Hillier prides itself on its family involvement in the business. A key innovator over the last 60 years in driving the business expansion and new plants has been John Hillier. John has recently decided to retire from the Hillier board of directors, aged 83. He hands over to the new generation as two members of the fifth generation of the family join the board.
Hillier, the UK’s largest grower of semi-mature trees, has 154 years of heritage in horticultural. Today, Hillier operates 12 Garden Centres and a wholesale nursery. It also specialises in supplying semi-mature trees to the landscaping industry.
As part of the fourth generation of the family, John has seen the company undergo significant changes and developments. These are into both the commercial and horticultural worlds.
John and his younger brother, Robert, spent their childhoods growing up in the Arboretum. This was also the site of the family home, and got to witness their father’s dedication to plants first hand.
Sir Harold, like his father before him, had a prowess for combining being a passionate plantsman with an astute businessman. This is something he passed on to his sons. Both of them he encourages to experience the horticultural business from the ground up.
John worked in the family business until he was called upon National Service in Libya. Upon returning he spent time working at two nurseries in America before coming back to England to work at the company’s nursery in Eastleigh. It was straight back to work for John Hillier, as soon as his ship from the USA docked in Southampton in 1958. He went straight to London to work on his first RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The following year, looking after the company’s exhibit at the world-famous show became John’s responsibility. He still works the Hillier stand at Chelsea every year.
When Sir Harold Hillier retired, John and his brother Robert headed up the company. They helped to transform it to the commercial entity that it has become today. In those years they grew the business from an annual turnover of £600,000 to the £33m it is today.
John has always had the concern that plants should be useful for home gardeners. This theme is still evident today in the Hillier Chelsea Flower Show exhibits. Part of the Hillier ethos is to inspire people to be able to create beautiful gardens at home. This is something Hillier has encouraged for some time.
This is evident in John’s work into discovering new plants. Ensuring new plant discoveries are suitable for modern gardens has been imperative. He has worked on many RHS committees and involved himself in Hillier’s own extensive research and development into new plant varieties.
John also played a prominent role in the developing of the company’s wholesale and mail order business. This originally formed a vast part of the business. He has most recently worked with Roy Lancaster to publish the eighth edition of the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. This is a popular reference book first published in 1971 by Sir Harold Hillier.
In 1996, John’s dedication to plants received recognition from the RHS when he became the third Hillier to receive the RHS Victoria Medal. This is the RHS’s highest accolade.
After more than 60 years with the company, John Hillier is now retiring to make way for the future generations of Hilliers. Martin and George Hillier, his son and nephew respectively, are joining the board.