Bonsai4U is a two person family business set-up by Len McCarthy with support from his wife Mary seven years ago. “It started out as a hobby,” recalls Len, who was previously a school caretaker. “One day I came home from work through Martinstown and there was a banner outside the credit union office which said, ‘start your own business through Invest NI’, with help from its ‘Start a Business Programme’.
“My wife suggested we went down to find out about it. We went to see one of Invest NI’s people at an event in Ballymena and he said that we could do one of their courses. We took the course – before that we knew nothing about business. The last thing on my mind was bonsai, which was only a hobby. Then it occurred to me and my wife – bonsai.”
Although Len came to Northern Ireland from England in 1982, his Birkenhead accent remains distinct. And when he did his market research before starting the business he returned to his River Mersey roots. “I spoke to someone in Liverpool,” recalls McCarthy, “and he told me that lots of people went over there from Northern Ireland to buy bonsai because no one was selling them in Northern Ireland.
“So then we registered a business account with the bank, but we needed a decent supplier. I was buying my bonsai online and I spoke to my supplier. He told me of a very good, big, supplier. I contacted him and now he ships the bonsai over here to us.
“Then we needed a venue [to sell]. We went to a car boot sale and sold one tree. Someone said to me we would be much better selling at a market and suggested Nutts Corner. We went there and sold seven trees. The following week we sold 14 and the next week we completely sold out. Then we got a better position at Nutts Corner and our sales escalated.
“It started well at Nutts Corner, but most traders will say that it has gone into decline. It’s not as good as it used to be. Another trader suggested going to St George’s Market in Belfast. That went well and then the manager of Fairhill Shopping Centre in Ballymena saw us there and she asked us to display our trees at her centre. We tried it and had a very good day.
“Then we tried another couple of days and we have been there regularly ever since on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. We are now thinking of dropping St George’s Market, because it is an 80 miles round trip.”
Len has done some dealing on eBay, but has found that bonsai is not ideally suited to an online market place. “It’s difficult to get photos that show the trees properly and without them looking darker than they are,” he explains. “We have sold a few trees that way. But people were asking for photos from various different angles and these were very difficult to take. And it takes a couple of hours to pack a bonsai properly for despatch.”
But Len’s enthusiasm for his trade shines through. “It’s great to have a business that is also a hobby,” he says. “It gives me a lot of pleasure. Bonsai have been popular for over 2,000 years. It started in China when Buddhist monks found miniature trees in the mountains. Then it went to Japan, where the Japanese have taken it to the high art level that it’s now at.”
Because bonsai remains as much a love affair as a commercial operation, Len has no intention of stepping down simply because of his age – he is now 59. “It’s not really a business, it’s a hobby,” he stresses. “So I can see myself going on as long as I can walk.”