Rachel Doyle: Sowing the seeds of a successful horticultural life

RACHEL DOYLE was elected President of the International Garden Centre Association (IGCA) last October.

The IGCA is the international governing body for garden centres worldwide. Rachel is the first Irish president of the IGCA, and the international face of the gardening industry, worth an estimated €516 million in Ireland annually. Yet she always manages to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground.

She owns Arboretum garden centre in Carlow, Ireland’s first five-star garden centre which employs 67 people. As well as IGCA presidency duties, she has successfully bid for Ireland to host the IGCA international congress this year. She also sits on the horticultural board of Bord Bia and manages to make time for her husband, children and grandchildren. How does she do it? “Well, the presidency and the congress have taken over my life at the moment,” she says. “Arboretum is sort of in the background, but I’m very fortunate that I’ve two great sons who are in the business. They’re directors and shareholders in Arboretum so they’re running the business and they’re on the committee helping me with the congress as well.”

With sons Fearghal and Barry and husband Frank all in the business, it really is a family affair. Arboretum is on a 15-acre site which also encompasses the homes of Rachel and both her sons. Rachel attributes her good work-life balance to this holistic approach to business and family.

“There’s no greater honour to me than going to breakfast in our restaurant in the morning with my husband and sons. My grandchildren drop in throughout the day. I’m really very grateful, what more could anyone want?”

The gardening industry in Ireland encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including garden centres, landscape contractors and nursery growers, and employs an estimated 11,000 people both full-time and part-time.

Doyle attributes Arboretum’s continued success and expansion to the emphasis that she puts on educating her staff, and employing people who love horticulture. “Arboretum really is a very happy place to work, because we all just love plants,” she says.

The IGCA International Congress is not only a huge boost for Ireland’s gardening reputation but also the tourist industry and local economy. Doyle was instrumental in Ireland securing the role: “I asked Aidan Cotter, the CEO of Bord Bia, if I bid for the congress would I have the support of Bord Bia and he said yes. I suppose from Bord Bia’s perspective it’s ticking all the boxes, showcasing Ireland as being a food island but also the best of our horticulture, our food, our drink and our culture as well as all the historic places we’ll be showing the attendees.”

Doyle and the congress committee are currently busy planning an action-packed week for more than 300 delegates from 20 countries. Powerscourt, Croke Park and Glasnevin cemetery as well as the top garden centres in the country will all be visited, but the highlight of the week will be a state dinner with President Michael D Higgins in the Mansion House.

Doyle grew her business from humble beginnings in the late ’70s, when, newly-married and recently graduated as a horticulturalist, she started selling plants from the garage on the side of her house. “I worked very hard at it, then, when I had my first baby, my husband decided that he would leave his good, pensionable job and come in to the business with me. It’s just gone from strength to strength.”

Many women in business would be able to appreciate Doyle’s struggles to gain acceptance and recognition in what was a male-dominated industry, especially in the early days of Arboretum, although she is keen to stress that things are changing.

“On the board of the IGCA, I’m only the third female president in 56 years. It’s always been a male-dominated industry in general. When I started my business 36 years ago, one of the things that really did annoy me was that people would come in and say, ‘Is himself here?’ or ‘Can I speak to the boss?’ I got all those sort of things.”

Doyle laughs as she remembered one run-in with a customer who asked to speak to her husband about apple trees. “I said, ‘do you know what, my husband wouldn’t know the first thing about apple trees’. Actually that man now is a very loyal customer of mine. I suppose he just expected to see a man. We would try to maintain a good gender balance here in the garden centre, and we have. Even out in the plant area, people think that the men know more about things than us females. But we can change that, and we are changing it.”


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