Obituary: David Clark OBE - Gardening enthusiast behind one of most successful Scottish horticultural firms

Born: 10 April, 1938, in Chipstead, Surrey. Died: 2 November, 2011, in Stirlingshire, aged 73

ALONG with his wife Jean, David Clark founded Findlay Clark Nurseries and Garden Centre in 1970 and oversaw its expansion over the next 30 years to become one of the most successful horticultural and landscape businesses in Scotland. He headed the company as it grew from its base near Milngavie to include branches in Paisley, Kinross and Aberdeen.

Garden centres were still a relatively new phenomenon in 1970 and one of Clark’s breakthroughs came when he branched into indoor plants and landscape features for offices, also quite novel in Scotland at the time.

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The Findlay Clark name became known for its indoor horticultural features, including at a Collins publishing plant in Bishopbriggs, in the Bank of Scotland’s chief Glasgow office, in the Olympia Shopping Centre at East Kilbride, and in the Old Course Hotel at St Andrews.

Retiring in 2000, Clark sold the garden centres to his Edinburgh-based rivals Dobbies Garden Centres plc, for a reported £6 million, an acquisition Dobbies said helped it expand around Scotland and south of the Border. Findlay Clark retained the landscaping side of its business and Clark’s daughter Robin is chairman of Findlay Clark Landscapes.

As a leader in his field, Clark helped make the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival the great success it was. He was a past director of the World Orchid Conference and for 20 years chaired the Scottish group of the Garden Centre Association, which represents garden centres around the UK. He also served his profession at international level, as president of the International Garden Centre Association from 1993-97.

Among his many other titles were: member of the Trades House of Glasgow, fellow of the Institute of Horticulture and honorary life president of the Tullochan Trust, in West Dunbartonshire, which seeks, through early intervention, to help young people who may lack confidence or motivation. He passionately supported the trust until his death and was also a founder member of the Loch Lomond Fisheries Trust. From 1979-84, he served as governor of Ardvreck School, in Crieff.

From 1988, Clark was a trustee of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and it was in recognition of his work there, and for Scottish horticulture in general, that he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 2000 Honours List.

Born in Surrey in 1938, David Nowell Clark attended Perrott Hill preparatory school in Somerset, before moving on to another independent school, Bradfield College, in Berkshire, from 1951-54.

He did his national service with the Grenadier Guards infantry regiment, in 1957-59, serving in West Germany, Cyprus and on ceremonial duties in London, complete with the traditional Guards’ black bearskin hat. Back on civvy street, he trained and got a salesman’s job with a flower wholesaler in London’s Covent Garden, turning up on his first day in a sharp suit, bowler hat and twirling an umbrella. He apparently gave up on the bowler after Cockney market porters used it as a football. He married Jean McDonald, from Worcestershire, in 1962.

The following year, Clark was tempted away from flowers and into his father’s stockjobbing business, C Douglas Clark and Sons, at the Stock Exchange in the City of London, acting as a “market maker”, an intermediary between stockbrokers. By 1965, when he was 27, he was a dealer on the floor but missed his flowers and realised the City was not for him, even though he was fifth generation in the family firm. “I like being good at what I’m doing. And I didn’t think I was a particularly good jobber,” he said. “There were people there who were better at the job than I was, and that annoyed me.’’

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He got a job as a sales rep in the west of England, for the Geest banana merchants, and was involved in launching what was thought to be Britain’s first-ever “shop to shop” sales van, selling potted plants to retailers.

It was in 1968 that he and Jean came north to the Glasgow area, where he got a job with Malcolm Campbell Ltd, fruiterers and florists. The couple then bought Jim Findlay’s tomato nursery at Temple of Boclair farm, between Milngavie and Balmore, where they also grew bedding plants and sold cut flowers, opting for the business name Findlay Clark. Clark recalled driving around Glasgow in “a knackered old Ford Transit” to sell his wares.

He and Jean had come a long way by the time they opted to sell to Dobbies 30 years later. Although Dobbies had been rivals, they had a strong mutual respect. Dobbies chief executive James Barne told The Scotsman yesterday: “David was a wonderful person. It was his love of the garden business and his love of fishing that brought us together. The garden centre industry is a close-knit one. Although we are all fiercely competitive, we all share similar issues, similar values and all have a natural affinity…

“To have built up a business over 30 years and to sell to one of your major competitors is a big decision. David always had the preservation of the business and the future security of his staff uppermost in his thinking, and I very much hope we achieved this objective. David will be terribly missed.”

Both before and after his retirement, Clark always found time for his beloved fishing, “on any river, anywhere in the world”, but often on little Loch Walton, near the Carron Valley reservoir. There, he could be seen in tartan trews and a unique cap described by a close friend at his funeral as “sensible but ridiculous, a sort of Muscovite confection with earmuffs and string under the chin.” On his office wall at Findlay Clark was a sign: “Work is for people who don’t know how to fish.”

Clark’s family said one of his greatest thrills was to catch his “fish of a lifetime” in 2009, a 51-and-a-half pound Atlantic salmon on the River Alta in Norway. He took great delight in introducing his granddaughters to gardening at his home near Killearn, in Stirlingshire.

David Clark, who died in hospital after a long time suffering from cancer, is survived by his wife Jean, sons Alexander and Duncan, daughter Robin and grandchildren Sasha and Alice. Announcing a service to celebrate his life later this month, his family, reflecting his own personality, wrote: “Please, no black.” PHIL DAVISON