Interview - Angie Coombs, general manager, Duchy of Cornwall Nursery

Prince Charles is keen on sustainable products and local crafts, says the woman he has recruited to focus no less sharply on something else he holds dear - profitability.

Angie Coombs, general manager of the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery - photo: Duchy of Cornwall Nursery
Angie Coombs, general manager of the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery - photo: Duchy of Cornwall Nursery

Angie Coombs, the new general manager of Duchy of Cornwall Nursery, has a big job ahead, and knows it. The nursery, within 10km of the Eden Project, is undergoing a huge redevelopment following a fire that caused massive damage.

Right now it is not good to be sinking cash into ventures that could prove risky even if your boss is the future king of England. Falling back on a brand name as big as Prince Charles is a complacency she cannot, and will not, afford.

"We are starting from scratch, people's expectations are high and we can't rest on our laurels," she says. "There's a lot of kudos behind the Duchy brand but we need to broaden our appeal from the acknowledged Duchy demographic."

That demographic is narrow and predominant: local women in their 50s and 60s. Coombs wants more families, youngsters and professionals such as landscapers to head for Lostwithiel, billed as Cornwall's hidden treasure in the Fowey river valley.

Some professionals already take advantage of the 4,000-plus varieties of trees and plants, including collections of fuchsias and magnolias. Other people go for a day out on a stunning 6ha site overlooked by the 12th-century bastion Restormel Castle.

But Coombs needs more of both to push up profit on turnover of £900,000. This is where sustainable items and local crafts enter the plan. New products, better facilities and more services are her commercial battlegrounds.

She is a retail and marketing whiz in contrast to the "horticultural anoraks" she jokingly calls her Duchy team. Those anoraks, however, have created a comfortably unique and close-knit community at Duchy of Cornwall Nursery.

Coombs says she will not shake it up. She insists she will work alongside, not above, horticultural manager Jim Stephens, who has been at the nursery for several years and whose horticultural knowledge never fails to amaze her.

"My biggest ambition is to retain the atmosphere and culture of the nursery. What I don't want is for this to become just another garden centre. We have a highly regarded and knowledgeable team that gives lots of one-to-one service, and that must stay.

"But we must support that with commercial enterprise to keep the pounds rolling in. We are conscious of competition, but garden centres are under bigger commercial pressures than we are, and we can use this to our advantage."

She also sees the faltering economy as a possible plus: "Perhaps the poor economy will help. People are choosing not to move but develop their properties. There are plenty of these in Cornwall with impressive gardens that need care and improvement."

Coombs, who met Prince Charles at award ceremonies in previous jobs in the food and drink sector, reckons the draw-factor is finely balanced between the Duchy brand and nursery's first-rate horticultural reputation. This calls for deft business handling.

"We want to push forward and become more profitable, but it's not just about rationalising our enterprise. We are about to enter an exciting period of redevelopment to improve the experience of visiting this site. A subtle approach is important.

"We must not lose sight of the need to provide good-quality plants and support this with excellent customer service and advice. Prince Charles loves the site and is passionate about the nursery and what it has achieved in Cornwall."

Coombs trained in hotel and catering management before moving to the National Trust as an operations manager. More managerial posts followed in the food and drink sector in Cornwall before her arrival at the nursery last month.

If her plan works out, she should be the first of many more new arrivals to the Duchy of Cornwell Nursery in the coming months, regardless of its social demographic or the credit crunch.

"In a threatening economic climate you can't afford to stand still, but must accept the risk of moving forward," she says. "We need to broaden our appeal to attract people with small gardens as well as large estates, and we have all the talent at Lostwithiel to do it."

 

CV

1979-82: Completes course in hotel and catering management at Bristol

1982-93: Manages hotels and pubs with husband, including a bar in Covent Garden

1993-2001: Operations manager, National Trust

2001-08: Managerial posts for food and drinks companies in Cornwall

2008: General manager, Duchy of Cornwall Nursery.


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