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My small business: Word-of-mouth powers these flowers

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Nothing says I love you like a hedge of five hundred purple, pink and cream tulips suspended from the ceiling, right? While some might consider spending more than $20,000 on wedding flowers a tad over the top, not so in the world of Maria Lush, one of Sydney’s top bridal florists who has carved a top five niche for her business in the highly competitive high-end wedding market.

In an industry where reputations are won and lost by word of mouth recommendations, it is her unique floral designs, passionate commitment to every customer’s wedding and a quirky sense of humour that have given her business the edge.

Maria started out in floristry 20 years ago as a 15-year-old apprentice in the northern beach suburb of Mona Vale in Sydney.

“My first job was at Julia’s Floral Boutique whilst doing my TAFE course,” she recalls.

Like many small businesses, the shop changed hands and teenaged Maria bounced around from store-to-store, working hard and gaining experience before opening her own business, Finer Flowers of Hornsby Heights, in 2002.

Two years later, after her daughter was born, Maria was working on a family friend’s wedding and was introduced to Anthony Del Col, one of Sydney’s highest profile wedding planners (who sadly passed away in August last year), and the pair hit it off from a personal and a bridal point of view.

The first wedding they worked on a decade ago was a modest 37 table affair with a flower budget around $2,000: “We did clear vases with full-stem Singapore orchids,” says Maria.

“Anthony was working for an event planning company, and from that wedding we went from zero weddings to huge weddings within a year.”

Ever since, Maria’s bridal clients and budgets have blossomed.

“Budgets for weddings have definitely gone up, and as we get more of the market we see the higher end as well. When I started the budget for flowers would be around $2,000, now my highest would be around $28,000.”

Now she’s one of Sydney’s top five wedding florists and is pretty much booked every weekend.

We’re not talking a hand-held posy, a corsage, a few sprigs of gypsum and some carnations on the tables. Maria Lush’s floral designs are sumptuous, heady, dramatic and splendid creations that add gravitas and colour to the weddings being celebrated, not just for the bridal party at the ceremony, but for the guests at the reception afterwards.

A lot of her clients are from local Jewish, Greek, Lebanese and Indian communities.

Maria still attends every client's wedding. Source: Supplied.
Maria still attends every client’s wedding. Source: Supplied.

 

While recent ABS statistics report that marriage is back in vogue (rates increased by 1.2 per cent in 2012) in Maria’s world it has never been out of favour. In fact, the market for high-end weddings in Sydney is great. 

“It’s not an industry like retail where things can slow, it’s always pretty good,” she says. “Budgets might change here and there but most people still budget for a big wedding.”

Typically her brides are aged around 25 years plus, 70 per cent make key decisions about the wedding with their partner (the other 30 per cent are with their mother and/or mother-in-law to be), the average number of guests is 300-400 and the spend on flowers around $10,000.

“The trend in the market for size would be the Lebanese wedding. Each one seems to get bigger and better every time,” Maria says.

People are also taking flowers more seriously.

“There never used to be a focus on centrepieces. There would be flowers for the church and the bouquet, but never for the tables. Nowadays people are seeing the beauty in putting flowers throughout the room.”

At a recent Greek wedding, Maria created a hedge of bright pink tulips hanging down over the bridal table and the whole room was covered in white Singapore and Phalaenopsis orchids and white tulips. “It looked really beautiful.”

“Asian and Indian brides have a lot of colour in their bouquets, whereas Lebanese, Greek and Australian brides tend to have more plain white.

“And as far as room setup goes, the Australian market is quite conservative, staying with traditional white and pink, while the Indian market is much more colourful.”

 

Some clients spend over $20,000 on flowers alone. Source: Supplied.
Some clients spend over $20,000 on flowers alone. Source: Supplied.

The bridal industry is competitive and positive referrals are the most powerful marketing tool. Maria has risen to the top of the game by “working my butt off” and providing personalised service for every wedding.

“I meet with the bride on average three times. The initial meeting is at my studio in Leichhardt for about 90 minutes to talk about the ‘look’ for their wedding. The second meeting refines what flowers they would like to spend their money and on. The third and final meeting is where I show them the centrepiece, the bouquet and that is usually done about three weeks before the wedding.”

I try to do one wedding every weekend. There’s an off-season over winter for about three months, but in summer you might be doing Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a weekend. That’s when it can get pretty crazy. I like to keep myself to one wedding a day so I can be there in person.”

Maria hires freelance florists to assist depending on the size of the wedding. Fresh flowers are picked up at the wholesale markets on Monday (orchids), Wednesdays (tulips) and Friday (roses).

“Most flowers come in from overseas, so it depends on what you need and I am on-site at my warehouse in Lane Cove working continuously from 5am on Friday until the early hours of Sunday.”

I’ve never advertised. It’s word of mouth and actually always has been.”

It’s also really hard work. “I’ve had two children and worked right through. When my six-year-old was born I was back at work the following Saturday.”

Maria has a website and uses Facebook and Instagram to promote her business and manages it herself because she likes to put a bit of her own personality into her posts and pictures.

After a two decades in the job, she still attends every wedding herself.

“My favourite part is the connection with the bride and groom, beating their expectations and blowing them away. My expectations are higher than anyone else’s. It is a great feeling that you have done something for someone, on such a personal day, that it gives them absolute joy and pleasure,” she says.

And yes – weddings still make her cry.

“ I just want to do an amazing wedding every weekend. It is as simple as that.”

Angela Martinkus is a Melbourne-based communications consultant and journalist.