Nigel Long runs Britain's biggest turnover garden centre, recording £16.5m a year. In April, Longacres in Bagshot opened its new 3,000sq m retail facility. Built by Vear, the enlarged store offers an extended product range, wider aisles and more circulation space in a Thermoflor structure. There is a larger restaurant and more checkouts. Nigel's father Peter bought the 4ha site 30 years ago.
What is the secret of Longacres' success? Location in the Surrey commuter belt, near major roads. And value for money. In the early days when other people had Levington at £8.99 we would have it at £4.99. It's always been a numbers game for us. It means that plants turnaround and stay fresh and we have low losses. We aim for a quality product at a reasonable price. We have probably fallen in line with price now - people don't get away with silly prices like they used to. But for a whole basket, 99 times out of 100 we're the best value around. We haven't spent on advertising - it's always word of mouth. People take us to their hearts. Even people who have moved away still visit.
- Why did you rebuild?
Plans have been in the pipeline for three years and it got to the stage where we were working in buildings that were 30 years old - growing houses with bad ventilation that were cold in winter and hot in summer. We had sleeping giants around us - Notcutts, Garden Centre Group and Hillier - and it only needed Dobbies to buy Notcutts and we could have been left behind. We've been a victim of our own success. When we opened the new building everyone wanted to come at once and aisles got clogged but we've adapted since. We didn't want to lose customers during the build so we kept all products, even if in a limited range.
- What has changed?
The butchery gives a totally different feel and the restaurant is a vast improvement. The planning application was for double the size but the planners threw it out. We're in the green belt but we got 15 per cent increase in footprint because we knocked down old separate buildings and amalgamated into one. We've increased tills to 22 in total with the florists, restaurant and outside.
- How was planning?
It was a drawn-out process. It was more a case of working with elected members and getting them on side. We had to go through the full retail impact assessment and it was very small - an estimated £8,000-£10,000 effect in the local area. One argument we have is the uniqueness of having four garden centres within a mile, which attracts people to the area. We have a new magazine with a 30,000 circulation going to a wider area in a bid to attract new customers.
- Who inspired you in your rebuilding plan?
I probably looked most at Haskins. I've always liked its approach. With centres such as Garden & Leisure and Bents, to me it's almost about ego - someone wanting to build a garden centre to show off to everyone. In reality, what customers want is a nice environment to shop in. I liked seeing the simplicity of Haskins. We used Plum Architects and made changes as we went along. We changed so that customer flow went clockwise - the industry standard. Customers are still coming to terms with the changes.
- What was the cost? More than we expected. There was a lot of work to make way for temporary buildings and moves - a lot of preliminary works, and things get changed.
What one piece of legislation would you have the Government change if you could? Reduce VAT on plants. With food you can sell with no VAT but you can't sell an ornamental plant without 20 per cent. The Government could offer a reduction, especially with hosepipe bans, which could affect plant sales going forward. If it was reduced by five per cent it would make a huge difference on customer spend because plants are the core part of the garden centre.
- How is the hosepipe ban hitting you?
In the past few years, people have got away with planting summer bedding early but not this year. Hosepipe bans in 2006 came in later after the planting season. But it's more the cold than the hosepipe ban that has had an impact on sales this year. At the centre, we're playing down the ban because you don't want a negative when you don't need to. But if the weather changes, we'll put the drought beds out.
- Was it always your plan to join the family business?
I fell into it a bit - my father was always more interested in the commercial side of things. I spent my first week at Pershore on a commercial course but after a week planting apples I changed courses. I then worked for a year at Forest Lodge and I learnt more than at college.
- How much has Longacres changed since then?
In the mid 1980s Longacres was hugely different - more like a market garden. We were growing bedding and flowers in small greenhouses and polytunnels and had one shop and we've grown from there. We used to grow for Notcutts when it was Waterers and Hillier when it was Sunningdale Nurseries but we don't grow now. We work with local growers, they almost contract grow and can deliver twice a day. When we stopped growing we became a garden centre after we completed our first development in 1994-95. My father Peter still loves being around. He lives on site and turns 80 this year.
- What is your day-to-day role? We have 260 staff so I'm office based. It's important to get on the shop floor but I don't do this as much as I'd like. I work alternate weekends and put on a uniform. I've been behind the scenes while developing the project.
- What do you see as the competition? Dobbies, supermarkets, DIYs?
In reality we're always competing against one of the largest Marks & Spencer stores in the country three miles away that's next to a Tesco. It's where people spend their disposable income. So we're always striving to improve customer service and availability of product. We depend on location. Outlets such as The Range are up and coming and we see that as more of a threat because they are expanding rapidly - but they do not have the plant offer.
- Have you had offers to buy out Longacres?
We've had offers in the past. You look at everything at face value and it would be a family decision. If you're in your 50s or 60s and your children aren't interested you get to the point where no family members are coming through. I have a son and my sister has four children looking to be interested in the business.
- How can the trade bodies help you more?
Trade bodies need to get to grips with training and getting more people into the industry. They spend a lot of time saying how wonderful each garden centre is but it's a bit of the old school tie brigade. We're not a Garden Centre Association (GCA) member and we have no reason to join. I would like more dedicated courses with more structure - but GCA e-learning costs are down to turnover and that makes it expensive for us. Trade bodies should get together and work on that. I've always said the HTA and the GCA should be under one umbrella.
1986-88: Btec diploma garden centre sales and organisation, Pershore College
1988-89: Forest Lodge Garden Centre
1989 to date: Longacres Garden Centre, rising to managing director
VIEWS ON THE REBUILD
CHRIS CLARKE, business development manager, Vear
"The rebuild was challenging with regards to keeping the centre open but working together has overcome any issues. We've changed things in line with the client as we went and it has been a really interesting job for us.
"We've used all our usual subcontractors and introduced a couple of new ones. We're proud to work with such a well-known garden centre. We aim to work with the client rather than for them."
MIKE AINLEY, Longacres IT manager
"Half the garden centre has been rebuilt.
For me it was nice to expand the cafe and foodhall and be under one coherent roof.
We had grown like topsy with buildings here and there but we're now in a building with climate control, that's carbon friendly with underfloor heating. The butcher is doing a great trade. But we don't want to alienate core gardeners.
"I don't think that the redevelopment takes away from the local high street, as some councillors suggest. We don't want to lose out to other garden centres and the council granted us planning permission. We employ 200 people in the local area and we are also bringing in trade from outside the local area.
"It's far more about bringing the site back to the customer - not about how much more we can make but about how much better it is for the customer. We expect to do more in the areas we have invested in, such as food and giftware. For example, we have shops in a shop for Sia, Parlane and Yankee Candle.
"I think that the secret of Longacres' success is having a large range and always offering value for money. We don't want the customer to think that they are paying for the rebuild so we've soaked up price increases.
"The footfall is 4,000-8,000 people a day. On bank holidays we usually run a money-off offer to customers who come in early to average trade out across the day. Easter this year was a washout but bank holidays are still very important for success. The jubilee holiday in June might be a bit late though.
"Being an independent garden centre helps. In buying, it gives us more flexibility. Nigel Long buys plants and Christmas and Julie Erridg buys cut flowers and food hall. Department supervisors are the other buyers.