This year has seen mighty change in the garden retail industry. Private equity, the poor economy, bad weather and family influence are some of the reasons given by experts for an unprecedented turnover in senior management at the biggest garden companies, including The Garden Centre Group (TGCG), Dobbies and Notcutts, as well as the sector's two biggest suppliers, Solus and Gardman.
James Barnes has left Tesco-owned Dobbies after 24 years, with Notcutts' Andy King replacing him. TGCG has lost a raft of senior staff as private equity owner Terra Firma sought to put its stamp on the company. Supplier Gardman has also lost most of its senior staff after private equity demanded change. Solus re-involved family members, meaning a revolution there, too.
Meanwhile, Garden & Leisure was bought by TGCG in the biggest deal since its forerunner Wyevale was buying hugely more than a decade ago. Carol Paris had already moved on to head up the HTA and Neville Prest joined a massive list of those getting or looking for new jobs.
Sales were down 11 per cent in the first half of 2012 after lots of rain and they have failed to pick up much since. Garden Industry Manufacturers Association (GIMA) director Neil Gow is among those moving on. He says the industry is "maturing and coming of age".
Gow, who will now concentrate on running Fresh@Burcot Garden Centre, adds: "Given its higher profile, more are attracted to the industry from outside. Often these newcomers think they know better and make sweeping changes only to mess up. Too many people are focused on what is in it for them and not thinking of the industry that supports them. This short-termism is sad for those of us who owe our livelihoods to the industry and would like to continue so."
Another industry veteran, Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper, also rues the changes. He says gardening went from being "too cheap and downmarket to trying to be aspirational and upmarket. He adds that they did it "too soon and too quickly when people were coming out of a money period to not having money". He continues: "Suppliers are going to have to adapt to TGCG buying anything they can get because they have the cheque book and suppliers are either in or out because all the independents are being gobbled up."
Roper believes that as the marketplace becomes more homogenised, garden centres such as Bents, Coolings, Stewarts and Barton Grange will win out because they are "doing it differently with individual owner-operators that have the passion. Their businesses will get stronger as everything else gets smaller." He says the retail nursery will be reborn over the next five years as gardeners look for more intimate places to shop. His way round the corporatisation of garden retail is to "have the passion of the independent but on a group level."
In the supply market, two business with turnovers approaching £100m have seen big changes. Gardman marketing manager Sarah Downing says: "It's been a year of change, for us positively. We've been able to get back to our roots and have had a lot of change within the management structure. The turning point was having reinvestment through a new set of investors towards the end of last year. They're hungry to develop the business."
While Gardman has shed a whole management team and is set to move to Peterborough, Solus has had other challenges with part of the owning family, Ross Yealland, joining as commercial director and managing director Nick Davies leaving after 29 years to be replaced by former Gardman chief executive Mark Pearson. Scotts general manager Martin Breddy says: "Many businesses in the sector are on a par with 2012 and that sort of performance is not really sustainable. We need growth."
Simon Quinton Smith of property adviser Quinton Edwards says private equity such as Terra Firma will always come in and change not just management teams but also the whole structure of industries by buying up companies to add value to their business before selling up. "They like asset-based businesses," he adds.
But Garden Centre Association (GCA) interim chief executive Iain Wylie says: "Previous years have been quiet but this year there have been a lot of changes in one or two top-end companies rather than widespread change. But it has been quite significant. I don't think there's necessarily been one factor. Any business has to be viable long term and having two hard years has focused on that need."
As ever, there is optimism for the next gardening season. Seven months of growth compared to 2012 has helped cash flow and spirits. But overall gains of three-to-five per cent are meagre, especially when 2012 was up to nine per cent down for many.
