Interview - Alan Roper, managing director, Blue Diamond

Blue Diamond is a growing 13-garden centre group that has set its sights on outlets with an ABC1 demographic.

Alan Roper, managing director, Blue Diamond - image: HW
Alan Roper, managing director, Blue Diamond - image: HW

Its latest acquisition is Fryer's Garden Centre, which it bought last autumn.

Q. What are your plans for your new Fryer's centre?

A. We need a temporary solution to extend the restaurant. We have 15 acres and 5,500sq m of various buildings that we will reconfigure under a new footprint. It's a good site and a great AB1 location with a £9m spend within 20 minutes not being utilised. The business turns over £3m but this could grow by £900,000 within two years without any extra space. There's £250,000 more in seasonal bedding and £230,000 in planted roses.

Q. Are you looking at any other centres?

A. Yes. We'll know about another by the end of March. A lot of people say it is not the climate for spending money but values are better and competition is less intense. Four years ago, people were paying too much.

Q. How was 2011 for your business?

A. Garden Centre Association figures to the end of October showed centres were 0.6 per cent down but we were 5.67 per cent up like-for-like. I choose growth opportunities each year and looked at garden sundries. Consumers are more value-conscious so we sharpened the merchandising and intensified our promotions. We grew eight per cent and 5.5 per cent in profit in that category. We were also 11 per cent up on outdoor plants.

Q. What do you think about the sale of the Garden Centre Group (GCG)?

A. Whoever gets it, it's a challenge and a challenge that can be overcome. You need two strategies to run the modern and old centres - you can't have a fixed model. There is great potential to add value.

Q. What about the private equity bidders?

A. They want in because they see garden centres as an untapped frontier. There's a time bomb ticking for the sector because of Tesco garden centres. There's no reason why there shouldn't be 100 Dobbies. The margins in this sector have been good because there's not been the competition. But Dobbies has the buying power of Tesco and does not use the normal supply chain. My job is to look at the future and see the threats and make sure Blue Diamond is in a position to meet them. We can do that through going for the ABC1 demographic. It's how Waitrose survives in the same town as Tesco and Sainsbury's because they are talking to different audiences.

Q. What are Blue Diamond's plans?

A. We don't have plans to be as big as Dobbies. But we'd like the group to go to three times the level it is. If a garden centre comes up with an ABC1 demographic, I'll be in the queue. We need to look at how we can alter the supply chain model to manage the price perception. We can add value through design and a more bespoke offer.

Q. What do you think is the way forward for catering?

A. I have new concept in restaurants because I'm fed up with everyone ripping off the pizza ovens that we were the first to do seven years ago at Trentham. They'll be a new concept at Redfields. Betty's Tea Room is all you need to know. We're drowning in coffee. This will be a classic English tea room. That's the future.

Q. What's the particular plan for Redfields?

A. We are building a new entrance and roundabout and doing work on the car park early next year then we will start the groundwork on a 3,000sqm build. When that is complete we'll move onto the old building and then knock the two together. It could take two years to finish.

Q. What will the current economic state mean for businesses?

A. It's inevitable that some companies will go. Look at corner shops and local stores. Tesco and Sainsbury's locals have moved in. I don't think even the garden centre sector can avoid competition. My job is to second guess that.

Q. Where will prices be in 10 years' time?

A. The pressure will be on to go down. GCG is selling four-pack bedding for £10. It's being much more aggressive on prices. Retailers must sidestep that through points of difference. Every DIY and supermarket uses Miracle-Gro as a price weapon because it is a known value item so we are going to launch Chempak, our own soluble food, this year. I want more trace elements and bang for your buck. It's all in the packaging.

Q. How much will you grow your own range?

A. It's not just buy cheap and rebrand. I want quality and value and you can do that on a lot of things. We do tomato food, slug pellets (a professional mix), organic fruit and vegetable feed, own-brand compost and ant powder, which have all gone well.

CV
1991-99: Developed, then sold, Waterside Garden Centre in the Cotswolds
1999: Joined Blue Diamond
2002: Director, Blue Diamond
2006: Managing director, Blue Diamond, replacing Mike Vaudin


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