Alton Garden Centre celebrates its 40th year in 2011 and director Andy Bunker, son of founder Derek, has worked at the Essex-based centre for 32 of them. But Bunker says the best thing the centre has ever done happened just five years ago - joining the Tillington Group of garden centres. He is chairman of the 11-member buying group's plant committee and, as such, is a big influencer in the market.
He says he has signed a confidentiality agreement and so cannot discuss Tillington, although it seems certain that the information the members, which include Scotsdale, Squires and Frosts, share is valuable to them.
Suppliers looking at selling to Tillington should look at Altons' unique way of rating its suppliers - a football-style league table for each plant sector. "We have top suppliers for each area," says Bunker. "In August and September we review quality, service, range and price - if a grower is not performing, it moves down the list and we might use it fortnightly and not weekly. It works for us. But we're very loyal here. We don't jump ship for coppers."
Altons puts a lot of emphasis on buying British and local, and has strong views on growers, whether they supply multiples, independent garden centres, or both.
He says: "There are many more growers now who don't want to be in bed with the sheds. There's a place for all of them. There's a massive bedding market in the multiples but they're not out there finding new plants and developing them.
"I love it when you sell that new thing and the customer comes back and says: 'You were right, it does smell of vanilla.' We're dealing with one grower, for example, who said to me that if they pick up more business from the independents they do not have to rely on the big ones as much."
Bunker worries about German broker Landgard, which recently bought UK growers Brinkmans and Chessums, working on low profits, which is "not necessarily good for garden centres". He is also concerned about Kinglea, the bedding grower that went into administration this spring, though he knows growers are already filling Kinglea's place with pack bedding and six-pack veg "like piranhas nibbling away".
He adds: "Do we need someone like Landgard to reduce prices? It doesn't need to. In most cases plants aren't over-priced. We're all earning a reasonable living. I don't want a supplier I'm dealing with supplying multiples. It may sell Tesco 100,000 and only a few thousand to us but once it is in the door with us we'll go back for more. It'll make more money selling a few thousand to us than 100,000 to Tesco, and we'd accept small price rises that it wouldn't. If growers put all their eggs in the same basket then they can end up coming back, cap in hand, to us, which in some cases is too late. We want to look after our suppliers who do not get tempted by the carrot of big numbers."
Bunker adds: "It is of great importance to plant people to keep the quality and plant breeding that's going on in the trade." He scours June pack trials for new plants, and was at Chelsea this year as a guest of John Woods Nurseries. "We're so lucky to have the best show in the world. The most impressive thing about Chelsea was seeing the lupins and delphiniums - orchids are great but seeing the standard garden plants on show was best."
Grow-your-own, Altons' big growth area in recent seasons, did not feature in the show gardens - biodiversity was this year's theme. "GYO has been good, but a struggle this year," says Bunker. "Let's face it, on the growing side it has been a bad year. March, April and May on the plant side was like trying to push water uphill. I've never thrown away so many cucumber plants. It's a treble-whammy: plants not growing, damping off in the weather, and plants looking smaller in the pot. It's been a hard sell. Garden Centre Group made a big, bold statement: 'We're all about plants.' If you've gone in heavy on that you will have had a hell of a year this year.
"Last April tomato plants were big. This May they were barely saleable. But it's only a blip. I hate it when people say the bubble has burst. They can talk it better or worse than it is - you need the common ground."
Bunker recalls a conference when the HSBC chief economist said retailers couldn't manage boom or bust: "We couldn't handle a 30 per cent increase because of the car parking, staff and stock, or a 30 per cent drop - we'd go bust. We just want to carry on paying for our new building and giving the staff a rise."
He believes there is hope for GYO, if the industry helps itself: "I think it is missing a trick on not explaining to the public how easy it is to grow veg and how different it tastes. There is a trend to make it fussy and make a mystique about gardening. To sell to people that speck of dust in the pot and for months people will be eating great tomatoes is fantastic."
One way of passing that information across is through Tillington title Beautiful Gardens, which has a circulation of four million, the highest of any UK gardening magazine. New for 2010 is a Christmas Beautiful Gardens magazine.
He says Altons' sales at the end of May were almost identical to last year despite seven out of 12 peak May days being 'lost' to the weather, which he defines as 15 per cent down in bad weather. But diversification can help: "If plants and garden product sales were 40 per cent of turnover five years ago, 15 per cent of that hurts. If we're selling only 30 per cent of garden products, 15 per cent is a lot lower."
Bunker, who works seven days a week during the three or four peak months of the season, offers a tip for making your business work better: "We're very hot on security. We give the police half-price food and we have 24-hour security, and encourage the police to drop in for a cup of tea at night."
Looking ahead, Bunker's team will trawl Glee in September "because within our business I still have input into other areas (than plants, pots and compost). Glee is still a very important show for us, though obviously not for plants."
And at the HTA National Plant Show buyers will follow Bunker's philosophy to see if growers are "going for it". He says: "It's a gut feeling. For instance, Woodlark Nurseries has invested heavily in a new building and wants to do more business with me next year. That's what I pick up on at shows. And it's important to see what's happening with existing suppliers. Are they not growing trees anymore, are they bringing in from Fitzgerald in Ireland? And we will relook at our suppliers league table. We always give new companies a try if they've got something different. We're not number one with any supplier we deal with but we're in the top 10 with most of them."
"Essex is a unique area. They're all unique areas for each Tillington member. In Essex they don't mind spending money but they want to be looked after. For instance, we get a lot of cabbies who will come and find me. They will spend money if you look after them. Everyone here is 'sir' and 'madam' whether they are driving a Ferrari or a skip lorry."
The £8m-turnover Altons was a pioneer in building show-garden allotments, completed as part of a £5.5m redevelopment a couple of years ago in stages at the garden centre's site, which is between Billericay and Wickford next to one of the busiest dual carriageways in the country.
The centre's philosophy is based on family: "The key word is succession. Eleven family members work here. You have to have that passion carried through. I've worked every spring bank holiday for 32 years but with the best will in the world a manager can't carry the place on the same. Tillington centres tend to be family-run. When Wyevale was paying £2 for £1 turnover around the time it bought Peter Barratt's (in 2007], we said if it rings tell it £15m. But then we were worried it'd say yes. "Everyone has got their price but my Dad hasn't. He loves the business so much. We all enjoy it.
"It's getting to the stage that the next generation at some centres have seen the hard work and they think is it 'work to live' or 'live to work'. We don't want a 500-seat restaurant. Because we're a family stand-alone business we can do what we want."
FAMILY-RUN VS CHAIN
Tesco-owned Dobbies is to build at Ashford, Kent close to the long-established Bybrook Barn centre. To try to stay competitive, Bunker advises "you can cut the price but that's a kneejerk reaction. Look at Golden Mile (a street of garden centres in north London). They will always undercut. You have to carry on doing what you're doing for a year. Concentrate on what you're good at."
At both Dobbies and Garden Centre Group, Bunker says the strength of family-run centres is in giving individuality to each centre; you can't do that, he suggests, at flagship stores such as GCG's Bridgemere to give the plant manager a year to "do what you want", while working within accepted mark-ups.
"Tell them you're the expert with the pedigree, which is why you employed them. You'll see the difference to turnover. Serious dollars - not just a few grand."