'Dream teams' are the way of the future

Garden consultant Alan Sargent urges landscape professionals to pool skills with others to land high-profile contracts.

He has designed millions of pounds worth of landscapes, created 61 RHS show gardens and has employed not a single person in the years it has taken to achieve success.

But Alan Sargent, a consultant and former head gardener of Goodwood, is no loner. Friends, colleagues and allied professionals number heavily in his contacts book. Contacts, such as that inch-perfect welder, the talented flint waller, those great structural glass builders, are everything to him - and could be to you, too.

"I have never employed anyone," he told the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) at a recent meeting. "But I have worked with people, always through mutual respect. They trust me not to stitch them up; I trust them to do a good job. I have built a reputation on my ability to find work and other people's ability to do it."

This is crucial, not only in the successful completion of stellar domestic jobs for rich clients or in weighing up garden designs for supermodels, but in winning those tenders in the first place. On projects too big for one person, he has called upon others - take, for example, Mark Gregory for landscape work at Eton College.

Pooling skills and resources

Landscape professionals that do likewise - team up to pool skills - can take on and beat the big practices to high-profile commissions. Sargent told the APL meeting at Arundel, West Sussex, that he advocated this coming together of skills. He insists this is a new type of business operation that could become a powerful force for companies that take the plunge.

He said: "My vision for the future is to have a group of companies, maybe three, four or five. This would not be a collective or a cartel, but groups working together as one team. By formalising such a set-up you can become a shop window for skills such as drystone walling, thatching, irrigation and moon gate construction."

Sargent did just that two years ago and romped home: "I got together with a small but select team of specialists and snitched a £1m job for a famous client from all the competition: the team we put together was so good nobody could come near us, because we were that skilled.

"If you have skills, you can swap labour to create a dream team; you can promote yourselves in a way you could never do as an individual company. An individual promoting themselves can appear big-headed but get together with others and you have something that looks good and is very powerful."

He added: "Think how you can work with other groups; as a friendly team or on a much more formal footing - it can be as big as you want it to be, but you are building something with serious value. When you want to retire, you can sell your share because it is a tangible asset."

His son and managing director of Arun Landscapes, James Steele-Sargent, said: "This could free-up individual landscapers or designers to tackle bigger projects such as a £2m job, because they are not thinking of themselves as a small design unit but as part of a team."

Advantages of dream teams

This occurred recently, when a large management firm in Kent told Arun Landcapes it wanted dream teams of landscapers, designers and sculptors. Arun cast its skills net wide and submitted a bid for landscaping at a high- profile site.

Steele-Sargent said: "The company has seen the advantages of getting people to come together. It's hard work and we had to put together a two-inch-thick book of printed material. But there are people out there looking for dream teams for big projects."

APL chair Mark Gregory pointed out that the idea of joint working was nothing new - some of the highest-profile landscape jobs such as Bluewater shopping centre and the Olympic Park represented a big coming together of professional skills. But these set-ups were more like formal trading partners.

Sargent senior said: "My clients would be delighted if I took someone on to tackle a flint stone wall. They would be happy I was taking on somebody else and passing on skills and expertise. By working closely with such talents you help keep these skills alive. There is a dearth of practical skills."

Designer Rae Wilkinson, who is based in Billingshurst, West Sussex, asked: "Isn't it more about different disciplines communicating with each other, it's not just about landscapers? How does this sit or tie-in with training?"

HTA representative Phil Tremayne asked where professional groups fitted in. Sargent suggested that niche skills were too complex and focused for gardening schools and perhaps too "mundane" for an organisation such as the British Association of Landscape Industries.

He said expert workshops could be run - on aspects such as welding and handling dumpers - to train people to agreed standards. Few colleges had trainers or funding, while it would probably take years for groups such as the APL and the Society of Garden Designers to formalise standards and training.

Brian Herbert, director of Outdoor Options in Milford, Surrey, agreed: "Many colleges are going backwards through lack of funds. Maybe we need to pull the skills together and ensure there's a pool of good teachers. This may need more emphasis from associations and less from government."

Dream teams Some hurdles to overcome

James Steele-Sargent warned that 'dream teams' may face problems. "Knowledge sharing is nothing new when seeking contracts, but clients often want things simple, especially in these tough times," he said. "Many prefer a designer or landscaper to be one company rather than more than several people becoming involved."

Richard Eborn, head gardener at council-owned public garden Southover Grange in Lewis, added: "This coming together of skills is great culturally and professionally but will take time, which few people have in the current climate. I think dream teams will be big, but the economy will have to recover first."

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