GARDEN INDUSTRY MONITOR
Month 2013 sales versus 2012
January 14% D
February 1% U
March 44% D
April 18% U
May 13% U
June 26% U
July 22% U
August 11% U
September 5% U
October 3% U
January to October (inclusive) 5% U
GCA 2013 SALES FIGURES
Month Variance on 2012 Average variance YTD
January 7.81% D 7.81% D
February 4.36% U 1.56% D
March 32.39% D 18.13% D
April 9.26% U 9.27% U
May 15.32% U 2.44% D
June 18.61% U 1.61% U
July 15.48% U 3.59% U
August 6.3% U 3.91% U
September 2.35% U 2.69% U
October 3.02% U 2.52% U
GfK Gardening and DIY were up 2.2 per cent in the year to September. September sales were down 0.6 per cent compared to 2012. After a 23 per cent fall in March, sales were up three per cent - 16 per cent in the five months before September's fall.
Biggest garden centres, turnover, number of centres and main management and buyers:
The Garden Centre Group: £258m, 139, Kevin Bradshaw Dan Zinner, Tim Clapp; Dobbies: £136m, 32, Andy King; Notcutts: £58m, 18, Andrew Staff, Mark Wootton (head of buying), Colin Dale (plants), Sandy Parker (sundries); Klondyke: £44m, 26, David Yardley (buying head), Jo Cooke (plants), Allan Wilson (sundries); Blue Diamond: £37m, 15, Jim Teague (plants), Craig McIldoon (sundries); Garden & Leisure: £37m, seven (The Garden Centre Group-owned); Squire's: £36m, 15, Darran Oakley (buying head), Paul Spencer (plants); Frosts: £32m, four, Peter Newson (plants); Hillier: £26m, 13, Pip Bensley (plants), Graham Tarrant (sundries/outdoor living); Barton Grange: £22m, one, Guy Topping, Russell Winteridge; Haskins: £21m, four, Julian Winfield, Conna Powles (head of buying); Van Hage: £16m, three, Chris Roberts, Martin Taylor; Bents: £14m, one, Matthew Bent, Stuart Brereton (head of buying); Scotsdales: £14m, three, Caroline Owen, Sam Carlton; Woodthorpe Hall Garden Centres: £14m, Charles Stubbs; Webbs: £13m, two, Ed Webb, Alan Docherty; Garsons: £11m, two, Ian Richardson; Woodcote Green: £10m, one, Chris Milan, Phil Barnden; Polhill: £10m, two, David Novell, Allison Novell; Whitehall: £9.6m, two, Peter Self; Stewarts: £9.3m, two, Martin Stewart; Alton: £7.8m, one, Derek and Andy Bunker; Chessington: £8.9m, one, Jolyon Martin; Gordale: £8.5m, one, Peter and Jill Nicholson; Golden Acres: £5m, five, Paul Richards, Simon Edwards; Capital Gardens: £7.5m, four, Colin Campbell-Preston, Anne Lamarche; Planters: £7.9m, four, Gerald Ingram; Hayes: £8.3m, two, Richard Hayes, Keith Laird; Coolings: £6.9m, two, Paul Cooling, Gary Carvosso; Aylett: £6.4m, one, Adam Wigglesworth, Julie Aylett; Forest Lodge: £6.2m, one, Roger Head; Gardens Group: £5.7m, three, Mike Burks, Louise Burks; Millbrook: £4.8m, three, Tammy Woodhouse, Mike Harrison.
Main garden centres bought and sold:
The Garden Centre Group bought Garden & Leisure for £18m as well as two Park Garden Centres and Bolton Garden Centre.
Cherry Lane bought Bradmore (eighth centre).
British Garden Centres bought Roxton (eighth centre).
Scotsdales bought Horningsea from Notcutts.
Blue Diamond bought Fermoy's.
Squire's bought Secretts.
Dobbies opened in Inverness and Kings Lynn with Tesco.
Longacres bought Shepperton.
Millbrook bought Highgrove.
Creative Gardens bought Galgorm.
Dingley Dell bought Chinnor.
Main personnel changes:
Notcutts' Andy King replaced Dobbies' James Barnes - Andrew Staff replaced King at Notcutts. Dan Zinner replaced The Garden Centre Group's Steve Pitcher - most regional managers also left. Neville Prest and Carol Paris left Garden & Leisure. Jane Lawler, Richard Brown and Bernard Shannon left Gardman - Stewart Hainsworth and Justin Young now run the business. Ross Yealland joined Solus, with Nick Davies leaving.