Highfields founder Joan Greenway said: "We opened our doors in 1992 with a champagne breakfast and a good old-fashioned tree planting by celebrity gardener Geoff Hamilton of ‘Gardener’s World’ fame. We knew there was huge opportunity and we knew about plants and gardening, but when it came to running a retail business we were learning on the job".
Tim Greenway added: "We had borrowed a lot of money, and our bank manager was all over us like a rash. Back then it was different. Having loaned us the money, the bank piled on the pressure without providing any support. Without fail, he would call every day to check on, and usually deride, our takings. One January day Gloucestershire was knee deep in snow. We’d managed to open, but all we sold that day was a single hose pipe to a nearby farmer needing to get water to his cows in their snowbound field. The bank manager was especially unhappy that day.
"Cashflow is often the biggest problem fledgling businesses face, and so it was with us. With our own homes and our 15+ staff’s livelihoods at risk if we failed, the first few years were really tough and very stressful."
A turning point came in the form of an innovative offer from a trusted supplier. Joan Greenway said: "The customers were coming, but we couldn’t afford to fill the shelves with stock. With little to sell the takings were sparse and the garden centre was in a downward spiral. The bank had made it clear they’d risk no more money, but a friendly gardening products supplier could see the problem and an opportunity. He offered us £50,000 worth of stock on terms that worked for him and were generous to us. It worked like magic. With more stock on display and weekly restocks, we had more to offer our customers and cashflow improved."
At around the same time, in 1995, the Greenways nvested in some building work and welcomed a World of Water concession to the site.
Tim Greenway said: "If you choose the right ones, concessions can broaden a garden centre’s appeal to customers all year round while providing a new, steady income stream. We now have five concessions and they’ve proved a valuable addition to the business."
Turnover now stands at £9.7m including the income from on-site concessions, £6.2m without.
By 2002 turnover had increased to £2m and Highfield was making a solid profit. Crucially, the business could pay off the original bank loan – and earlier than expected.
Tim Greenway said: "To be financially independent felt very good indeed, not least because for the first five to six years we hadn’t taken any money out of the business at all – instead ploughing every penny back in to keep it afloat and to build it up little by little. But as painful as it was when we were beholden to the bank, as well as giving us cash when we needed it, doing so had forced us to formalise our operations and to develop processes which we still rely on today – things like solid accounting and HR procedures."
Over the next decade the Greenways invested and diversified further, expanding the offering to include gifts, fashion, homewares, a pet department and, crucially, a restaurant. The first 150 seat restaurant proved so popular that it led to the Greenways’ biggest financial undertaking of all. So big they had to look outside the business for funding for the first time since their launch some 21 years previously.
In 2014 the business launched a huge new restaurant and retail development at a cost of £2.5m. The development allowed the business to bring three more concessions on-site and increase total retail space by around 40%. It pivoted on the creation of a new 450 seat restaurant complete with glass walls designed to make the most of the far-reaching countryside views. Such has been that restaurant’s success so far that staff often joke Highfield is no longer a garden centre with a restaurant, but a restaurant with a garden centre. In the 12 months following its launch, takings soared by a massive 75%. Restaurant takings account for around 25% of turnover for Highfield as a whole.
Looking ahead, Joan Greenway said: "Many factors have contributed to Highfield’s success so far. Most important of them all are our staff and our wonderful, loyal customers. We now employ 140 local people, some of whom have been with us from day one. Their knowledge, experience and friendliness are a big part of what customers enjoy about coming here, and we would like to think many of them will carry on working here for as long as possible."
Tim Greenway added: "We’re constantly looking at ways to improve the customer experience – adding interesting new products, changing the layout, putting on customer events and so on. So that will carry on happening. As shopping online gains momentum, so it becomes ever more important that we offer the customer something different – something they can’t get online. More immediately, we are busy working on providing some more parking spaces."