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Peter reflects on a lifetime in the Market

Peter reflects on a lifetime in the Market

1 Feb, 2022

Peter reflects on a lifetime in the Market

Peter Green is your classic ‘Covent Garden, man and boy’ and has worked in the Market for 46 years. January 21st marked a special milestone for his business though as Smith & Green, which he set up with his great mate Billy Smith, turned 30. Peter talks to Market Times about his career

How did you end up in the Flower Market and how did Smith & Green come about?

My dad Phil was a director of Sam Cook, a chain of greengrocers with 86 stores at the height of its powers, which bought all of its produce from Covent Gardens old and then New, and also had its HQ in the Market. I used to go to the Market with him and always knew this is where I’d end up, but thought I’d be working in the fruit and veg market. Dad also bought flowers for Sam Cook and said I should have a year in the flower market first because it fitted in better with his hours, then get myself a vehicle and move over to the fruit and vegetable market. I left school in Warlingham on the Friday and started as a standboy at William Newton’s in New Covent Garden on the Monday.

After my stint at Newton’s, I did seven years as a porter at J Foster, where I got to know the Country Orders ropes, and then became a buyer for A Chapman Flowers. The guvnor Arthur had a heart attack and I ran the firm for him for a couple of years and that’s what gave me the skills to be set up my own business.

The move across to fruit and veg never did happen. After that first year, I was offered an interview at Bradley and Wooderson (in the fruit and veg market) a year later, but I’d made friends and was settled. I’ve never regretted it for one minute.

My dad took early retirement in 1981 because he saw how the trade was changing and didn’t think Sam Cook would be able to compete with the supermarket chains. People thought he was mad, but within two years the whole chain had shut down. He flew as a bombardier/navigator in Wellington Bombers in the second world war and was a prisoner of war in Poland for four years. All he ever said about it was that it was bloody freezing and that when he retired, he was going to live in the sunshine. True to his word, he bought a place in Spain and spent most of his time out there before he died, aged 98, in 2019.

How has your business evolved through the last 30 years?

There were around 10 firms in the Market doing Country Orders when we started. That was a national delivery service for floristry and I’d been working with it before, as had Billy, my business partner.

New Covent Garden was still the central hub for the flower trade all around the country and Smith & Green was among those firms sending flowers across England Scotland and Wales on a daily basis. We would load up and deliver for the 7am train and the packages would be in Swansea by 10.30am. It was a fantastic service and the Market must have been one of British Rail’s biggest customers. But it moved from BR to Red Star and then to Lynx, before eventually someone decided it should be done by road and the whole thing fell apart.

I’d lost all of my customers in two months - so much product was late, damaged or just went missing. I sent some flowers to a lady in East Anglia for her wedding and they arrived three days after she’d got married. We obviously couldn’t continue like that and we had no real control over it, so we decided to concentrate on local business.

Billy had a delivery round in Essex, around 15-20 shops, and we picked up some hotels and we were doing more and more delivery. Losing the Country Orders work was a blow, but we knew it wasn’t the end. The shops in Essex have long gone now too, but Smith & Green was up and running and we had diversified sufficiently to ensure we had a future.

Somewhere around the turn of the century, we began serving Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The Palace florists tested us out on smaller bits and pieces at first until we became their major wholesale flower supplier from 2003. We got the Royal Warrant in 2011 and we’re still providing the Queen and other members of the Royal family with flowers to this day. It’s a fantastic honour.

Some of the biggest five star hotels in London have also become customers of ours and when Billy retired in 2011, Paul Winyard became my new business partner. He was a veteran of the Country Orders set too and had established business with customers on Jersey, which he brought into the fold. My son Jack came into the business at that time too Until Covid, we had a team of five. But in the last couple of years, there have just been the three of us. Jack and Paul do most of the delivery work, while I keep things ticking over at the Market.

I’ve never sold anything that wasn’t ordered. I get in at about 2am and about half of the product is delivered in from Holland and the rest I then go out and buy on the Market. In a normal year, I’d have spent between £400,000 and £500,000 on the Market, but the last couple of years have obviously been a bit different. We suffered like everyone – I actually took more money on the first day of January this year than I took in the whole month in 2021. I think pride and resilience has got most of us in the Market through it – we don’t want to just give up.

Your dad was obviously a big influence on the direction your life took, but who would you pick out as your greatest influences since you’ve worked in the Market?

I’ve learnt off so many people, but I suppose the three I’d pick out are Arthur Curtis at Chapmans, who taught me how to run a firm, Johnny Corderoy, who taught me how to buy and Billy, who taught me how to be with people and talk to people. I worked with Billy for 35 years and we never had a row, he always had a smile on his face and never had the hump. He’s not well now, but what a fantastic man he was.

How do you feel the Market is set up for the future?

I do feel a bit sad that the trade has dwindled how it has over the years, but this is still the best flower market in the country and I don’t see the amount of trade done here getting any less now. People love buying flowers – you only have to go to Colombia Road on a Sunday to see that.

And I’m very positive about where this market will be once the redevelopment is done and the surrounding areas are all built up around us. I can see it remaining as a very successful wholesale market on weekdays and becoming a retail destination on the weekends. There may be a few less firms, who knows, but they will be making a good living.

Why should people come to buy their flowers at the Market?

This market cannot be beaten by any internet supplier for two main reasons:

  1. Time – I can deliver more quickly than any firm selling over the internet – you ring me up at midnight and place an order and if that product is available you’ll have it by 7am
  2. Expertise and experience – come to the market and you can see what you’re buying. Buy online, you see a picture, not what you’re going to get – come to the market, you can see, touch and smell the flowers, or buy from me and I am your eyes. You know what you’re going to get from me because I’ve got 46 years’ experience of being my customers’ eyes.

In my opinion, anyone in the flower trade who doesn’t come to New Covent Garden at least once a month is a fool to themselves. It’s not all about the Dutch telling you what price you have to pay and you accepting it – here you can compare and contrast products and people, see what’s available and when and form your own judgements on who and what is good value or otherwise. And you can do that with a bacon buttie and a cup of coffee and enjoy socialising with people and a bit of good-natured banter while you’re at it. I can’t see what’s not to like, but I suppose I am a bit biased!

Outside of work

Peter is a lifelong Chelsea follower and a big enough England cricket fan to have travelled to Australia to watch the Ashes. He tragically lost his daughter Molly though and his priorities have changed. Molly’s horse Rome was left without his friend and rider and Peter knew she would not have wanted him to find Rome a new owner. So he took up riding and since he has entered jumping and dressage competitions, as well as emulating Molly in riding Rome in the Queen’s New Year Parade.

You only need to talk to Peter for a few minutes to know how much the riding experience he may never have had has meant to him. Not content with one pursuit that would scare the living daylights of most mere mortals, he has also taken up marathon running and raised tens of thousands of pounds for charities that are close to his heart – Clockwork, which was set up in his daughter’s name in Oxted, suicide prevention charities Papyrus and The Mental Health Foundation, and Matthew’s Friends.

Peter and Jack in their unit at New Covent Garden Flower Market

Tommy Leighton
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