The Story of Gillian Mathews (Ravenna Gardens)

May 26, 2022

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Gillian Mathews (Ravenna Gardens)

By Nesha Ruther

Gillian Mathews has a unique perspective on the American Dream and what it means to run a business in the United States. Born in England, she moved to the United States fifty years ago, following her sister and brother-in-law who had moved to work at Boeing in Seattle, Washington.

Gillian opened her first business, Made in Washington, with her former husband, selling products exclusively made in the Evergreen State. They grew the business until they decided to sell it and began looking for a new retail endeavor.

An avid gardener, Gillian noticed that there weren’t any stores in the regional shopping centers that spoke to gardeners. “In order to buy plants, you had to drive a long way, so it would take you half a day to go shopping for plants.”

Gillian’s time with Made in Washington gave her valuable experience, and she loved working in a retail environment and running her own business. “Putting retail and gardening together, to me, was a win-win.”

Before long, an opportunity arose to test the idea. Gillian held a fundraiser holiday pop-up store for the Bellevue Art Museum, aptly titled ‘The Art of the Garden’. The fundraiser was held in Bellevue Square, a successful regional shopping center. The event was an opportunity to see if the concept for a plant and garden supply store would work in a retail shopping center. The fundraiser was a success, and the idea for Ravenna Gardens was born.

Despite the success at Bellevue Square, a different shopping center would be the home for the new store. At the time, Seattle’s University Village was undergoing a considerable revitalization effort. “We met and presented our concept for the store. They really liked it and they built a building specifically for it.”

With the support and enthusiasm of the local community, Ravenna Gardens grew, at one point reaching five stores in the Seattle area. None, however, could match the popularity of the original University Village location.

The economic recession in 2008 impacted Ravenna Gardens and the rest of the country. “We realized it was more profitable to close the four other stores and maintain one strong location. That was the best decision we could have made,” she says.

Close to the University of Washington and the high-end neighborhoods overlooking Lake Washington, University Village is able to capitalize on both residential and university traffic. “[University Village] is maybe one of the most successful shopping centers in the country,” Gillian says. The outdoor shopping center, which in theory might be unpopular given Seattle’s weather, nonetheless attracts brave masses that come rain or shine. Ravenna Garden’s success is a testament to the outdoor spirit and love of nature that Washingtonians possess.

Following in the legacy of Made in Washington, Ravenna Gardens specializes in regional plants that will thrive in the Seattle climate. They source the bulk of their plants from local growers in Oregon and Washington. Plants are delivered directly to the store every week. The store works to bring the outside in and the inside out. This means selling beautiful houseplants that can liven up any indoor space and outdoor living equipment that allows people to feel connected to the natural world.

Some of their most popular items are pots and containers to hold indoor and outdoor plants. The pots are not only functional but beautifully designed, highlighting the natural beauty of the plants they house. Ravenna Gardens also offers a delivery service that allows customers to choose a plant and a pot and have it planted and delivered right to their homes.

Other inventory includes table linens, gardening books, décor designed for both indoor and outdoor use, jewelry, bath and body products, and more. Maintaining a cohesive theme, all products have a botanical feel and relate back to the beauty of the natural world.

“My role was to make sure they had everything they needed,” Gillian says. She enjoyed managing the inventory and warehousing and attending markets in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New York, where she would pick out products for the following season.

“We had two big seasons: April, May, and June, which is the Spring/Mother’s Day season, and then the Christmas season in December. So, I always went to Atlanta in January to do the buying for the following year’s holiday,” she says. “I would go to the New York show to find unique items that weren’t necessarily represented in Seattle.”

Gillian enjoyed finding creative and eclectic ways to mix the inventory she picked up at national shows with the work of local artists. “I really tried to mix a local flavor as well. I had a glassblower in Portland who made beautiful outdoor glass art, and then some different locally made trellises; of course, all the outdoor plants were grown locally.” She collaborated with a skilled visual merchandiser who has been with the business for over twenty years and still works there today. Together, they cultivated the aesthetic and ambiance they wanted for the store. An eye for detail and design is, in part, what made Ravenna Gardens such a success and able to endure many vastly changing economies.

