With the mood in many parts of the industry still cautious about what the future holds, December's BALI National Landscape Awards at Park Lane's Grosvenor Hotel in London demonstrated that high-quality, innovative landscaping firms can still thrive even in the chill of an economic downturn.
"Overall, the thing that impressed us most this year, apart from the high quality of the finishing, was the ability of companies to work harder both to win the work in the first place and to keep the client on board during the work," says BALI Award adjudicator Mitch Westwood.
"The quality contracts are still out there but you have to work harder. Value for money is on everyone's minds and clients are demanding that they get it - and that's just as true at the high end of the market."
Occupying that end, Bowles & Wyer claimed the overall Grand Award for the design and build of a south London garden, was named the winner in the over-£250,000 category and also took the best use of lighting gong for another upscale garden project in the capital.
These add to an already impressive list of awards claimed by the Bedfordshire-based practice over the past decade. "They help sell the company, even to people who might not fully understand what they represent," says co-founder John Wyer, who is now the design and marketing director of the practice. "Sometimes when I have them all listed on a slide, people spot a year when we haven't won anything and say: 'What went wrong there?' But they are a good motivator for people in the company too."
Explaining the firm's approach, he says: "We focus relentlessly on quality - it has to be part of the culture of the company at every level, from procurement and client liaison through to maintenance. That means we can compete on quality, rather than on price. Our own staff appreciate that too and they tend to stay for quite a while."
Running the gamut from masterplanning through to installation, across the public and private sectors, "allows us to be flexible, while keeping overheads down", he adds. "We can match what the client wants without having to pull in external consultants and contractors - although we will still build others' designs, or design for others to build. We don't see boundaries between different sectors and markets. It's just about delivering a quality product to the client."
He admits that competition in the current climate is "stiff". "We have lost out to other firms and have had to work harder to deliver more and provide a better service," he says. "But we haven't had to let anyone go and both turnover and profit have held up."
Getting new business comes down to "good old-fashioned networking and keeping abreast of what's going on the industry", he says. "The key thing is getting through the gate, which can come through personal contacts or recommendations."
Having a broad base of public and private clients helps the firm cope with the uneven effects of the current spending squeeze, he adds. "The public sector market has been hit, but work in places like schools won't dry up because they have other sources of funding such as grants and parents themselves. The commercial side was dead last year, but development at the top end has now picked up and several projects have been given the go-ahead. It will be a slow climb out."
The commercial sector will be characterised for some time by refurbishments of existing buildings, rather than "pull-down and rebuild", he adds. "They will add on a storey or two - maybe a penthouse - and often the grounds will get refurbished at the same time. They are offering short-term leases on serviced offices and want to make them attractive while turning them around quickly. We are doing one like that now and expect to see more."
Something similar is developing in the domestic sector, according to Chris Maton, owner of London-based garden design practice Olivebay, which scooped a principal award for a roof garden in Chelsea.
"People are thinking about changing their gardens in order to add value to their properties," he says. "Initially our job in Chelsea was simply to replace the existing gravel roof with a terrace-style garden. I have a background in construction and I saw the potential to do something more innovative. It is essentially a courtyard that can serve as a room, with kitchen, bathroom and living-space areas.
"It was a long process - two years of working with the client. But it has increased the value of the property by around a third. We will see more of that as people stay in their houses longer - they will be rethinking how they use them and how to make the most of them as an investment. They are designing for the future, not just now."
Whatever problems the UK industry currently faces pale against the situation in Ireland. Tipperary-based Grangemore took the international award for its landscaping of a Dublin business park. But according to managing director Niall Grogan: "The landscape industry here has been seriously hit by four main issues - rock-bottom pricing, exposure to main contractors, the fear of not being paid and the rising cost of fuels.
"There is still a lot of tendering but actually winning a job is very difficult. Winning awards like this one is a huge help in getting us across the line when prices are neck and neck and in marketing ourselves abroad, which is a great boost for us. We have been able to squeeze suppliers significantly in the last nine months, which has helped us maintain our margins with reduced prices. But there are at least three years of this to go here, so only the very fit will survive."
For first-time BALI Awards entrant Bawden Contracting Services, a willingness to diversify has been key to maintaining and developing its client base.
The Wiltshire-based firm took a grounds maintenance award for its ongoing work at the Defence Academy of the Shrivenham campus, near Swindon. Nine full-time and one part-time staff from the company work solely on the varied 300ha site, where green space features range from sports pitches and domestic gardens to a military cemetery.
"The adjudicators were quite surprised that we could maintain it with so few staff," says director Richard Stone. "Our team has been there for a long time. It's a prestigious site and high standards are written into the contract - for example, that the cricket pitch should be maintained to a county standard. That enables staff to take pride in their work and they know it's appreciated. There's no racing round and cutting corners."
The majority of Bawden's work is in the public sector, though more for central Government agencies than local authorities. "A lot of these agencies have had their budgets cut or taken away completely. In the past four or five months, customers have been trying either to negotiate down rates or ask us to include more work for the same amount," says Stone. "But the other side of that coin is that in some cases the Government bodies have got rid of their own (landscaping) staff and then outsourced the work to companies such as ours."
As to the company's strengths, he says: "We are a relatively small family firm, which makes it easier to change tack and explore new opportunities. Most companies in the £1m to £5m turnover bracket are quite specialist, which can be a strength and a weakness.
"Also, we can deal with the longer payment terms that some clients are offering. Whereas before they would pay in 30 or 45 days, now it's often 60 or 90 days. There are companies that can't afford to do that."
The firm was originally established to maintain Ministry of Defence estates, but had to diversify. "That area's been in decline for some time - those still in existence don't spend what they used to in their heyday," says Stone.
"We have diversified into tree surgery and weed control to offer a more complete package. We have been going around our existing customers asking whether they need their bins emptying or their gutters cleaning - we already have the elevated platforms to use. We make it easier for them so they don't go elsewhere."
He admits: "These are not necessarily the jobs that people like doing but our staff will turn their hands to these jobs if given the training and resources. Some of what we do has an image of being low-skilled, but even mowing has to be done safely and correctly."