Who's the pick of the bunch in the garden centre world?

Market Leaders Pick Their Market Leader
Click to follow

Dennis Epsley, Director, Squire's Garden Centres

Garden centres started 30 years ago when people realised plants could be containerised. Before, customers would see a plant in full bloom, order it and have to wait until winter before it could be dug out of the ground. But it is still a seasonal business. April and May have 30 per cent of our annual turnover, half of which is on a weekend, and in June and March we see 10 per cent more.

A third of our business is done in two months. But the December two-week run on Christmas trees acts as a good way to keep staff motivated. Our strength is that we focus on gardening and the quality and range of plants is big.

I admire Brian Evans for being the man who built up the Wyevale company to Britain's biggest garden centre chain with 78 centres. Through an outstanding process of control and making the business profitable Wyevale now owns large groups of garden centres which they have expanded to take the business into a new era.

Martin Toogood, Managing Director, B&Q UK

Nurseries gave birth to garden centres, but we have grown into gardening from selling the tools such as lawnmowers and trimmers. We are the biggest gardening business in Europe, selling as 64 million bedding plants a year. Like a supermarket, we put the fresh produce under your nose as you walk in, as a reflection of the quality of the whole of the store. We've debunked gardening to make things easier for the gardener. It is no longer a retirement activity. In fact, my seven-year-old daughter's opinions gained from watching Groundforce colour our family's views on gardening.

I envy the authority that a garden centre such as Brian Evans's Wyevale Garden Centres has. Wyevale's hands are in the soil as well as the business and Brian has acquired many ex-nurseries. I am very impressed with the range they have put together.

Bob Gault, Chairman and co-founder, Klondike Garden Centres

My wife and I are dedicated business people and our lack of knowledge about gardening is sometimes an advantage because we don't get distracted from reinvesting our resources. People often start off buying plants from a DIY store where they went to get wallpaper. Later, having graduated to a house with a garden, they want to buy a tree. When they discover the advice and quality at a garden centre, they never go back.

The first essential of a garden centre is location. A rural area close to a population is good and for the centre itself a good backdrop would be countryside where people are able to smell the plants and have a feeling of wellbeing.

I think John Ravenscroft, owner of Bridgemere Garden World in Cheshire, is the most impressive man in the business. He started with a little garden shed in a small field and now he has the biggest garden centre in Europe, a place that can take 2,000 cars and 500 coaches.

It's a huge operation and he has put all of his eggs in one basket but he has to be admired for the way he has done it.

John Ravenscroft, Owner, Bridgemere Garden World, Cheshire

So much retailing is well-organised, run to a format and dull. I'm a nurseryman, and, unlike other centres, I grow my plants. A garden centre owner should be obsessive about his hobby to share it with the visitors.

It's been my mission to make plants, especially rare ones, available to everyone. Since my family and I want to interact with our customers we've decided against a chain.

I am indebted to my local authority who never bothered me about Sunday trading. I was careful not to irritate them by selling trash or moving from my main purpose, which was selling plants.

The competitor I most admire is a grower called Andrew Dunn, of Frank P Matthews Ltd, in Tenbury, Worcestershire. He is singlehandedly responsible for us now being able to buy species of apples, plums and pears that would have been wiped outbut for his dogged insistence on growing them.

Ian Rankin, Senior Buyer on Horticulture Homebase

Gardening used to be hard work, all about digging, but the process has become more like decorating your home, the garden being an extra room. At a traditional centre, you can find what you want any time of year, although we tend to sell things when in flower. Many customers aren't gardeners and we want to demystify it for them. We are all lazy and the ready-made syndrome means we don't want to wait for something to grow for it to look great. We address the customer's need to have a project for an afternoon, rather than something they see as a drudge.

What's wonderful about Chris Roberts and the Van Hage Garden Company is that they have created and inspired, devoting space to an incredible range and choice. They do amazing sets, creating vignettes with furniture, pots and plants, for instance, a Victorian Street scene at Christmas. It's clever.

William Notcutts,Group Managing Director, Notcutts Garden Centres

It's easy to reproduce displays but replicating high-calibre staff is very hard, so we try to involve ours as much as possible in product selection and entrepreneurial flair is always rewarded.

The other most important factors are focusing on your market, having the strong financial security to do what you want to do, developing good supply lines and creating a unique environment.

Yet the greatest competition comes not so much from rival centres but from the other businesses who compete for the leisure pound, particularly over the weekend.

I most admire Colin Squire of the Squire's Garden Centres who has a successful chain of seven centres, each run to a high standard. Squire's is a tidy operation and a traditionally gentlemanly, old-school, good, family business.

Brian Evans, Chairman, Wyevale Garden Centres

Our business is part of the leisure industry, for unlike buying food or petrol, people rarely have to buy a plant. I think the secret of our success lay in the early realisation that if we wanted to extend the feel of a garden as a hobby into a retail context, wehad to introduce ambience, build restaurants, gift shops, pet shops, etcetera.

Retail is detail. I came into the business in 1972, opening the first garden centre restaurant with my wife, the boss's daughter. We realised how important it was to look after the people who had travelled miles to reach us.

I am not a horticulturalist, but gardening has become my passion. My managing director was recruited from Sainsbury and says selling plants is like working on the salad counter. In the sunshine everyone wants salad, but you can never rely on the weather, and, just like salads, plants are perishable.

I am very grateful to Groundforce. They have given people the confidence to see things can be achieved in their gardens quickly.

I've walked away from Bridgemere Garden World thinking, "We ought to be doing that" enough times to know John Ravenscroft is the competitor I most admire. The way he develops his centre and resurrects his displays from the Chelsea Flower Show to make permanent sets is impressive. He also happens to be a lovely man.

Nicholas Marshall, Chief executive, Country Gardens

I started Country Gardens 14 years ago from nothing, having been brought up in a family where gardening is paramount. My great grandfather was a plant hunter.

Gardening is still my passion and one I share with all our staff. Gardening has been popular since Adam and Eve, so it's silly to say it's now fashionable, although, of course, there are fads. Right now there is a huge interest in herbaceous borders and the garden makeover.

The success of TV programmes such as Groundforce has made the City sit up. they might not know a lot about garden centres but they certainly know who Charlie Dimmock is. Gardening is also one of those things that both men and women are good at.

There are many interesting new directions to go in now, one of which is to bring in more organic products and although Prince Charles isn't a garden centre owner as such, he is the man I most admire because he has been well ahead of his time at Highgrove.

To think that people used to once laugh at him for talking to his plants.

Chris Roberts, Managing Director, Hage Garden Co

One of our concepts is to make our centres family-friendly places to visit, with restaurants, shops, play areas, a playground and in one case a model train and a zoo.

We are also opening a maze this summer in the shape of a castle. One has to be conscious of competition in the market place.

Supermarkets are tackling our industry at a certain point in the year, stocking house plants, bedding plants and Christmas trees.

But we feel that when the customer is going to go to the trouble of digging a hole to put in a plant they will want it to survive, which is why they deserve a quality product with good advice.

Brian Evans, chairman of Wyevale is the person I most admire. Wyevale started as a family business and has became the largest chain of garden centres.

Yet they manage to combine family business with big business which means each of their centres offers the friendly feel of a family place.

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here