In a typical retail environment, the staff needs to understand the merchandise; that principle is only more important in a plant store where the merchandise is a growing thing. The staff must have a thorough knowledge of the growing conditions for each plant. “Does it like to be in bright light? Does it like to be in the shade? What about watering? Should you cut back on watering in the winter?” This only becomes more complicated with outdoor plants.

One of the things that made Ravenna Gardens such a success was Gillian’s commitment to creating a positive customer experience. “You just want people to feel welcome when they come in, and you just want them to leave happy,” she says. “A lot of the feedback we get is that people recognize it’s a great experience and come back.”

Ravenna Gardens went through many different economic cycles over the course of twenty years. And Gillian, like any business owner, faced her fair share of challenges. While she initially began discussions about selling her business before the pandemic, the massive shutdowns put that plan on hold. “We’d started talking about it three years ago.” Gillian says of conversations with prospective buyers, “And then COVID happened, so of course, I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that you want to buy a business now.’”

Ravenna had the good fortune of including food plants in their inventory, giving them the status of an essential business and allowing them to stay open. “We did a lot of pivoting. Pivot, pivot, pivot, and constantly improving on what we were doing.” Gillian credits this agility as what enabled the business to survive such tumultuous times.

When lockdown ended, Ravenna Gardens bounced back in full and were able to continue discussions on the sale of the business. “I’ll be 74 this year,” she says, “I knew I had to think about the future of the business because we had some great people working there, and I didn’t want to close it.”

The first step was getting the business valued. Gillian reached out to Gregory Kovsky and IBA. “I was just trying to understand how to sell a business, and someone referred me to him and said, ‘He’s a good person. You should talk to him.’” Gregory was familiar with Ravenna Gardens and their success and was able to guide Gillian through the process.

One of Gillian’s main concerns was selling the business to someone unfamiliar with the specific world of garden retail. “It’s not a normal business. There are tricky parts to it, the plants that die.”

“I think the worst thing would be to sell a business and then see it fail because it was the wrong person,” Gillian says, “To me, finding the right buyer was key. My biggest concern was that the people that currently work in the business were appreciated for their knowledge. It is a specific body of knowledge. You need to be an expert in those things while also having the people skills and the communication abilities and all the million things you need to work in a business,” Gillian says.

Fortunately, Gillian was able to find the perfect buyer in an employee who was interested in taking over Ravenna Gardens. Not only had she and Gillian worked together for thirteen years and had a good relationship, but she also had an intimate knowledge of how the business worked and was well-liked among the staff. Gillian knew her employees were key to future success and wanted to be sure they stayed on after she left and continued to create the warm and welcoming environment Ravenna Gardens was known for.

Gregory Kovsky helped advise both Gillian and the prospective buyer and put the latter in touch with a banker who got her an SBA loan so she could purchase the business.

“He was really very helpful.” Gillian says of Gregory Kovsky, “He answered any question I had. I highly recommend anyone [looking to sell their business] talk to him.”

Another asset throughout the process was the positive relationship Gillian had cultivated with Ravenna Garden’s landlord. “The landlord was great, really supportive, and helpful” she says.

Gillian officially retired on December 31st, 2021. She is looking forward to traveling, gardening, and spending time with family and friends.

Although she no longer owns Ravenna Gardens, she maintains the friends she made there through the years and will occasionally help out when an employee is out of town; she also supports the business by being a loyal customer and purchasing plants for her own garden from the store.

In June she will be opening her own garden to over 400 attending the Hardy Plant Study Weekend, which is an event held each year in either Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver, BC. Attendees visit local gardens and learn from national and international speakers. “I knew I needed a project, and so that’s been my retirement entry project.”

In addition to the Hardy Plant Study Weekend, Gillian is on the board of the Northwest Horticulture Society, an educational organization that gives both local and international garden tours, their next stop is France, to see the gardens in Normandy and the Loire Valley in September. She sees it as a way to give back to the gardening communities that have inspired and supported her over the years.

As an immigrant to the United States, Gillian understands the American Dream as having the freedom and opportunity to attain your own individual version of success. Gillian feels she achieved this through building a successful business that spoke to her passions and interests and through the self-reliance and resourcefulness she exhibited throughout her career.

Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.