Tong Garden Centre in Bradford was set up in 1984 and rebuilt in 2000 following a fire. By 2001 the new centre, still Yorkshire's biggest, turned over £7m but subsequently declined to about half that in 2014. Today, turnover has bounced back and is set to reach £6.5m-£7m in the next year and then on to double figures.
New owners Tom Megginson and Mark Farnsworth bought the 7ha centre freehold from Ron Harker through agent Ernest Wilson in May 2015. In addition to refurbishing the Orchard Restaurant, they have remerchandised the planteria, created a new cafe and food hall, built a children's adventure playground and cafe, introduced concessions and refurbished all areas of the garden centre.
They also own several other businesses, including two William's Farm Kitchens and a Biogas plant, GWE Biogas in Driffield. HW spoke to Farnsworth, who previously worked for GSK and Nestle:
- What was the inspiration behind the changes at the garden centre?
In years gone by Tong was an iconic centre in the north of England and we intend to return it to that status and really broaden its appeal. The changes, including the much improved catering facilities, will help us really put Tong back on the map. We visited 50 or 60 centres prior to the acquisition last year and used the Garden Retail Top 100 feature (update coming in HW, 27 May) as a great tool to find them.
- What was the appeal of Tong?
By May 2015 the centre was looking pretty tired but what was attractive to us was the infrastructure was still very much here. It's a 65,000sq ft purpose-built centre all in one building, not cobwebbed networks with extra glasshouses bolted on and adapted into more modern retail use. There's a 750-space car park, 120,000sq ft of space outside and a decent warehouse. We're putting in planning for another one. We're on a 17-acre site."
- How have the changes gone down?
In our first year of ownership we've been delighted. The team we've managed to assemble enables us to move at the pace we've always wanted to. We've also had a fantastic response from suppliers and we're seeing mutual growth - and we're seeing a very positive response from the customers.
- How important is the play area?
We had 22,000 children here over six weeks of the holidays. The garden season dips in June and July but we have six busy weeks with the kids. We wondered whether it meant money spent in the garden centre, but it absolutely does. We have a small nominal charge for entrance. We are going to extend 50 per cent again just to cater for demand.
- What about catering?
We converted an old conservatory into an ice cream parlour and drinks station for the kids. The coffee shop is 95 seats with 100 outside and the restaurant seats 150. We wouldn't franchise it. We'd rather do it ourselves and be in control. My background is farm shops and cafes. We'll treble our catering sales this year but we're still only scratching the surface.
We need to be turning over £2m in two years on catering and don't see any reason why we won't if we get the offer right. We have the infrastructure. There is a William's Farm Kitchen near the front of the garden centre with a butchery and bakery behind it.
- What is your advice to garden centres thinking about getting into fresh farm shop produce?
We have a cafe and a restaurant. I wouldn't go into it without that back-up (to make meals from unused produce). You need the skills but I don't think there's too much to worry about. On meat we can be as competitive as supermarkets, if not more so. We offer three-for-£10 packs, in line with supermarkets, and can guarantee British products produced properly. We go beyond supermarkets on products like sausages, with far superior meat content. The reality is customers buy meat from supermarkets but we have to take them on and we can and still make margin. Our supply chain is very tight and we have to play on that simplicity.
On biscuits and jams we can't compete on price but we're in a different league in terms of product and we have to convince the shopper they're paying extra but the taste and quality is worth it. There are some very good farm shops that really go for it by offering everything. The big debate is whether to have fresh or not. With fresh you have the ability to bring customers back much more frequently. Garden centres recognise fresh food can play a part in bringing customers in more regularly but if it's just an ambient "treaty" offer of jams and pickles the food hall won't do that same job for you. The customer might consume them within a month but if they buy mince on a Thursday they might come back the next Thursday for some more. Bents, Barton Grange, Polhill and a number of others do it brilliantly. With food the question is how far are you going to go?
- And franchises?
We have brought in Maidenhead Aquatics and do pets ourselves. We're looking at big bags of pet food to get regular buyers. Pets and aquatics are part of the overall offer. Commercially it might not seem sensible but when you're trying to create a destination centre for all the family these are the departments that can be part of it. We also have 11,000sq ft let out to various tenants.
We've tried to make it look part of the centre and not like a shopping mall. We went to 50-60 centres before we bought Tong and we felt some had gone down the shopping mall route and become a bit soulless. It's played a big part in getting people back to Tong. We got some through First Franchise, Bonmarche and Maidenhead Aquatics direct.
- How will you cope with the National Living Wage?
It's something we have to run with. It's fortunate we're in a growing business where we have the opportunity to accelerate our turnover and therefore it's perhaps not as painful as if we were in a mature position. The big thing that seems to be getting less coverage is you have to maintain a differential. We've given everyone that increase. Supervisors still have to command a premium. It will mean a four-to-five per cent increase to the wage bill across the business.
We're in favour of improving working conditions and wages but we hope that the Government will do it in moderation - and will listen to the industry - and in a sensible, managed way rather than trying to rush people to make a decision so jobs are lost because they can't afford to pay otherwise.
- What are the biggest areas of growth for Tong?
We've seen huge growth in solar lights but because of where we picked up the centre we're fortunate we've grown all the categories. Plants have seen massive growth for us, which was just about getting the quality and value right.
- And the future?
There's a big debate about online in the industry. We're as online resistant as we possibly can be. Lots of our product people want to touch, feel and taste, and it's our job to get them in store to offer them that experience, which you can't get online. I'm not saying online won't touch us but even in garden furniture and barbecues customers want to see and test it, and then it's up to us to offer service and convert them to purchase. We are going to look at click-and-collect.
Why it works
"Tong is a super centre that is developing very well. The owners are dynamic, young and driving the business forward. They are one to keep an eye on. They have a lot of development options. They're finding their feet, have only been owners since last April and have never owned a garden centre before, though they have a successful farm shop business. Until they have a year or two under their belts it is difficult to say what future developments they would consider. It is in a green belt site so future development is sensitive. They have put in place a very big 3,000sq m play area, partly under a marquee, which is proving very successful."
Chris Primett, Malcolm Scott Consultants