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Farewell to gardening giant Robert Stodel

Cape Town - Robert Stodel (1941-2014), a legend in the gardening industry, died on Tuesday July 22 after a short illness at the age of 73. He leaves behind a legacy, not only in garden retailing and environmental conservation, but also in the lives of his family, friends and the many people he advised, influenced and mentored over a career spanning 52 years.

As a teenager, Stodel worked on the famous Dutch bulb farms in his school holidays and over weekends. After studying horticulture in Aalsmeer, he emigrated to South Africa.

Rob Stodel promoting indoor plants in the 1990s. Picture: SuppliedStodels Nurseries first business premises in Plumstead. The company now manages five garden centres in Bellville, Somerset West, Kenilworth, Constantia and Milnerton. Picture: SuppliedThe rose 'Stodel's Beauty' is a free-flowering yellow floribunda which Robert Stodel grew in thousands of units after identifying it as a superb rose for local gardening conditions. Picture: SuppliedInternational cultivars of summer-flowering amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) were introduced to the Cape by Robert Stodel. Picture: SuppliedIn the late 1980s, Rob Stodel's Men at Work project asked gardeners to donate old tools so that they could be repaired and recycled for marginalised communities developing food gardens. Picture: Supplied

His first job in Cape Town was with the late Rie Kramer, who imported bulbs from Holland.

Rob soon started his own business, selling Dutch flower bulbs out of a garage in Plumstead. He set up a stand on the Grand Parade during the bulb-planting season, went door-to-door selling his bulbs and used his expertise to be a consultant for local flower growers.

In those early years, Rob would say, “I survived on a couple of apples and a pint of milk a day”.

By the late 1960s, times had changed. He was importing more than 20 million flower bulbs annually, which were advertised in a 36-page full-colour catalogue that had a print order of 320 000 twice a year.

Stodel became such an expert in mail order sales that the South African Consumer Council asked him to head a South African Mail Order Association to eliminate dishonest trading from the industry. Later renamed the Direct Sales Association, Stodel served as chairman for 15 years.

With passion and vision, Stodel diversified in the late 1960s to sell not only flower bulbs, but also plants and associated garden products. In an age when seeds, bulbs, plants, cut flowers, pots, fertiliser, compost, kraal manure and even bonemeal had to be bought from different businesses Stodel combined them all in a modern, one-stop, retail garden centre which he opened in Kenilworth in 1968.

This pioneering vision for garden retailing was enormously influential in the early 1970s and led to the transformation of backyard plant nurseries into garden centres across South Africa.

At the time, Stodels Kenilworth, now regarded as South Africa’s first fully-fledged garden centre, just happened to be down the road from a food retailer who was also experimenting with pioneering ideas in marketing and discounting. “If I can discount food and fresh vegetables, you can do it with plants,” food retailer Raymond Ackerman of Pick n Pay remarked to Stodel at the time.

The flagship of the Stodels Nurseries business in Bellville was opened in 1973 and enjoyed immediate success. “From the start, I wanted to establish a one-stop, self-service garden centre which offered stock at discounted prices,” said Stodel in later years.

Stodel established many of the systems we now take for granted in garden centres. He led the way on discounting, garden clubs, regular talks and even guaranteeing every plant sold by replacing dead plants returned to the nursery.

He bought plants, seeds and bulbs in large consignments to keep prices down and entered into co-operative import deals with Johannesburg garden centres to make sure Cape Town gardeners had access to a range of fashionable ceramic containers from the Far East. The Institute of Marketing Management honoured him with their Marketer of the Year Award in 1995.

Remembering the era, Di Irish, head of the Cape Green Forum, says: “When Rob walked into a room, you knew he had arrived. He was a bundle of energy, always interested in what was going on around him, constantly asking questions and unconditionally offering his advice to others”.

Credited with bringing Arbor Day to South Africa, Stodel was a passionate advocate of greening in disadvantaged communities. He pioneered celebrity tree planting in South Africa by inviting Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, President FW de Klerk, Professor Kader Asmal, ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki, Irish president Mary Robinson, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and King Carl XVI of Sweden to plant trees in disadvantaged communities across Cape Town long before it was fashionable.

The Peace Garden for Nelson Mandela at the Trauma Centre in District Six was one of his favourite projects and trees in this garden were planted by Hilary Clinton, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Prince Haakon of Norway and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Over three decades, Stodel sponsored the planting of an estimated 450 000 trees at projects in and around Cape Town and was a significant sponsor of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.

A thank you note from Nelson Mandela, written during his presidency, is one of many letters on display at the entrance to Stodels Bellville. “Thank you very much for the beautiful yellowwood tree you sent me on Arbor Day. I will certainly find a special place in my garden and look forward to watching it grow. I wish to commend your efforts to promote awareness of trees in the environment,” wrote Mandela.

In 2008, the South African Nursery Association honoured Stodel by presenting him with a SANA Gold Medal, the highest tribute that can be awarded by the gardening industry in South Africa.

Robert Stodel handed the company over to his son, Nick, in 2007 and went into semi-retirement. “I definitely feel that after 50 years, it’s time that young energetic blood with new ideas and technology must take the company much further,” he said at the time. This notwithstanding, he was often seen at nurseries in between travelling the world with his wife, Rosemarie.

“Robert has been a pioneer and trailblazer in the South African nursery industry for over 50 years,” says Morne Faulhammer, a past president of the South African Nursery Association and Cape Talk gardening expert. “Not only did his vision of creating a world-class garden centre chain become a realisation, but he successfully managed to hand over the business to a second generation.”

“Rob Stodel was a pioneer, driven, passionate, an out of the box thinker with a deep compassion for people and the conservation of the environment,” says Kathy Malherbe of Du Maurier Communications, who worked on the marketing of many of Stodel’s projects over the years. “Working with him for 20 years was a journey on a bullet train – exciting, very, very energetic and creative and always in search of excellence. Great lessons were learnt, accompanied by an exceptional mosaic of wonderful memories and a huge amount of fun,” she adds.

Robert Stodel leaves his wife, Rosemarie, two sons Mark (a medical doctor with a practice in Blackheath, Cape Town) and Nick (managing director at Stodels Nurseries), their wives and three granddaughters.

Kay Montgomery, Weekend Argus

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