Flowerbx founder Whitney Bromberg Hawkings on the challenges of keeping her business blooming in lockdown

By Juliet Herd | 13 Jul 2020 | Culture, Style

Former NatWest everywoman Award-winner Hawkings on the difficulties – and surprising opportunities – of 2020

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* © Flowerbx

Flowerbx founder Whitney Bromberg Hawkings will never forget the moment she thought her hard work building her upmarket flower delivery company had been for nothing. It was the day after Mother’s Day, on the eve of England going into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that contracts started “dropping like flies”. Chelsea Flower Show events worth half a million pounds were cancelled, as were hotel and restaurant orders. 

“We lost an insane amount of business and I was like, ‘We are done’,” she tells Tempus. “It was the most terrifying moment I’ve ever known. I was planning how I was going to close the company.”

Fortunately, Hawkings saw that as quickly as B2B deals dried up, there was a parabolic surge in direct consumer business. “It was a flood. Flower [sales] went viral. There were very few pleasures people could enjoy [during lockdown] and, mercifully, flowers were one of them. They give such joy and are symbolic of hope and renewal. I’ve never appreciated them more.”

WOMEN IN BUSINESS

The Texan-born London-based entrepreneur is sharing her roller coaster experience to highlight this year’s NatWest everywoman Awards, which are currently open for nominations until 20 July. Free to enter, the Awards, now in their 18th year, celebrate the UK’s most inspiring and successful entrepreneurs, building a community of female business owners and role models.

As the recipient of the 2017 Brand of the Future Award, sponsored by Chrissie Rucker’s The White Company, Hawkings is in good company: fellow winners include Pip Murray, founder of natural nut butter brand Pip & Nut, and Kanya King, who started the prestigious MOBO Awards. Charlotte Tilbury, who recently sold her eponymous makeup and skincare empire to Spanish fashion giant Puig as part of a deal valued at more than €1bn, is a former ambassador, as are Lulu Guinness and Prue Leith.

Like many of her peers, Hawkings had to act fast to pivot her business and was ultimately rewarded with unprecedented returns. “We had record after record week and month,” she confirms, revealing that B2C sales are up 700% in the UK compared to last year. As an online proposition, Flowerbx was ideally placed to pick up orders for special occasions that could no longer be celebrated in person, such as birthdays and graduations, but what Hawkings hadn’t anticipated was the boom in funeral flowers. 

“It broke my heart, seeing all these distressed families sending loved ones off without funerals or flowers, but it was a real business opportunity, too,” she says. “We developed a whole funeral range and it grew really fast. As an entrepreneur, you have to find opportunities in every situation and go after them tirelessly.”

One of her boldest moves was to launch on the US East Coast in the run-up to the North American Mother’s Day on 10 May – peak pandemic. “Every single florist was closed and I was like, ‘We have to do this’. We’d seen what was happening in Europe, where Mother’s Day business was seven times last year’s, and it [the US launch] was absolutely extraordinary, to the point where we had to cap orders.” >>

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* Flowerbx founder Whitney Bromberg Hawkings at the 2017 NatWest Everywoman Awards

In just five years, Hawkings has built Flowerbx into a luxury brand that represents the last word in premium flowers, attracting such coveted clients as Dior, Jimmy Choo and, of course, her old boss, Tom Ford. She first started working for Ford, then creative director at Gucci, at the age of 23 as his assistant and went on to head up global communications at his eponymous brand, where her husband Peter Hawkings is SVP of menswear. Flowerbx was born out of Hawkings’ desire to streamline her life at a time when she was pregnant with the couple's third child and looking for a new challenge. 

The floral industry, so integral to the fashion world, was ripe for disruption. “As a business, it doesn’t make much sense as a bricks and mortar operation,” she says. “It’s a very traditional industry, unfortunately, and very hard to make money. Once you add perishable stock, rent and overheads, the margins are very small, but it was run that way because people like going into a flower shop. I wanted to do the opposite.”

As a connoisseur of luxury, Hawkings set out to create a brand that aspired to the same values and quality as some of the best-known fashion houses. “I wanted a brand that added value to the flowers,” she says. “When you buy Chanel lipstick, you get the whole experience, with the little camellia sticker, and it feels very special. I wanted to give that branded magic to flowers. There’s an element of being in the know. I love building a brand from the ground up and making it exactly what I want it to be. I also love the idea of doing something that no one has ever done before. It is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.”

The secret to Flowerbx’s success is the absolute freshness of its offerings: exquisite bunches of roses and hydrangeas handpicked by growers in Holland and delivered straight to your door. 

GLOBAL AMBITION

Hawkings was keen to take her brand global as quickly as possible. “It was key to the concept of us as a chic alternative to Interflora, and what differentiated us from being a florist, knowing you could send flowers anywhere in the world and they would be beautiful,” she says. “A lot of us are international; we don’t want to be constantly on the phone looking for the best florist in Tunbridge Wells or Paris.” >>

Related: Breitling CEO Georges Kern sheds fresh light on the future of watch fairs, timepiece trends and the new meaning of luxury

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* © Flowerbx

However, the impact of Covid-19 brought challenges, particularly as Hawkings was pro-actively engaged in closing a further round of fund raising. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” she admits, adding that she targeted angel investors. “I had to try to convince new investors at a time when the world was the most uncertain it has been in our lifetime. It’s definitely more challenging to raise venture money as a woman. There is an element that this is a cute little boutique flower company but there’s nothing cute about my ambitions. I’m disrupting a multi-billion-pound, largely male industry.” 

Hawkings sought support from other women – Dame Natalie Massenet, founder of designer fashion portal Net-a-Porter, and Venezuelan investor and entrepreneur Carmen Busquets were both early investors. Chrissie Rucker has become a close friend and mentor since she won the NatWest everywoman Award. “No one gets behind you like other women,” she affirms. “Chrissie has boosted me up and put me forward for so many things. Women are also real ambassadors for the brand. Having them believe in me gives me greater belief in myself.”

Slowly, business is returning to normal. On the day we spoke, Hawkings was coordinating a “huge virtual show” for Burberry in Paris and other fashion events are in the pipeline. Orders have resumed for clients like The Mark Hotel in New York and The River Café in London.

But Hawkings is far from complacent about the future. “I do feel very tentative as no one knows how this is going to play out. How is the world going to normalise with a recession looming? I feel more confident than I’ve ever been that our offering is right but the challenge is not over yet.”

The NatWest everywoman Awards are open for nominations until 20 July.