Changes in the wider economy generally and the horticulture market in particular mean there is strong pressure on growers to co-operate more. Three Worcestershire growers, upon realising how well their ranges complement one another, have done just that.
Starting last month, Knowle Hill Nursery, Evesham Vale Propagators and Ellis Brothers are now pooling sales and marketing, giving customers a single point of contact, while each retains its own familiar brand.
Evesham Vale director Francis Mizuro says: "The strength is that we keep our own brand identity." Mizuro, a former director at Knowle Hill, bought the 5ha conifer nursery nearby when it went into liquidation three years ago.
He explains the reasoning behind the move. "Garden centres are consolidating and we are reacting to that," he explains. "It's easier for the customer as they have one point of contact, and no longer have three delivery notes and three invoices to deal with."
It will also allow customers to order small, "top-up" quantities, he says. "In the middle of the season you don't want a full delivery. We can offer a range of products on a minimum order of a single Danish trolley - that could be two shelves of conifers, one of shrubs and one of perennials. And we guarantee delivery that week."
Co-operation allows the nursery to maintain its range of over 250 varieties of conifer from liners to five-litre pots, he says. "Unless we maintain our specialisation, we are no different to anyone else."
He adds: "If we do it well, I can see this doubling turnover."
A sales team of three, including Mizuro's wife Sarah, will now operate from Knowle Hill Nursery's 2.5ha production nursery site near Evesham.
According to Knowle Hill Nursery owner Phil Insley: "Growers need to work together for savings - that's becoming more important. For us it will hopefully lead to a significant cost saving in administration. We still do a good deal of ordering by fax - a lot of smaller garden centres are not very up-to-date.
"Also we are already used to condensing stock here since we have another site at Blackminster, so adding in Evesham Vale is quite easy. And so far our customers have been very positive about it."
The firm's nearby garden centre has also been renamed - formerly Proculture Plant Centre, it is now The Plant Centre@Knowle Hill, strengthening brand recognition locally. And the company's distinctive blue and yellow labels will promote the Knowle Hill brand in other garden centres, as well as emphasising the "British grown" plant credentials, says Insley.
Ellis Brothers' production will be incorporated at the Knowle Hill site, the fruit specialist's former site having been sold for development. But owner Rupert Ellis will continue to oversee propagation and production of the company's crops.
He says: "This is a fantastic opportunity to work together using our combined expertise and knowledge to offer a high-quality product and one of the best ranges of plants in the UK."
"The ranges are very complementary," adds Insley. "Smaller garden centres struggle to get deliveries because they don't want too much of one thing. It helps them get an order together." The arrangement also affects sales to larger customers, he says. Around a fifth of KHN stock goes to Homebase. "They are now interested in our shrubs too, and (because of the) extended range, other retailers are also interested in talking to us," he adds.
"Our customer lists complement each other, so we each increase sales through having a bigger customer base. If you can offer a range, you have an advantage. It's melding together very well."
With the arrival of Ellis Brothers, the group now runs a fleet of nine lorries. "It meant there was no need to use an external haulier, as some other members of the Midlands Regional Growers Group do," says Insley. "And as we transport some young plants, we need lorries with temperature control."
This has revealed another advantage to the co-operation, he says. "Being centrally based allows us to make transport run more efficiently. The problem is making sure the lorries are full. It's not an issue in summer, but is in autumn and winter. So working with Ellis Brothers and Evesham Vale will help even things out through the year. The peak time for soft-fruit plants, for example, is October and November, and we think we can expand here."
The company delivers nationwide as well as to the Republic of Ireland and also provides transport for other growers. "They realise that with the price of diesel, it's uneconomic to send out a lorry that's less than full," says Insley.
Having focused on unusual perennials, he also appreciates being able to retain a specialist range at the nursery. "New introductions are important," he says. "Keen gardeners want something new, and the more interesting or unusual they are, the more you can charge. The garden centre market isn't growing overall, but something slightly different is easier to sell."
HTA Ornamentals Committee chair Geoff Caesar, who is also managing director of fellow Worcestershire grower Bransford Webbs, says: "It's good to see this sort of thing happen, and it's something a lot of growers are looking at."
More than rising costs, the trend is down to changes in the marketplace, he says. "Independent retailers are being bought up by groups and smaller groups incorporated into larger ones. So growers have fewer, bigger customers to deal with and it makes sense to look at rationalising the supply chain too."
He urges caution in taking such steps, though. "Growers need to look at how it fits in with their business. It can be quite a change to take on board and people need to be careful. It has to make financial sense."
The HTA has a role in promoting this, but ultimately such moves will depend on the growers themselves, he adds. "The HTA has looked at the Dutch market set-up and is picking out things that work well. But it is limited in what it can do because it comes down to the individual business - how it is structured and linked in to others."
So far though, the trend in retail towards takeovers and consolidation has not spread to growers, he says. "There is a degree of consolidation arising from growers closing or going out of business. But because the margin growers work on is slim, you don't get growers buying other growers, since to borrow enough would wipe out that margin."
HTA director of business development Tim Briercliffe also gives the trend the thumbs-up, saying: "The current economic climate presents a threat to small and medium-sized businesses and consolidation can provide a real solution to enable businesses to continue."
Another example of grower co-operation that mirrors the Dutch approach has been the growth of the British Plant Buying Fair - recently renamed to emphasise the role plants have traditionally played at the event.
The thrice-yearly buying event takes place at the premises of White Logistics & Storage in Pershore, Worcestershire, the transport hub of the Midland Regional Growers group.
Organiser Geoff Caesar describes the event as "a good example of growers working together to serve retailers better". He adds: "The relationship between growers also becomes more comfortable."
The event now boasts 32 growers in one space, including Ellis Brothers and Knowle Hill, and is already attracting interest from major retailers such as Wyevale, Klondyke/Strikes and Garden & Leisure.
"It gives them a different way to buy - from free stock rather than by reserve order," says Caesar. "Retailers often buy ahead from British growers, then top up from the Dutch lorry sales. We thought there had to be a way we could offer a similar service."
Phil Insley of Knowle Hill believes now is a good time to capitalise on local provenance. "Dutch stuff is becoming more expensive - I can't see the pound strengthening against the euro, or fuel becoming much cheaper," he says. "They grow quickly to keep costs down, but here we have the quality and range."
The next British Plant Buying Fair will take place on 14 August.
Questionnaires have been used at previous events to ensure customers' needs are being met.