Luxury fashion was a world Whitney knew well. Her career started as PA to Tom Ford at Gucci where she worked her way up to being Senior Vice President of Communications. After 19 years, she left the label to apply everything she’d learned to the flower business. We met with Whitney to talk about the challenges of building a business, find out who she turns to when the going gets tough and why she never says no to dinner.
The best piece of advice I’ve been given
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ is what I do daily. Whether I’m terrified of talking in front of 250 people, or terrified of announcing we’ve closed a fundraising deal – I do it anyway. I’ve discovered that the thrill of doing it anyway is quite magical.
Working with american fashion designer Tom Ford was an education
There was endless advice from Tom but the key piece was this: have a ten-year plan, a vision of where you want to be and work towards it. The plan may change along the way, but having goals to aim for has been invaluable to me.
NET-A-PORTER’s Natalie Massenet has been a huge inspiration
Natalie convinced people you could buy a £10,000 dress online – that this was a perfectly normal way to shop – when it hadn’t been heard of. She re-educated people. This inspires me because I’m teaching people there’s a new way to buy and arrange flowers. People think you need to visit a florist or a market to buy flowers. We’re re-educating them.
I’ve enjoyed the support of successful women
Carmen Busquets (one of the first investors in NET-A-PORTER, an investor in Cult Beauty and Founder of CoutureLab) is hugely successful and definitely inspires me. She invests in companies she believes in and doesn’t just get behind brands with her money but with everything. She definitely looks out for me and it’s amazing to feel so supported.
The qualities that make a good mentor
Mark Sebba (the late former NET-A-PORTER CEO and FLOWERBX Chairman) was my mentor and had a beautiful mix of challenging me, but supporting me. A really good mentor is someone who says you are great, but who pushes you.
It’s easy to lead from the soapbox, but it’s essential to muck in. I hope the FLOWERBX team feel I’m in the trenches with them. Being positive is key: even on days I feel terrified, I don’t convey that to the team. Leading by example is hugely important.
You don’t have to be a bully to succeed in business
Chrissie Rucker (founder of The White Company) is softly spoken and calm, but smart and successful. She’s a complete powerhouse, but there is nothing aggressive about her, proving you can be successful and be liked.
Hunger is the quality I look for when I am hiring
I am hiring for growth and I’m hiring people who can handle growth; who are hungry for it. We hired our Creative Director, who currently leads a team of three, but hopefully, in the future, he’ll lead a global team. I want to hire people who want to go far.
I surround myself with people I’d holiday with
Tom Ford advised me never to hire somebody you wouldn’t have dinner with. It’s so true. It’s a question of personality and manners. I’d go on holiday with everyone who works with us, they’re people I genuinely like.
That said, I encourage my team to have fun without me
I don’t think you can be buddies with your team. Before I would go out on a
Friday night and stay until midnight with my colleagues, now I’ll definitely go have a drink with everyone, but I want them to go out; I want them to have fun.
My golden business rule is never say no to dinner
Again, Mark Sebba taught me never to say no to a lunch or a dinner. Everything is an opportunity. When I don’t want to go out, I remind myself I might meet a new client or someone whose daughter is getting married. And every time I’ve said yes, I’ve been glad I did, because I’ve met people who’ve been critical to my journey.
My philosophy is simple
Being authentic is key – people can tell if you’re full of shit. You can’t fake being genuine and you can’t fake gratitude. If someone supports me – it’s my life – you can’t fake gratitude for that.
It is becoming less important to me to be liked
It’s important to be nice, but I’m not there to be liked. I’m here to drive the team and the vision. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I also have a huge amount of pressure on me – and I know the team feels it – so I’m not always the most popular person. But when you see the sales and the result of an amazing advert, it translates into tangible money and profit, and there's a real sense of being in it together.
My role is to be the bearer of bad news
My job as the company grows is to manage people and to fire fight. When things are perfect, you don’t need to do anything. But when something isn’t good enough, you have to act – so you can become the bearer of bad news.
I get my drive from being excited about what we’re doing
Lots of things energise me: learning, my incredible team, pushing and seeing results. Last year we didn’t have a toilet or heating. We didn’t deliver anywhere apart from London. Now we have the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium….across Europe and New York. It’s mind-blowing. Looking forward and seeing there is so much more to do really motivates me.
I learn something new every single day
Yesterday I went to a three-hour seminar about tax law in the US, which was mind-numbingly boring – but I am learning.
Loving what you do makes a difference
Tom Ford was passionate and the most inspiring person to work for. I hope to give the same energy and aspirational quality to the team. Plus, it’s vital to have a real love of what you’re doing, it’s transcendental – people feel it.
I turn to my husband when the going gets tough
I have a great husband. It’s someone to talk you off the ledge. Other than your health, and your family, most things won’t matter. The singer and actress, Cher recently revealed in an interview that her mum told her, “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter.” That’s sound advice. It’s good to reframe things so they are not a big deal.
My children motivate me
My little girl inspires me to be better for her. In fact, all my kids inspire me. Yesterday my son said, “How come you’re going to New York?” I was like “Look, I can stay home if you want me to, but I am building this for us.” He said: “I don’t want you to stay at home, I am so proud of you.” I want to show them Mum is doing something meaningful.
The business legacy I’d like to leave behind
I’d like to be thought of as a fair and kind person, as a good mum and a good wife. Without these things, success doesn’t mean a thing.