If Vikaas Gutgutia of Ferns N Petals had to thank anyone for his flower and gifting empire, it would be the florist who, almost 23 years ago, delivered a scruffy bouquet of flowers to his girlfriend on her birthday. The sight of that shabby arrangement at a party, filled with guests, sparked in him the idea of starting a flower shop in Delhi that would assure quality to customers and bring sophistication to the trade.

Sitting in his office, the 48-year-old fondly remembers that day, and the journey that took him from a small village in Bihar to becoming the florist of India’s privileged class. What started in 1994 as a small shop in Delhi’s South Extension has turned into a flourishing business with a turnover of Rs 270 crore in the 2016 financial year.

Ferns N Petals' South Extension store.

The Ferns N Petals corporate farm house office in Delhi’s Gadaipur area stretches over nine acres. The reception area sports a big bowl of elegant artificial tulips that could easily pass for the real thing. In one corner of Gutgutia’s minimally-decorated office sits a small tabletop shrine to Sai Baba.

“I was not the first person to start selling flowers in my family,” said Gutgutia, who grew up in Bihar’s Vidyasagar village. “In the early 1980s, my grandfather used to grow chrysanthemums in his home garden which my father and uncles would then take by train to Kolkata to sell. My uncle realised that their high-quality produce was not getting a fair price in the market, so he decided to open his own shop in Kolkata’s Park Street area.”

His uncle’s shop, Plants and Flowers Boutique, became a learning ground for Gutgutia. At the time, he was a student of commerce at Kolkata’s Bhawanipur Education Society College, but every evening, he would make his way to his uncle’s shop to help out.

“It was the only air-conditioned flower shop in all of Kolkata and the only one in central Kolkata not catering to the temple-goers,” he said. “In the local markets, like Jaggu Bazaar and Bada Bazaar, one could buy flowers for puja, but one had to go to New Market for a bouquet. Our shop brought the tradition of bouquets and cut flowers to central Kolkata.”

After graduation, he was raring to start something of his own. “I had seen my family dealing with hardships and poverty and I wanted to rise above that. I wanted more than the Indian middle-class life of a box of sweets for Diwali and a Maruti car.”

So, in 1994, with an investment of Rs 2.5 lakh from his friend, Gutgutia opened the first Ferns N Petals store in South Extension in a 200 sq ft space with a staff of four people. “It was a time when Delhi’s flower market was dominated by footpath florists,” said Gutgutia. “There wasn’t even a proper wholesale market for flowers then. Most florists would get their stuff from Mumbai or Bengaluru.” Before the Ghazipur flower mandi was built in 2012, Gutgutia would head to the smaller ones located on Baba Kharak Singh Marg in central Delhi for his supply, and get some from Pune and Bengaluru.

Now, with wholesale markets, like Ghazipur, sourcing more exotic varieties, like tulips and orchids from the Netherlands and Columbia, has become easier.

Ferns N Petals' old logo.

Despite its initial success, Gutgutia’s small shop was sealed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for being a commercial establishment being run out of a residential building without proper authorisation. Suddenly, Gutgutia found himself in the same position as any other footpath florist. “I still had orders and clients. So, I bought a cordless phone, paid hafta (weekly bribe) to the police and carried on selling. It was a big challenge because I had to maintain my USP without the infrastructural support.” Happy incidents like a customer walking in and buying out his entire shop for Rs 2 lakh for his girlfriend, kept him going.

Meanwhile, Gutgutia kept exploring new ideas. He started approaching hotels and banquet halls to tie up with his brand for flower decorations and bagged an exclusive contract in 1997 for decorating the banquet hall of Taj Palace hotel.

It took Ferns N Petals 15 shops and seven years to finally break even. The brand name had finally established itself and the flower shops were making enough money to not need funding from the wedding business to stay afloat. Gutgutia also credits the company’s success to technology. “The whole game has changed in the last few years. Digital marketing has taken over direct marketing and social media has become indispensable. Ferns N Petals remained ahead of the crowd during this transition by investing in technology.” The Ferns N Petals website started in 2002 and though it has 252 brick and mortar stores spread across 93 Indian cities and one in Kathmandu, Nepal, it receives the bulk of its orders online.

Ferns N Petals stores now.

Apart from Delhi, Ferns N Petals has a strong customer base in Pune and Kolkata. The brand processes over 10,000 orders during lean season and the number goes up to 50,000 during Valentine’s Day and other festivals. The business has diversified over the years to include cakes, cards, chocolates and other gifting items along with flowers.

According to Gutgutia, the company was buying around 100 tonnes of flowers per year in its initial years, which has now gone up to around 4,032 tonnes across India. Roses, said Gututia, have remained consistently popular through the years in metros along with tier two and three cities. Delhi’s affluent are also partial to the fancier, harder-to-get varieties, like Oriental and Calla lilies, or hydrangeas and tulips.

In its 23 years of operation, Ferns N Petals has remained a market leader in this largely unorganised sector.

Various other brands, like Florista and Just Flowers, have been inspired by the Ferns N Petals model but at a smaller scale. Florista started in 2004 in Mumbai’s Phoenix mall and has expanded to 16 stores within India and one in Bhutan. Just Flowers, on the other hand, started in Delhi in 1998 and has 14 outlets across the country.

Apart from its association with Taj, Ferns N Petals did a tie-up with designer JJ Valaya for décor at luxury weddings, which took his venture, FNP Weddings, to the next level. He also set up a chain of luxury floral boutiques in collaboration with fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani in 2003.

For Gututia, the biggest challenge is to keep innovating since not all his ventures have been profitable. One such venture, Chatak Chaat, proved to be disastrous. It started in 2006 and lost steam by 2009, because Gutgutia was unable to control standards or ensure uniformity across outlets.

However, he is set to make another attempt at a food venture – FNP Cakes and More. “We were seeing a turnover of over Rs 50 crore in cakes, so we decided to build on it as a separate brand,” said Gutgutia.

Apart from the first investor, who later cashed out, Gutgutia has been able to sustain the business without bringing in more funders. “Mine is a debt-free company,” he said. “People think there is a rich Arab oil tycoon financing me,” said Gutgutia, looking slightly amused. “The way I do things and live my life, they think phool bech kar toh nahi ho sakta. I have made flowers look like oil mining.”