get in touch. I’m always pleased to talk.”
The other addition to the business that has taken off in the last couple of years is the Quality Plants webshop, which stocks more than 15,000 lines and already accounts for 35-40% of turnover. “Like a lot of people, I had more time on my hands than I would have liked during Covid,” says Dean. “I had been planning the webshop and had talked to people about it, but the enforced break from normal work allowed me to move it forward quickly.
“We have set up all of the growers we work with on the platform and all of our account customers now have the option to buy online. It has proved very popular and definitely performed above our expectations. It took a lot of my time during the set-up, but now I just look in the morning and the evening to make sure everything’s running smoothly. Everyone here knows how to use it and it’s just about picking up the orders and dealing with them.”
The next thing on the agenda is a nationwide delivery service. “I like to do one thing at a time,” says Dean. “We’ve got a courier who does some London delivery work for us and we have priced up the nationwide service with them. We’ve already got one storage site, in Crayford, Kent, which is adjacent to the M25. The plan would be to have more around the country. “It needs proper evaluation before we launch; it looks like it would be worthwhile, but we need to assess the likely returns and what challenges or issues we might encounter.”
One more thing that is imminent will be both a privilege and a rubber stamping of Quality Plants stature and standing as a business. “We’ve had our application accepted for the Royal Warrant,” Dean says. “The process isn’t quite completed and we’re awaiting official confirmation, which is why we’ve not been talking about it, but we have been delivering to Buckingham Palace for the last six months and we’re about to start delivering to Sandringham. We work alongside fellow Royal Warrant holder Shane Connolly and as His Majesty The King is famously very interested in sustainability, our work with British growers is very important to him.”
And Quality Plants was also named as a runner up in the Wholesale Floral / Plant Supplier of the Year category at the FPC Fresh Awards 2023 in late September, placing it firmly amongst the best plant specialists in the UK.
Regal and trade recognition are a feather in the cap, but they also remind you why you get up before the crack of dawn every morning and set such high standards for yourself, every single day, something the Knight family has done at the market since the 1960s. Dean is the third generation of Knights at the Market. “My late grandad Terry Knight worked in the Fruit & Veg Market, both at the old Market and here,” he explains. “He was going to get my dad a job, but a Porter’s job came up at the Flower Market and they were tough to get at the time, so my dad took that. It’s funny how things turn out!”
How has working with dad been for more than two decades? Dean says: “Those who know him will know that he doesn’t beat around the bush! We have had the odd moment, but very few and never anything major. He’s always been open if he’s got a problem with something, but he’s also always let me get on with things and do it my way. If I have an issue, he’ll be helpful, but also often says ‘that’s for you to sort out’ and I think that has been good for both of us long term.”
Dean did continue to play football at a decent level until he was 35 and also had a brief boxing career – “a couple of bouts, then I realised I was getting old!”. Quality Plants is his working passion now though. “So many people who work here would tell you they didn’t plan to end up at the Market,” he says, “but I’ve been here 22 years and so many of the same faces are still here. A lot of people who leave either come back or end up regretting it. It’s an amazing environment to be part of.”