Profile: Sarah Buxton, FD behind the Chelsea Flower Show

The sun bounces off delicate sketches of flora displayed around the elegant second floor office overlooking the manicured lawns of Vincent Square in Pimlico. An umbrella decorated with Monet’s Waterlillies leans expectantly against the wall. If you had to conjure up an image of the work environment of the Royal Horticultural Society’s finance director, then this would probably be it.

But there’s nothing flowery about Sarah Buxton’s career path to head the finances of the UK’s leading gardening charity. With a background spanning business consulting, recruitment, and a stint with Guinness, Buxton’s remit at the RHS may mark a break from the cut-throat world of business – but a hobby career, it certainly is not.

Speaking to Sarah Buxton in the run up to the Chelsea Flower show, which kicked off earlier this week – one of the biggest dates in the RHS calendar and its most important money spinner – and preparations for the event were well in hand. But at a time when many FDs are losing sleep over international accounting standards and tax legislation, it’s the weather keeping Buxton awake at night.

‘It’s amazing how big an impact the weather can have. If it rains either at the beginning or end of the build-up for the Chelsea Flower Show, Chelsea turns into a mud bath – it can cost us £160,000, depending on the weather.’

And it’s not just the rain that can wreak havoc with Buxton’s balance sheet. Too much of a good thing isn’t good either. ‘It can put people off visiting the gardens and shows, which then affects membership recruitment. We saw the effect of a horrendous spring last year. And in August it was too hot, so people stayed away.’

For Buxton, the pressure is on to make this year’s show the biggest, best and most profitable. To that aim, it has been extended to run for five days, although the number of visitors will stay the same as last year – 157,000. ‘The way people visit the show has changed – they stay for longer. We want to avoid bottlenecks. Given health and safety regulations, we wouldn’t want to allow more people along. It would devalue our brand.’

The Chelsea brand is, admittedly, one of the biggest weapons in the RHS armoury. ‘The Monday evening gala night is the official start of the London social season,’ Buxton explains. Tickets for the charity black tie event have a face value of up to £450.

This year there’s an added impetus for the event to be a roaring success – as the RHS itself is the fundraiser’s beneficiary, and more specifically a new glasshouse in the gardens

at Wisley, the society’s ‘flagship’ gardens in Woking off the M3. But whereas Chelsea has a distinct ‘A-list’ feel to it (alongside the growing corporate hospitality element), Buxton admits that the stereotypical image of your average RHS member does its fundraising department no favours at all.

‘There’s a perception of the RHS as very rich and very exclusive. Our typical member is ABC1, female, most are retired, but the average age is coming down to around 55.’

The society may still attract members of a certain ilk, but it has evolved hugely in the last 10 years, let alone since 1802 when it was first set up as a learned society. In the last decade, membership has exploded from around 80,000 to its current 360,000, thanks to a change to the rules that meant new ‘recruits’ no longer had to be nominated by existing members.

Now, in addition to its one big show at Chelsea, there are two other major shows and two smaller events, including one at Hampton Court and BBC Gardner’s World due to be held at the NEC in June. And the RHS today has four gardens; in addition to Wisley – its largest and probably most well-known – it owns Harlow Carr in Harrogate, Hyde Hall in Essex and Rosemore in Devon.

Financially, the RHS is a complex animal. ‘People think of the shows, but the whole raft of activity that goes into something like Chelsea is completely different to running a garden, where we have plant centres, catering facilities and shops to help generate money. It’s about promoting excellence in horticulture.’

The educational cornerstone to the RHS is underpinned by a cohort of horticulturalists. Its education programme for schools has 3,000 members. And an adult education stream offers diplomas and certificates to everyone from budding amateurs to true green-fingered Monty Don and Charlie Dimmock wannabes. ‘It’s the launch for many a gardener,’ Buxton says.

The RHS also takes on horticulture trainees at each of its gardens. All of which has to be funded from other RHS activities.

