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Power of Chelsea’s flowers lies in their admirers

02 June 2014

I blame it all on Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, as they were then, long before Bank of America arrived.

A long time ago, it decided to sponsor the Chelsea Flower Show, a four-day extravaganza organised by the Royal Horticultural Society that takes place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, home to pensioned soldiers known for their smart red coat uniforms.

Merrill correctly recognised that the wealthy clients they coveted in their private bank would have gardens and estates that they were proud of and interested in. Then someone had the bright idea that the night before it opened, after the media and the Queen had visited, they would hold a gala reception and invite all their corporate clients.

Most of them were men; most of their wives insisted on accepting the invitation. A chance to look at the exhibits without the hordes of people who would descend on the place the next day proved irresistible.

This started the tradition of the Monday night Gala Preview being the hottest ticket in town. Where else, other than possibly the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, can you meet so many senior folk from the business world? Better than that, every important headhunter is there too. 

So if you are an NED aspiring to be a SID, or a SD aspiring to be a chair, or a chair looking for a bigger chair, the Gala Preview is the place to be. The board-level headhunters all attend.

I mentioned to one of them that the person I had been chatting to was looking for a chair position. Knowing the person to be already a serial NED, the headhunter asked after their time availability and they had a sensible discussion. Would that have taken place anywhere but Chelsea?

I am often asked if there is a pecking order at Chelsea. As long as you are there between 7pm and 9pm on Monday night, there is no pecking order. All the canapés are the same, whoever’s stand you eat them at. This year I positioned myself near the Stoke on Trent hospitality area. Great garden, and right near the entrance where the canapé distribution emanated from.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to one of the chalets in the hospitality village, you are admitted via the Ambulance gate a good 30 minutes early, which is handy, but I never see headhunters in those chalets so to find one you have to venture into the main flower tent or its perimeter walkways.

So, flowers are good for your career, at least if you aspire to public company boards. And no, you don’t need to read up on Vita Sackville-West and know your cosmos from your camellia before you go, because no one really looks at the exhibits, stunning though they are.

Top tips for the Chelsea Flower Show Gala Preview

• Apply early and for dinner tickets. They are more expensive but the odds of getting a ticket are better.

• Go with someone who knows a different group of people from you.

• If you are not asked to a swanky corporate dinner afterwards, team up and arrange your own.

• Wear comfortable shoes and arrive at 6.30pm via Royal Hospital Road, as most headhunters do too.

• If you don’t know what the most senior board-level headhunters look like, find their pictures on the web

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