French floral artist watches his enterprise blossom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

After only a few goggle-eyed days of witnessing the energy and drive of Shanghai 21/2 years ago, florist Sebastien Lathuile decided it was where he wanted to live. 'I went back [to London], sold my flat and three months later I was back in Shanghai,' he said.

He was determined to set up a high-end floristry business, targeting companies and individuals with the funds to pay up to HK$20,000 a time for exquisite arrangements.

After spending a year as a consultant in the city, while checking out the lie of the land and making himself 'properly known', he sank the HK$700,000 proceeds from the sale of his flat into the business, opening a shop in the basement of the Pudong Shangri-La hotel. The business flourished and he has just opened a free-standing studio in a Shanghai suburb.

Mr Lathuile, 32, is an old hand in the business.

His inherited from his grandparents a love for blossom gathering and flower arranging as a small child growing up in the Alpine region of France. The passion stayed with him through university, and even a stint in the French army, until he could parlay it into a career.

'In France we believe in know-how and professionalism - it is really taken seriously,' he says. 'Although I knew a lot already, I had to learn the techniques.'

Looking to broaden his professional horizons, and fulfil a long-standing desire to travel, he moved to Europe's largest and most cosmopolitan city, London.

Work there came easily, and soon he was part of a team doing the arrangements for the wedding of former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and the annual charity shindig of pop star Elton John. It gave Mr Lathuile the confidence to set up on his own.

A chance meeting piqued his interest in moving further afield. 'I had had enough of London,' he said. 'I met people from Vietnam who told me to go to Asia, and I met a girl from Dalian , whose mother was a florist. I went to Shanghai and after two days I knew I was going to move there. The energy in the air ... you don't have that in London.'

Late 2004 was a good time for the Frenchman to arrive in the city. As part of the 'Year of France' in China, the florist was asked by the French Chamber of Commerce to work on an exhibition of French floral art and he also arranged displays for a dinner hosted by the French president's wife.

It was all fabulous for his profile and public relations, but Mr Lathuile wanted a more solid business, rather than organising one-off invitational events. The launch of the grandly named business 'Sebastien, the French Floral Artist', did not happen until late 2005.

It helped that he had on board a big-ticket client, the 981-room Pudong Shangri-la hotel.

Now, in addition to ensuring the riverside property is decorated with fresh flowers - in the lobby, public areas, restaurants and guest rooms - he also gets ad hoc assignments at the venue and other hotels, for such occasions as wedding banquets, parties and corporate gatherings, for HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 a time.

To handle the increasing workload, he has employed 15 local florists. 'I am lucky because I manage to keep people - it is a good environment in which to work,' says Mr Lathuile. 'They are well paid and get two days off and get paid for overtime. If they are needed to stay until 2am, they do.'

Mr Lathuile has relied on his China-born business partner to clear a path through the tangle of Shanghai rules and regulations. When it came to renting the new studio, the Frenchman kept well out of sight until the last minute - convinced that the sight of a foreign face would ratchet up the price - and landed the spacious, two-storey property for HK$20,000 a month.

The studio allows an entre to new markets, in particular the delivery of personalised bouquets. Flower-arranging lessons for wealthy expatriate housewives are another option: previous seminars, held at the swanky Jean Georges restaurant, found no shortage of individuals prepared to pay HK$400 for a two-hour course.

'When it comes to doing business here, everything is possible. But on the down side, everything is subject to change', he said.

'Even if everything is settled, contracts can be renegotiated. There is nothing fixed. I have had cases where I have ordered 200 yellow roses and received 200 red ones. You need to stay on top of things all the time.'