The challenge for the board is finding effective ways to boost revenues, from a public under increasing pressure to pledge support for no end of worthy causes. ‘Something like Wisley costs us £1m to run. We have to accept that the gardens will always run at a deficit. It’s all about looking at different initiatives to raise funds. The members are very generous, but the pressure on the retired pound has intensified dramatically. Our big financial challenge at the moment is the glasshouse at Wisley and a lot of sponsorship has come from corporates – it reflects the changing profile of members.’

‘In a really wonderful year like 1993 we had 740,000 visitors to Wisley Gardens, but only around 10% to 20% of visitors pay – the rest are RHS members. Membership is a crucial source of income, but the society isn’t here to service members. It’s here to meet its charitable purpose – to promote excellence in horticulture. The balance between the cost and the benefit to members has to be managed carefully. So the shows have to be profitable.’

Perhaps surprisingly for a charity FD, Buxton admits the thought of asking for money ‘makes her toes curl’, but she’s driven by the desire to spread the society’s message. It’s clearly something she feels passionate about.

The academic aims of the RHS provided a smooth transition from Buxton’s previous job, which was firmly rooted in education. For seven years she was bursar of Uppingham School, an independent boarding school. ‘I care very passionately about education. It was the first time I’d seen a school advertise for a chartered accountant. At the end of the ad, it said “tough skin and a sense of humour needed.” I thought, the job’s for me,’ Buxton says.

The job marked a distinct shift away from the corporate career path she’d followed since graduating from Cambridge, and her first job as a trainee accountant with Ernst and Winney. ‘When I left university, people tended to head towards the City like lemmings off a cliff. I came to the idea of accountancy because I wanted something flexible that would give me a very rounded experience of business.’

After three years, Buxton moved to an acquisitions role with recruitment company Blue Arrow. ‘Six months after I arrived they acquired Manpower. It was a goldfish swallowing a whale, and Blue Arrow got indigestion. The flotation that was supposed to fund the purchase didn’t get away as it should have and then there was the crash of 1987. So instead of doing acquisitions work I had to close investments down.’

Buxton subsequently moved to a financial management role with business consulting firm PA Consulting, and after 18 months had moved up the ranks to commercial director. It was 1989 and the economy, and the business consulting sector in particular, was under pressure. ‘We had to put on hold our plans for a listing, and consolidate six offices into one big glass building in Victoria at pre-slump rates. The cost savings we had to make involved waves of redundancies, but that’s just business life.’

Jobs at Nynex subsidiary BIS and Guinness followed, but neither succeeded in inspiring her. ‘I never quite engaged with the excitement of selling hectolitres of beer,’ Buxton says.

The job at Uppingham may have marked a step back from corporate life, but it wasn’t without its challenges. ‘A school environment with over 700 children and 330 staff working in very intense time bursts – it certainly wasn’t slack-paced. In my seven years, I was responsible for the finances, and support to the trustees, I looked after estates management, I was the HR manager and I learnt the finer points of outsourced catering.’

Jamie Oliver may be causing political waves with his school dinners’ campaign, but Buxton could teach him a thing or two. ‘If you outsource catering, the onsite caterers are there to make a profit. By investing half of that profit back into the food, we instantly improved it. We even invited Egon Ronay to give his view of the food – there was an article in The Times. He thought it was great.’

More than a job, the post at Uppingham was a way of life, Buxton says, and it was a wrench to tear herself away. But working at the RHS does have its distinct advantages, even if it does mean she has to put her own gardening on hold. ‘I’ve moved to London to a place that’s a 20 minute walk from the office, but there’s no garden – not even window boxes.’

And professionally, being FD of a horticultural charity is not always a bed of roses. ‘People with a passion for plants assume I’m the devil with horns. They want to do the best and be creative, which involves spending money and they have me in the background harping on about cost control.’

But being able to visit the gardens and shows is a definite perk of the job. ‘The floral pavilion at Chelsea is the best thing for me. It’s such an amazing experience. It’s an explosion of light and the most fantastic flowers, whole stands of herbs, and delphiniums and the most inspired way of presenting everything.’

Her classics degree can’t do any harm when it comes to the Latin names for the flora on show at Chelsea, but Buxton’s still got a lot to learn. ‘Have I become more aware of all things horticultural? No, but I’ve become more aware of my ignorance,’ she says.

Related reading