What does it take to run an artisanal florist in Singapore?

What does it take to run an artisanal florist in Singapore?

Bloom where you are planted

Text: Adibah Isa

Think you have what it takes to start your own floral business? Lelian Chew, founder of The Floral Atelier and The Wedding Atelier tells us what you need to make it work

Tucked away in a little street in the Tiong Bahru enclave sits The Floral Atelier (TFA). Set up a year ago by Lelian Chew, we dropped in for a floral arrangement class when it first opened, and have never looked back since — it was official: We were hooked. In their prim space lie all the feminine wiles you could ask for: Soft and striking blooms, cotton candy hues and arresting greens. But where florists are now a dime a dozen in a landscape where everyone's pursuing an artisanal craft, what does it take to stand out? Here's where Chew — who also founded wedding advisory The Wedding Atelier (TWA) — comes in. From dealing with CEOs ringing her up at 3am to crafting bloom boxes and bouquets of sweet surprises, the former finance guru tells us how.

The Floral Atelier shop

You had a career in finance before moving on to start TWA. Who were some of your clients?
I managed the wealth of Asia's top families — billionaires who gave me a minute on the phone while they wait for their transit flights, CEOs who called at 3am to find out why their US-listed company is trading up 2%. Definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Why did you leave your career in finance to start TWA? Was this always something that's at the back of your mind when you first started working?
Choosing to leave finance was a very conscious choice. There wasn't a strong push factor but a strong pull factor in me wanting to learn more about being a business owner. There were many exciting ideas that came up but The Wedding Atelier was the most compelling.

Not many know that even though I was a banker all my professional career, I never read finance in school! I read business with a minor in hospitality and in many ways what I do now is a lot more relevant to my skills. TWA was started to fill a void in the event planning industry — establishing a professionally ran, regional focused company that stood out from the crowd of local players.  There was a void waiting to be filled, in an area I was passionate about, requiring skill sets I was well equipped with. It was a dream come true, but definitely a calculated and carefully assessed dream!

Why plan and design weddings? What rush do you get out of it?
I've always been one of those little girls fascinated with all things weddings. Growing up, I staged countless weddings for my favorite Barbie and Ken so this was like breathing life into making a childhood dream come true. I keep TWA's service highly exclusive and insist we work with a very limited number of clients each year as that's how we do our best work. That power to transform is magical and the rush is like no other.

When did you see the need to start TFA?
TFA was born to fill that need, having a dedicated floral and decor arm allows us to spread our magic to a wider audience. TWA currently has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore and there are plans to expand TFA to other regions in Asia as well.

What aspects of industry skills you nurtured during your time in finance surface in running TFA and TWA?
Being the only one on the trading floor without an ounce of finance background meant just one thing — I have to work harder and longer than all my peers. For the first three years, I survived on four hours of nightly sleep, every waking hour from 6am to 1am was spent on the trading floor. Weekends were no exception to the rule. Things only turned for the better after years of proving my worth and craft. When you emerge from such tough conditions, you learn how far willpower brings you and that nothing is impossible.

I now apply the same mantra to all my businesses. There are no issues that are unsolvable, no project unsurmountable and no client unappeasable. It might take longer, you might have to work harder, but you will get it done. There are no alternatives.

Lelian Chew
What makes TFA different from other boutique florists in Singapore?
Both businesses are extremely competitive and saturated, largely due to the industry's low barriers to entry. Everyone thinks they can be a wedding planner after a fun bridesmaid experience, or a florist after posting a beautiful DIY arrangement on Instagram.

Instead of being turned off by the saturated market, I saw it as a prime opportunity. Amidst the sea of mom and pop shops, I wanted to be the one professionally ran, inimitable company that stood out from the crowd. The Floral Atelier has the best design capabilities you can find in this part of the world and we collaborate with the strongest names in the industry. We'll be in Bali this September for our inaugural Asia Pacific Wedding Masterclass where profesisonals from all over the world will come hone their floristry and event planning skills. A local presence with a global voice, that's what makes TFA distinctive and inimitable.

What makes a bouquet by TFA artisanal? With such a buzzword thrown about a lot, how do you remain authentic and true to the craft?
It takes more than a "good eye" to create great arrangements. At The Floral Atelier, we recognised very early on that floral design is as much a science as it is an art, and learning how to achieve structure, balance, form and space is crucial to being a successful florist. Our florists have all gone through years of training and experience really does matter. At the end of the day its really not about fancy artisanal packaging nor clever instagramming, it's about creating a bouquet that not only looks good but has longevity and can withstand the elements.

TFA will turn one this year. What are three business lessons you've learned since it started, or even during its conceptualization?
1. Identifying Your Passion: I am a strong believer that passion and business rigor must co-exist in a successful company. Starting a company is painful and I cannot imagine how much harder it'll be if you are starting one that you are not passionate about. It's absolutely true that blind ambition is better than 20/20 indifference.

2. Elevating A Hobby Into A Business: Having enthusiasm is a great starting place, but to elevate your passion from a mere hobby to a successful business, you'll need structure and discipline. Spend as much time managing, marketing and promoting your business as you are fine-tuning your product.

3. Building A Strong Team: It takes a team for a company to grow. Be honest and identify the areas that you aren't well versed in and hire help with qualities that you lack, to bring the business to where you want it to be.

What are your plans for TFA and how do you hope to see it grow?
On the retail front, we are busy expanding our gifting options, incorporating a highly curated list of branded items into our floral offerings. We've just launched an exclusive tie-up with Maison Ladurée macarons.


What advice would you give a young budding florist who wishes to start his or her floral business?
Launching a floral business or any business in fact, is so much more than the potential payout, it is about giving a voice to what you feel the world lacks. So carefully identify that difference you or your business can bring to the table, then be brave and take that leap of faith.

Know that there will never be a perfect time to make this move to start something new. You'll always have a reason not to: the economy is not doing great, maybe I should not take on additional risk now; the economy is booming, it'll be a waste if I don't stick around for my next bonus. I say just use the positives to your advantage and work around the negatives. Things will never be easy, but being passionate and working very, very hard goes a tremendously long way.

Do you believe that a favourite flower is representative of someone's personality? If so, what do you think your favourite flower says about you?
Absolutely! Coincidentally, my favourite flower is so aptly named the Blushing Bride. It has a blush-colored center, with pointed petals that range in color from snowy white and ivory to cream with tinges of pale pink. The delicate blooms are feathery and light, which gives any arrangement an ethereal feel. I'm a true romantic at heart, I have to confess I think I fell in love with its beautiful name even before seeing it.

Floral Atelier Tiong Bahru
The Floral Atelier is located at 40 Eng Hoon Street. Tel: 8869 2830.